Self-Other Distortions: Who Doesn’t Leverage Their Strengths?

April 26, 2015 by Ken Nowack

“The man with insight enough to admit his limitations comes nearest to perfection.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

It’s no secret that some leaders have inflated views of 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, many 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 and our own research 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.

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 a recent HBR blog and 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:

  1. Potential Strengths–Underestimation of self-ratings compared to others
  2. Confirmed Development Areas–both self and other ratings are low
  3. Confirmed Strengths–both self and other ratings are high
  4. Potential Development Areas–Self ratings are inflated relative to others


Who Doesn’t Leverage Their Strengths

When we find individuals who are the “Underestimators” (about 25% to 30% of those taking our assessments) they have a substantial number of competencies appearing in the “Potential Strengths”quadrant as we show below our feedback meetings are fairly predictable.  In fact, we see two profiles that emerge.

Profile #1: The Perfectionist

First, we find that most, but not 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 also tend to be slightly to moderately neurotic and anxious4.

Finally, 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.

Profile #2 The Stealth Narcissist

The second profile we see of these Underestimators is that of a true narcissist who purposely deflates their ratings to “hide” the fact that they have likely been given feedback before that suggests that they see themselves stronger, better, smarter and more successful than others.  In fact in the latest DSM-V categorization of mental disorders, this personality disorder is partly characterized as “exaggerated self-appraisals may be inflated or deflated, or vacillate between extremes.”

They tend to monopolize the feedback meeting and spend a great deal of time trying to convince themselves and others that they are actually humble and more enlightened about their strengths and potential development areas.   What they do seem to understand is that presenting themselves as “overestimators” publically hasn’t always helped them to be seen in a positive light.

When confronted with the distortion of their own self-ratings being lower than the feedback from others, they tend to accept in a “matter of fact” manner and turn the conversation back to their own accomplishments and strengths.

Not everyone will focus on leveraging their signature strengths–some will actually ignore them and others already believe they possessed them.  These findings are yet another reason to argue strongly that not all fads in positive psychology are true of everyone….Be well….

  1. Nowack, K. (1992). 155 []
  2. Hogan, R. & Kaiser, R. (2005). What we know about leadership. Review of General Psychology. 9 (2), 169-180 []
  3. Kaplan, R. & Kaiser, R. (2009).Stop overdoing your strengths. Harvard Business Review. February 2009, 100-103 []
  4. Nowack, K. & Mashihi, S. (2012). Evidence Based Answers to 15 Questions about Leveraging 360-Degree Feedback. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 64, 157–182 []

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in 360 Degree Feedback, Engagement, Leadership Development

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  1. Sara Canaday says:

    Great post Kenneth. In addition to the “no clue” gene, there is the “self-serving bias” gene. Psychological studies show that we tend to believe that others view us the same way we view ourselves. Unfortunately, that self-serving bias can lead to big problems on the journey toward career success. I used this premise to jump start an article I wrote for the Huffington Post. You can read it here:

    Another great research piece that speaks to this phenomena, is the Self in Social Judgment book. You can find it here:


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