Working with hundreds of people over the years, I have observed the difficulty in being forthright with our failures. We keep them secret and feel ashamed that we failed. We confuse failing at something with internalized belief that we are a failure. The tragedy in this is that learning does not occur where there is no forward movement.
We may take failure to another level – blaming others for our failure or judging others when they fail. At this level our relationships are at risk and we invite the opportunity for others to question our authenticity and character.
The vast majority of people attribute their successes to themselves and their failures to external circumstances. This self-serving bias is a thin attempt to positively reinforce our sense of worthiness and self-esteem.
It is human nature to do it and it occurs subconsciously – we are not aware, we are blind to it. In the work I do with leaders, we explore uncovering and discovering the blind spots and triggers that allow them to fall prey to 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 and align information relevant to our beliefs or perceptions. We collude with our subconscious to cherry-pick information that supports our perceptions and self-image.
Responding to questionnaires, we are 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 self-confidence and a healthy view of one’s capabilities and strengths are essential, overconfidence and an elevated or distorted sense of worth can lead to fragile or broken relationships. When we focus on proving ourselves, we spend too much time and energy on defending and justifying our behavior. We detach and separate from opportunities to understand our colleagues, we make them wrong. Our ego prevents us from communicating authentic interest in others. In other words, we lack genuineness, compassion and empathy.
Our preferred ‘right’ perceptions and opinions lead us to test hypotheses that are slanted toward our chosen direction. We seek consulting with the select “right” people which in turn increases our chances of hearing what we want to hear, reinforcing our self-deception.
We are not consciously or deliberately distorting information, but we liberally solicit various input and criteria. We create conclusions that favor our biases. We are skillful at assigning meaning to information and finding creative ways to frame a situation or problem so we achieve comfortable, ego-pleasing conclusions, which assign blame to others.