The most important graph you’ve never seen…


Use a great video if you want people’s attention, they tell me, and whatever you do, don’t show data or graphs. Use a kitten if you can, that’ll help.

Yes, but this is one graph you really want to get your head around. Every business leader should have this laminated and on their wall. Go with me on this for a minute…

This graph is based on a large-scale study of people’s 360-degree feedback scores, at different levels across a broad range of companies and industries.

The scores have been put in to two categories, with Executives & Senior Managers shown in red and Junior Managers and Staff in blue.

The vertical scale is the extent to which people overrated themselves compared to the average rating from 360-degree feedback. (I.e. the higher the line on the graph, the more significant the degree of overrating.)

It is clear from the graph that Senior Leaders overrate themselves in an astonishing 19 out of 20 categories tested. (i.e. the red line is above the zero line in all but the last category.)

Compare this to the blue line, for Junior Managers and Staff, which shows an overrating in 10 categories and an underrating in the other 10. This is probably what you would expect and hope to see, with relatively small variances, both sides of the axis, above and below zero.

Somehow then, between junior and senior management, we apparently become less self-aware! In fact, Senior Leaders overrate themselves compared to how to Junior Managers overrated themselves in every single one of the 20 categories (And by a clear margin. The red line is above the blue by 0.26 on average.)

Perhaps worst of all, the category in which everyone overrates themselves the most, is “Trustworthiness”, essential for a positive culture and arguably top of the list of what defines a great leader.

And yes, in case you are wondering, this is from rigorous research on a good scale. See below for a full explanation of the source data.


What does this tell us?

There are several important points to take from this.

Firstly, If your organisation is employing a 360 degree exercise, then the “Base Rate” you
can expect for the results of your Senior Leaders is that their colleagues and direct reports will score them more severely than they score themselves. This is essential to note, because many 360-degree exercises fail to have much impact because the feedback is negative and gets dismissed by leaders rather than analysed as a start point for self-development.

This is not to say that it’s OK for a leader to overrate themselves compared to everyone else’s view. It’s just that you can expect this as the norm’. If the scores aren’t so flattering, then this is not unusual, and the upside is that if the individual works on the right things, it’s easier than they might think to stand out as a really well regarded leader.

So, what is happening here? Senior Leaders weren’t always in such lofty positions and the starting point for Junior Managers and Staff is that they are essentially perfectly self-aware. So unless society as a whole has become more self-aware over the last 20 years and thus younger, more junior staff are more self aware than their elders (unlikely I’d suggest) then individuals seem to be moving backwards as their careers progress.

The next question then, is why is there a general and systematic bias towards Senior Leaders overrating themselves? And whilst we’re at it, what can you specifically learn about your organisation and the leaders within it?


How is this Self-Awareness Gap arising?

A combination of some of the following must be happening:

• Individuals may become more confident and possibly arrogant as they get promoted and this over-confidence creates a lack of self-awareness.
• Feedback may become harder to come by the more Senior you are, so individuals “drift away” from self-awareness through lack of frequent enough constructive criticism.
• Organisations might actually somehow be promoting those who are less self aware over and above those who are more self-aware.
• Peers and direct reports who make up most of the 360 degree feedback may not see or understand the full extent of what the Senior Leader has to deal with and thus unfairly assume that they could get more done in the areas they can see.
• The 360-degree feedback from others may be skewed by a desire of the direct reports to punish the individual or perhaps the organisation as a whole for perceived injustices or unfairness’s. In other words, they are taking out their own frustrations through possibly the only anonymous channel they can.
• Peers may underrate Senior Staff as the sense of competing with the individual being rated is heightened with fewer opportunities higher up the organisation.
• Ratings might be skewed towards the negative, because they are in part being based on difficult and unpopular decisions that a Senior Leader has to take, rather than being based on the leader themself.

You may conclude that given some of the above, a certain degree of bias towards Senior Leaders overrating themselves is inevitable. Maybe, but I wouldn’t let that be the end of it. All of the above points have implications about the culture of an organisation and an understanding of which of these drivers might be most relevant should be a springboard to cultural development and therefore performance improvement for the organisation.

Further, the first two points both allude to a real self-awareness gap, either through over-confidence or this drift-away factor. This is worth closer attention. Numerous studies consistently show that self-awareness is a key driver of individual performance, and anything that can raise self-awareness will have a positive impact on the bottom line of the organisation as a whole.



If you are using any form of 360-degree feedback with Senior Leaders, prepare the recipients for a negative bias in the results.

Encourage them to embrace this as an opportunity rather than an excuse to dismiss the feedback or to be discouraged.

Look for ways to increase the frequency of feedback for Senior Staff. Everyone quickly tires of regular (and often long-winded) 360 degree exercises, so look for smaller, more regular ways to make feedback part of the culture of the organisation and make self-awareness a key leadership strength to be developed.

In addition, noting that Trustworthiness is where the biggest gaps show for all levels of staff, what can be done in your organisation to address this?

And of course, and I’m biased here, make sure Senior Staff get the time and expert Coaching support needed to fully process feedback and to find ways to learn and grow from it.

Where has this research come from?

The data for the above graph has been used for this article with the express permission of the original researcher, Fabio Sala, Ph.D. of Organization Performance Partners Inc. and is concisely summarized in the following article available (through subscription) on the APA website.

Executive Blind Spots, Fabio Sala, Consulting Psychology Journal Vol 55, No 4, 222-229

The research was based on 1,214 participants, with feedback taken from on average 11.5 other people (1.22 managers, 5.76 direct reports and 4.55 peers) The results are thus statistically robust and significant.

Interested in discussing this further, or exploring Executive Coaching? Email me on

Pete Freeman Freeman Coaching Ltd        Making Work more Rewarding