“The man with insight enough to admit his limitations comes nearest to perfection.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
It’s no secret that leaders have inflated viewsof their skills, knowledge and competence–we’ve known this for a long time as it’s a consistent finding in all 360-degree feedback research1. What is simply amazing is the gap between self-perception and reality.
In general, leaders seem to perceive that they basically “walk on water” while others who have a pretty fair grasp of what leaders really do experience them more as “passing water.” At least that’s what some recent surveys tend to suggest.
It has been estimated that 65%-75% of the employees in any given organization report that the worst aspect of their job is their immediate boss. In fact, estimates of the base rate for managerial incompetence in corporate life range from 30% to 75% with the average level of poor leadership hovering at about 50%2.
In practice mental health professionals tend to diagnose thoughts and beliefs as “delusional” when they appear unusual, create strong psychological distress, or become an obsession–even when there is compelling evidence to the contrary. This “no clue” gene can be found in both male and female leaders but does seem to be more pronounced as leaders move up the corporate hierachy. One way of defining an aspect of “emotional intelligence” is the accurate awareness and insight of one’s own skills, strengths and impact on others (we actually have an index of this in our 360 feedback reports).
In an HBR article, Kaplan & Kaiser show that it is just as detrimental to overdo a strength as it is to under do it–those expressing the “right amount” of a strength showed an associated with a measure of leadership success3.
As they point out, leveraging and emphasizing strength might lead to actually interfere with being flexible and adopting new behaviors. If you receive feedback that you are admired for your perseverance in the face of ambiguity and challenge you might find that “letting go” and backing off won’t come easy–even if it is clear that repeatedly banging your head against the wall” creates a dent in the wall and a possible concussion that further impairs your reasoning and thinking.
We have looked at this “leveraging strengths” concept from an interesting angle in the last few years. In our use of 360 feedback assessments we have an interpretation based on the Johari Window concept that shows self-ratings compared to others who provide feedback in a graphic manner.
We can classify individuals into four types based on the profile that emerges from their self-other ratings. We have polite labels for these quadrants that include:
- Potential Strengths–Underestimation of self-ratings compared to others
- Confirmed Development Areas–both self and other ratings are low
- Confirmed Strengths–both self and other ratings are high
- Potential Development Areas–Self ratings are inflated relative to others
When we find individuals who are the “Underestimators” (about 25% to 30% of those taking our assessments) and have a substantial number of competencies appearing in the “Potential Strengths”quadrant as we in the accompanying graph, our feedback meetings are pretty predictable.
First, we find that almost all of the clients with this profile tend to display strong perfectionist tendencies, set high goals for themselves and others and tend to be very self-critical.
Second, they tend to be “hyper-vigilant” to the negative things in their report as if they are trying to confirm they really aren’t as strong or solid as others experience them to be.
In short, they tend to blow off all the “strengths” as seen by others and dwell on anything that isn’t perfect in their report (or the one open ended comment that is neutral out of 25 that are overwhelmingly positive and ruminate on it for years).
No matter what we try to do, these clients won’t leverage their strengths as seen clearly by others. All they want to do if focus on what they see is their “developmental opportunities” or weaknesses. Yep, even when they “discover” their strengths they just tend to glance beyond it and move to “what they don’t do very often or very effectively.
Not everyone is a winner even if you have a 6th place ribbon to prove it….Be well….
- Nowack, K. (1992). Self-assessment and rater-assessment as a dimension of management development. Human Resources Development Quarterly, 3, 141-155 [↩]
- Hogan, R. & Kaiser, R. (2005). What we know about leadership. Review of General Psychology. 9 (2), 169-180 [↩]
- Kaplan, R. & Kaiser, R. (2009).Stop overdoing your strengths. Harvard Business Review. February 2009, 100-103 [↩]