07 Aug 2017 20:18 IST

Overcoming self-delusions

Self-awareness is key to building a successful career

According to Nobel prize winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman, human beings possess an “almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance”. In other words, all of us tend to think that we are smarter, funnier, thinner, better-looking, more socially-skilled, more gifted at sports or superior students than we actually are.

Statistically speaking, 49 per cent of us will be above average on any given measure. In a study of 1,000 engineers in the San Francisco Bay area, more than 33 per cent rated their performance in the top 5 per cent and only one brave soul assessed himself as below average.

Welcome to the world of self-delusion! Unfortunately, the higher we go in the hierarchy, the higher our self-delusions become. For example, compared to first-line supervisors and middle managers, senior leaders overvalue their empathy, adaptability, coaching, collaboration and (ironically) their self-awareness.

But why do leaders at higher levels suffer from such delusions, given their experience, age and seniority? There are at least three reasons why this happens.

1) Senior roles are complex with murky standards of performance and subjective definitions of success.

2) Above certain levels, there are no reliable mechanisms that supply performance feedback on those subjective measures.

3) To make matters worse, many powerful executives encircle themselves with friends or sycophants, who do not challenge or disagree with them. As Prof Manfred Kets de Vries puts it, they are surrounded by “walls, mirrors and liars”.

What research says

Researchers have assessed that one in four people has emotionally distant personal relationships because of the bullish views of their personality and behaviour. If that wasn’t all, the least competent people tend to be the most confident in their abilities, according to Stanford psychology professor David Dunning. This has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

There is another study that should open the eyes of MBA graduates in particular. Professor Oliver Sheldon and David Dunning brought in MBA students — intelligent, driven professionals with an average of six years of work experience — into their lab and gave them an assessment of emotional intelligence.

Later, when given an opportunity to purchase a discounted book on improving EQ, the students with the lowest score — that is, those who needed the book the most — were the ones who did not buy it!

Falling in blindspots

As is often said, “Fish finds the water last”. Those suffering from self-delusion are usually the last to realise their problem. However, it is not impossible. The first step is to know which of the three categories of blindspots we fall under.

~ Knowledge blindspots is when we overestimate our abilities and knowledge.

~ Emotional blindspots is when we do not assess the impact of our emotions on our decisions. In other words, emotional intelligence is fairly low.

~ Behavioural blindspots refer to our inability to see our own behaviour. This involves a perspective problem. How others see our behaviour is very different from how we see our own.

Being self-aware

So, what can we do about these blindspots? If self-awareness is a journey, insights are ‘aha!’ moments in that journey. The first hurdle to overcome is the ‘selfie syndrome’.

This has to do with our obsession of ourselves, be it on Facebook or in other face-to-face interactions. This is tough, though, because people are usually convinced that they are the centre of the universe — so much so that they cannot see past themselves.

It must be clarified here that the selfie syndrome is not a generational phenomenon. Even grown-ups suffer from this. We can find the evidence when we analyse how much time we spend speaking about ourselves to others. A conscious reduction can help a big deal!

Cultivating humility is another approach to avoid self-delusion. Humility is not thinking less of oneself but thinking less often about oneself. This takes a lot of practice. We need to transform from being a ‘meformer’ to an ‘informer’, where we spend time focusing on the other person we are talking or listening to.

Seeking and accepting feedback from others is a powerful tool to increase self-awareness. While accepting feedback, it is important to remember not to rationalise our behaviour. Just thank the feedback giver. Simple reflections can also help assess our self-delusion in many occasions. Everyday insights are as powerful as earth-shattering events in making the desired changes.

At the end of the day, to become self-aware is key to building a successful career. When we fail to do that, we experience a career derailment.