People in general have a tendency to over estimate their own skill level in comparison to their peers. I am guilty of this, likely having seen myself as an "above average" employee since the minute I started working. All this despite struggling with impostor syndrome where I am prone to doubts and being found out as a fraud not as capable as I'm pretending to be.
So this was kind of in the back of my head when I read this article from Evil HRLady at BNET about whether you should dispute a performance review. The employee was marked average on everything, and felt they should be above average on some things and below on others. Evil HRLady's response seemed practical and correct:
Problem: You are, actually, pretty average. Ouch. Sorry. But average is average and if you're better in some areas (as you said) and worse in others (as you said) that is going to average out to be, well average.
Sounds pretty correct. Then the original poster piped up in the comments and tried to stress that they were in fact above average. They pointed out all the things they do (working long hours, helping customers, sorting sections that had been abandoned, volunteering and covering for other employees). This got me to thinking. Their employer doesn't care about all these things. Does an employer really care about your "effort"? Maybe if you're a grad student, beyond that your boss wants to see output, results, to-do lists knocked off. They don't care that you "help" or "share" with your coworkers. It's a known fact that those who are good at working with others and training new employees are rarely promoted.
I suspect parallels in academia would be a professor who is an especially good teacher for which they get no credit for. Their research maybe places them at "average" at their university, and in their eyes exceptional teaching in addition to average research makes them above average.
I think the key is in order to not kill ourselves at work is make sure you're focusing on what's actually important to your boss. Mine likes to see a lot of written output even when the actual problem is not solved. Tracking progress, tasks and investigations look good to who he has to show his numbers to. Theoretically if you make your boss look good, they will value you. They may take credit for some of your actions (though more often in my opinion even a good employee doesn't always realize the value of direction and ideas from superiors that add to their projects). But in the end if you can separate what you think makes you an "above average" employee with what's important to those doing your review you can probably save yourself a lot of angst and heart burn focusing on things you might think matter but your organization doesn't actually value.