When Everyone's Above Average

The vast majority of leaders attribute their successes to themselves and their failures to external circumstances. This self-serving bias is a feeble attempt to positively reinforce our sense of worthiness and self-esteem.

We all do it, but it occurs subconsciously – we aren’t aware, and so we deny it. In the work I do with executives, we spend time uncovering and discovering the ways a leader can fall into the traps of self deception.

It’s not just a matter of believing what we want to believe. Such flights of fantasy are reined in by real-world experiences and our need to perceive them accurately (when we can). Our motivations drive us to subtly process information relevant to a given belief. We collude with our subconscious to cherry-pick information that supports our self-image.

Responding to questionnaires, we’re an overconfident species. A survey of 1 million high-school seniors found:

  • Seventy percent thought they were above average in leadership ability.
  • Only 2% thought they were generally below average.
  • Sixty percent thought they were in the top 10%.
  • Approximately 25% thought they were in the top 1%.

A survey of university professors found that 94% thought they were better at their jobs than an average colleague.

While confidence and a fair view of one’s capabilities and strengths are essential, overconfidence and an elevated sense of worth lead to fragile relationships. When we focus on proving ourselves, we spend far too much time on defending and justifying our behavior. We cut ourselves off from opportunities to understand our colleagues. Our ego prevents us from communicating an interest in others. In other words, we lack empathy.

Our preferred perceptions and opinions lead us to test hypotheses that are slanted toward our chosen direction. By consulting the “right” people, we increase our chances of hearing what we want to hear.

We’re not consciously distorting information, but we have considerable opportunities to jiggle various criteria and arrive at conclusions that favor our biases. We slyly assign meanings to information, finding creative ways to frame it so we achieve comforting, ego-pleasing conclusions.

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