Insight: Why We're Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life - Tasha Eurich 2017
Blindspots: The Invisible Inner Roadblocks to Insight
Part One: Roadblocks and Building Blocks
It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
The toughest coaching session of my professional career began with me staring, for what seemed like an eternity, at the top of a senior executive’s bald head. That head belonged to Steve, a construction company boss with a bleeding balance sheet. He’d been in the job for just four months when his CEO asked me to come in and help him.
That morning, I’d taken the elevator to the eighth floor, waited in the reception area, and was finally shown to Steve’s palatial office by an assistant whose voice shook slightly when she announced me. As the door closed silently behind me, Steve didn’t look up from his computer, acknowledging my presence only with a long sigh and an aggressive flurry of mouse clicks. Which left me standing there, awkwardly staring at his head and admiring the contents of a presentation cabinet. It included a large award in the shape of a demolition ball, and that really said a lot about the situation.
I’m not easily unnerved, but as the seconds dragged by, I began to feel the challenge that lay ahead of me as a sensation of mild nausea. It didn’t help that I was holding a red folder bulging with interview notes that told me just how volatile this man could be.
“Should I take a seat?” I finally ventured.
“Please, Dr. Eurich,” he sighed impatiently, still not looking up. “Whatever makes you comfortable.”
As I sat down and opened my folder, ready to begin, Steve pushed his chair back. Finally, he looked at me. “Let me tell you a thing or two about my operation here.” Then, with the restlessness of a caged tiger, he began pacing up and down behind his desk, sharing his ambitious vision for the business and his hardball leadership philosophy. I was impressed with his energy—I also knew that our work together would require all he could muster.
Steve’s department, he told me, was in trouble, although I already knew that. His predecessor had been fired because of cost overruns, so his in-the-red business unit needed to drive growth while finding efficiencies wherever possible. It was your classic high-stakes, “change the engine while the plane is in the air” situation. There was no room for failure, but Steve had no doubt that he was just the man for the task. His self-proclaimed leadership skills included setting high expectations, rallying his troops, and being tough but fair. “I know I’ll face challenges in this role,” he confidently stated, “but I also know how to get the best out of my people.”
Unfortunately, Steve was totally delusional.
What I’d uncovered when I interviewed his direct reports, and what his CEO had only begun to sense, was that Steve’s reign was already proving disastrous. In the 16 weeks since his official promotion, three employees had already quit. A fourth, who had recently started taking blood pressure medication because of the “Steve stress,” was halfway out the door. Though not a single member of Steve’s team questioned his capabilities and experience, they thought that he was—to use a more polite term than they did—a complete jerk. He’d bark orders at them, question their competence, and scream at them in a way they found unprofessional and frightening. And they weren’t a bunch of whiners, either. I found them to be seasoned, seen-it-all types who weren’t looking to be coddled. Steve had simply pushed them too far.
To be fair, Steve had grown up in the rough-and-tumble industry of construction, where he’d learned that great leadership often meant “he who yelled the most.” And while this hard-charging style may have been passable in the past, it was a costly miscalculation in his current role, especially against the backdrop of the company’s collaborative culture.
As he paced around his new office, proudly detailing all the ways he was exactly the visionary leader his company needed during this difficult period, I marveled at how utterly oblivious he was. His behavior was hurting his employees’ morale, his team’s performance, and his own reputation. Even losing some of his best people hadn’t shaken his self-image as an effective and respected leader. But Steve’s team had had enough of his bullying. And somehow, I had to find a way to break that to him.
THE EPIDEMIC OF STEVE DISEASE
A young Haley Joel Osment is wrapped up in a pink blanket, his head resting on a soft pillow. He intensely stares at Bruce Willis. “I want to tell you my secret now,” he begins. The camera zooms in tightly to his terrified face.
“I see dead people.”
“In your dreams?” Willis asks. Osment stares back silently, his sad eyes indicating that’s not where he sees them. “While you’re awake?”
“Walking around like regular people,” Osment replies. “They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.”
“How often do you see them?”
This scene is, of course, from the movie The Sixth Sense, and young Osment (spoiler alert) actually does see dead people. But substitute the word “delusional” for the word “dead” and it would be just as true of our world today. The scene reminds us that self-delusion—that is, seeing only what we want to see—is all around us. But if you prefer the radio over movies, take humorist Garrison Keillor’s invented town of Lake Wobegon, where every child is above average. We chuckle at this statistically impossible trope because we see such delusion everywhere: at work, in class, at PTA meetings, at the grocery store, even in our own homes.
