It’s not just in the upper echelons of companies that managers overestimate themselves, but at lower levels too. This leads to a disturbed work relationship with employees and to conflicts in the workplace, which in turn detracts from managers’ effectiveness. This has been revealed by research conducted by Niels van der Kam, who will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 14 June 2012.
Middle management overestimating itself is a phenomenon into which little empirical research has been conducted. Its cause is the pressure that managers feel from above and below, but is also related to healthy ambition, according to Van der Kam. ‘The fact that we think we can do more is an activating mechanism. It provides the urge to tackle something.’
It’s one of the favourite subjects at the coffee machine: the way the manager functions. It almost seems as if the job was created as a target for any discontent. However, that managers come in for criticism is not without reason, Van der Kam discovered: ‘Some managers do overestimate themselves. They really blow their own trumpet. That might initially impress, but employees soon discover that their manager can’t deliver the goods and they then consider him to be no more than a braggart.’
Van der Kam investigated the phenomenon in the workplace at two major organizations, one an educational institution, the other a mental health institution. He has no reason to suppose that matters will be any different in the business world. He tested whether managers’ positive self-image relating to their own leadership behaviour influences their work relationships with staff and whether this then influenced their performance. He also looked at how managers’ personal overestimation developed over time. This is an important area for businesses, as a manager’s too positive self-image has direct consequences for his or her performance.
Van der Kam: ‘Managers’ overestimation influences the work relationship between the managers and each of the employees they manage. It disturbs that relationship. In particular employees who are extrovert by nature will tend to not go the extra mile for such a manager. This creates a negative spiral. Studies conducted among team leaders show that overestimation is related to qualitatively lower quality exchange relationships between managers and employees. Managers who overestimate themselves were also shown to develop conflicts with their employees, leading to poorer performance.
The solution would appear to be to put modest people in charge, but this does not necessarily work. Overestimation may be a consequence of self-protection. It is a way to deal with the pressure and the high expectations vis-à-vis managers and leadership. There is also the risk that – in particular when a manager climbs in an organization – their position will lead to their receiving feedback less often or to their receiving less honest feedback, leading to a too positive self-image going uncorrected.
Van der Kam emphasizes that overestimating yourself is not simply a bad characteristic. ‘Everyone overestimates themselves. We easily tend to think we’re brilliant drivers. There’s nothing wrong with this, as it works as an activating mechanism to think we are capable of more. It provides the urge to tackle something. Yet at the same time you have to conclude that we don’t really like people who overestimate themselves.’
Niels van der Kam (Hillegom, 1975) studied labour and organizational psychology at the University of Groningen. He conducted his PhD research at the Faculty of Economics and Business and is currently employed as a manager with the Groningen company VCD Business Intelligence. His thesis is entitled ‘Leader Self-enhancement: an Interpersonal Approach’. His supervisors were Prof. Gerben van der Vegt, Prof. Onne Janssen and Prof. Janka Stoker.
Contact: Niels van der Kam: n.a.van.der.kam rug.nl
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