Opinions And Ramblings By Adam Kmiec On All Things

The Comparison Conundrum

We’re all guilty of falling into the trap that is, comparison. When we’re at the gym, we look left, we look right and we then evaluate how we’re stacking up. If you’ve ever been running, especially in a race, we size of the competition, so to speak and make a snap judgement about whether we should be faster or slower than someone. There’s of course the old, “grass isn’t always greener” concept, where we look at our neighbor’s lawn, house, car, etc.

Apple vs. Organge

This passage from a study, published in Neuron, really nails it:

We found that although people estimated their abilities on the basis of their own performance in a rational manner, their estimates of themselves were partly merged with the performance of others,” says first author Marco Wittmann, a doctoral student in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Oxford. “The findings potentially have implications for social interactions in the workplace as well as clinical disorders such as depression.

In essence, we’re wired to constantly evaluate ourselves, not against our own goals, but against what we perceive someone else to be achieving. Perception is a funny thing. It can drive you mad. I know, because, I’ve definitely been there.

On the one hand, comparisons are helpful, because they provide context and a way to understand how something is performing relative to a norm or average. When used correctly, comparisons are incredible helpful. When I say “correctly”, what I mean is that when the variables are known, the evaluative criteria established and a norm to work off of, you have a perfect combination of elements needed to make a comparison useful. For example, is my 7 year old son, underweight or not growing fast enough? Can my 9 year old daughter read at a 4th grade level? A 5th grade level? Or is she reading below her grade level? In both of those scenarios, you have known variables (weight, height), you have a norm (avg weight/height for a given gender, at a given age) and you have defined evaluative criteria (that height or weight relative to the norm).

In those types of scenarios, comparisons are helpful, useful and logical. But, where comparisons start to fall apart is when you begin evaluating situations that are not as mathematical and structured as the height and weight situations. In particular, as someone who’s worked for other people for ~20 years and managed people for more than 10, there are 2 workplace scenarios that come up, routinely, that create great stress, because the comparisons aren’t structured.

  1. Promotions: Why wasn’t I promoted, but so and so was? Good question. I’ve asked it before. I don’t ask it anymore. I stopped 10 years ago. Why? Because, trying to compare yourself to someone else, even if you’re in the same role, is a fool’s errand. There are so many variables to consider. Everything from soft skills, like “executive presence” to experience and tenure to active career planning conversations. Additionally, if what you’re looking for is a promotion, comparing yourself to the job description for the role you want is far more structured, logical and productive. Lastly, I once found myself in a situation, early on in my career, when a peer of mine had been promoted. An email was sent out. I was irked. I scheduled time with my manager and basically explained how unfair it was and how was more qualified than the other person. She let me go on for about 15 minutes. And, finally, she said, “You are being promoted. Well, you were. It was taking longer than anticipated, because we also wanted to give you a bonus, on top of your increase. But, candidly, this outburst, gives me hesitation.” I did get the promotion and I learned a valuable lesson. #1, don’t compare yourself to other. #2, there may be other things at work, that you’re not aware of. Be careful not to put your foot in your mouth.
  2. Compensation: I should be making more money. The market rate for my role is $X and so and so makes $Y. Fair compensation is important in an organization. In an ideal world, a great organization, continually evaluates existing compensation, market rates, employee potential and then continually looks to invest fairly into their employees. “Fairly”, you’re asking; yes, “fairly.” Let me explain. Let’s say you have 3 employees, with the same title, experience and role. Person A, has been with the company for 5 years and joined in the same role they’re in, today. Person B, was hired 3 years ago, but from another internal team. Person C, was hired this year. It is conceivable and likely, given how they came into the roles, that their pay would be different. As I wrote in 2014, if you changed jobs every year, you’d be guaranteed to be evaluated against the current market rate. Said another way, your max base compensation potential, is always gained when/if you switch jobs every single year. That’s just one problem with evaluating comp. You have other variables like performance level. Is person A, statistically a better performing person than person B? If so, wouldn’t their increases each year be higher? Or, would you pay equalize the increases so that a high performer is compensated the same as good or poor performer? It’s not black and white.

I have found, over the years, the single distinguishing characteristic, between good and great employees, is an appreciation for context. For example, asking for a promotion, 3 months after you’ve been promoted, is unrealistic. Demanding a raise of Y%, when the company just had layoffs and reported poor financial results, is tone deaf. Context is critical. Context is understanding the nuances. Having an appreciation for context, makes you a better, more well-informed employee. With context, you can make smart comparisons.

Just because you can make a clear, structured, factual and logical comparison, doesn’t mean you’ll get what you want. The world is filled with scenarios where value is in the eye of the beholder. The Miami Heat didn’t value Dwyane Wade the same as the Chicago Bulls. As such, Wade left the Heat and joined Chicago. Why? Context. The Heat wanted to get younger. The Bulls wanted to win now. It’s that simple.

Lastly, I’ll answer the age old maxim of “that’s like comparing apples and oranges.” Yes, you can, in fact, compare apples and oranges, if the variables are known, the evaluative criteria established and there’s a norm to work off. If the question is which fruit is a better source of Vitamin C, this is an easy comparison. If the question is, which fruit is better, you have a difficult comparison, full of subjectivity.