And almost everyone who has spent time in the business world has encountered a boss or colleague like Steve. You know the type: people who, despite their past success, obvious qualifications, and undeniable intelligence, display a complete lack of insight into how they are coming across. The boss who thinks his detail orientation makes him a good manager, but in reality is simply infuriating his employees; the client who thinks she’s a great partner but is known the office over for being impossible to work with; the father who doesn’t believe he’s teaching his kids to be racist, but grips his child’s hand and crosses the street every time a person of color walks toward them. The common factor here? All are completely confident in their self-views, and all are completely wrong.
According to behavioral economist and Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman, human beings possess an “almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” Research suggests that we tend to think we’re smarter, funnier, thinner, better-looking, more socially skilled, more gifted at sports, superior students, and better drivers than we objectively are. Scientists have dubbed this the “Better Than Average Effect.” But in honor of our “above average” executive, I call it Steve Disease.
Of course, mathematically speaking, 49 percent of us will be above average on any given measure. But often, where we actually fall on the bell curve has little resemblance to where we think we fall. In one study of more than 13,000 professionals in financial services, technology, nursing, and more, researchers found almost no relationship between self-assessed performance and objective performance ratings. In a second investigation with nearly 1,000 engineers in the San Francisco Bay area, more than 33 percent rated their performance in the top 5 percent relative to their peers—and only one brave soul labeled himself as below average.
Empirical evidence of Steve Disease also extends outside the walls of corporate America. In one famous study, a full 94 percent of college professors thought they were above average at their jobs. And in another—and perhaps disturbingly for anyone planning a medical procedure in the near future—surgical residents’ self-rated skills had literally no relationship with their board exam performance (although, thankfully, that’s probably why they have a board exam).
It’s likely no surprise that the consequences of Steve Disease are as severe as the problem is pervasive. At work, for example, employees who lack self-awareness bring down team performance, reducing decision quality by an average of 36 percent, hurting coordination by 46 percent, and increasing conflict by 30 percent. In aggregate, companies with large numbers of unaware employees show worse financial performance: one study with hundreds of publicly traded companies found that those with poor financial returns were 79 percent more likely to have large numbers of employees who lacked self-awareness.
As anyone who has worked for a delusional boss can attest, Steve Disease is especially infectious—and disastrous—in the ranks of management. As we learned earlier, when leaders are out of touch with reality, they’re six times more likely to derail. Being overconfident can also blind managers to their employees’ brilliance, causing them to underestimate their top performers’ contributions. And though people in positions of power don’t usually start off any less self-aware (it requires a certain measure of self-awareness to ascend to a leadership position in the first place), their delusion often grows with their rank and seniority. Early successes give way to an intoxicating pride that blinds them to truths they can and should be seeing.
And as their power increases, so does their degree of overestimation. Compared to managers and front-line leaders, for example, executives more dramatically overvalue their empathy, adaptability, coaching, collaboration, and (ironically) self-awareness skills. What might be even more shocking, though, is that compared to their less experienced counterparts, experienced leaders are more likely to overestimate their abilities. Similarly, older managers tend to misjudge their performance relative to their boss’s ratings of them far more than their younger peers do.*1
But wait. Shouldn’t a leader’s experience, age, and seniority increase insight? There are a few reasons why this isn’t the case. First, senior positions are often complex, with murky standards of performance and subjective definitions of success. Second, above a certain level, there usually aren’t reliable mechanisms to supply honest feedback sufficient for gauging performance on these more subjective measures. Making matters worse, many powerful people encircle themselves with friends or sycophants who don’t challenge or disagree with them. As professor Manfred Kets de Vries put it, they’re surrounded by “walls, mirrors and liars.” And finally, executives are often rewarded for delusion—for example, overconfident CEOs tend to be paid more than their peers, and as their compensation packages grow, so do their levels of overconfidence. In reality, CEO compensation has less to do with talent or performance than it does with PR and perception; no board wants their CEO to be below average, so no one lets their packages lag market expectations. These companies might as well be headquartered in Lake Wobegon!
Yet regardless of our degree of overestimation—and whether we’re in a position of power or not—our misguided beliefs follow us home, sometimes taking an equal toll on our personal lives. Researchers have found that one in four people has emotionally distant personal relationships because of their bullish views of their personality and behavior. Overconfidence can also affect how we parent. For example, the majority of mothers and fathers grossly overestimate the number of words they speak to their pre-verbal children (children who hear more words at home develop better vocabularies, higher IQs, and better academic performance). Eighty-two percent of parents also think that they’re capable of handling their finances despite holding too much debt and neglecting to build long-term savings, and it’s these same parents who fancy themselves as great financial management teachers to their kids—that’s about as likely as poor Steve winning “Boss of the Year.”
Now, it probably comes as no shock to hear that this delusion rubs off on our children, which just perpetuates the cycle. One study surveyed more than a million high school seniors on a number of personality characteristics and revealed that a full 25 percent placed themselves in the top 1 percent in their ability to get along with others. How many thought they were below average? Two percent.*2 And despite many parents’ hopes that their kids will miraculously develop self-awareness on the first day of college, that generally isn’t the case. When researchers asked university students to compare themselves to their peers on traits like “polite,” “responsible,” “cooperative,” and “mature,” students in the study rated themselves as above average on a whopping 38 out of 40 traits.
Making matters worse, the least competent people tend to be the most confident in their abilities, a finding first reported by Stanford psychology professor David Dunning and then-graduate student Justin Kruger. Their research revealed that participants who performed the worst on tests of humor, grammar, and logic were the most likely to overestimate their abilities. Those who scored in the 12th percentile, for example, believed on average that their ability fell in the 62nd. This phenomenon came to be known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and it’s been replicated with dozens of other skills like driving, academic performance, and job performance.
All this being said, is it possible that deep down, people know they’re incompetent but just don’t want to admit it to others? Strangely, the Dunning-Kruger Effect still surfaces even when people are incentivized to be accurate about their abilities. So it seems that the incompetent are not in fact lying; the more likely possibility is that they are, according to David Dunning, “blessed with inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels…like knowledge.”
In the very nature of this phenomenon lies a troubling paradox: If you were afflicted with Steve Disease, would you even know? Researchers Oliver Sheldon and David Dunning designed a series of ingenious studies that revealed just how oblivious even the smartest, most successful people are about their delusions. They began by bringing MBA students—intelligent, driven professionals with an average of six years’ work experience—into their lab and giving them an assessment of emotional intelligence (EQ), which, as we learned earlier, is a critical skill for success at work and in life. You’d think that if you presented clever people with evidence that they needed to improve their EQ, most would want to take steps to do so. But that’s not what Sheldon and Dunning found. When given the opportunity to purchase a discounted book on improving EQ, the students with the lowest scores—that is, those who most needed the book—were the least likely to buy it.
When giving keynotes to organizations, I’ll often present the statistic that 50 percent of managers are ineffective. After dozens and dozens of talks all over the world, the reaction I get is always exactly the same. At first, people in the audience politely smile. So I ask them, “Do you know what this means?” Then, after an invariably long pause, I instruct them to look to their left, then their right. Nervous laughter breaks out, and they finally get it. The terrible manager is either them or the person next to them! At that point, everyone starts looking around hesitantly at each other, thinking, Well, since it isn’t me, it must be this guy next to me, right?
The point is that it’s uncomfortable to consider the possibility that we’re not as smart or skilled or emotionally intelligent as we think we are—after all, to paraphrase Daniel Kahneman, identifying other people’s mistakes and shortcomings is much easier and far more enjoyable than facing our own. But when people are steeped in self-delusion, they are usually the last to find out. The good news about Steve Disease is that it is curable, and in a moment, we’ll explore how. But first, it’s worth asking: Why are we this delusional in the first place?
While the capacity for self-awareness exists in nearly all human beings, absolutely no one is born with it. As infants, we think we’re the center of the universe. After all, at that age, we’re little more than a mewling bag of constant demands that usually get met, as if the world itself was set up for the sole purpose of serving our needs. (I have a client who recalls thinking as a young child that the world literally revolved around him and therefore only existed during his own waking hours!) Our first awareness milestone is therefore to gain an understanding of ourselves as separate from the world around us.
Just when we’re strong enough to push ourselves off our knees, and happen to see a reflection of ourselves in a mirror, we coo at the stranger looking back. But around age two, we begin to learn that this person is actually us. We’re not the whole world after all—we’re just another thing that lives in it. With this knowledge, obviously, comes a potentially disappointing fall in status. And with that comes the disquieting onset of emotions such as embarrassment and envy.
Yet at this point, while we may have realized that we’re just another “self” surrounded by other selves, our brains haven’t yet developed the ability to objectively evaluate that self. Studies show that when young children rate how they are performing in school, for example, their evaluations have little to no resemblance with their teachers’. In other words, we don’t yet know the difference between our wish and our reality. The mere desire to be the best and prettiest ballplayer in the room means that we are the best and prettiest ballplayer in the room. Adorable as that may be at this age, these inflated views persist despite repeated revelations of their inaccuracy. (You might even know a few adults who have yet to overcome this affliction, but we’ll get to that.)
By our pre-teen years, the fresh, early breezes of awareness begin to blow in. Here, we start to develop the capacity to label our behaviors with descriptive traits (like “popular,” “nice,” and “helpful”) and experiment with a more balanced self-view—that is, the possibility that we might actually possess a few less-than-ideal characteristics. Then comes the tempest. During our stormy teenage years, we discover a new and apparently limitless capacity for introspection. Building a coherent theory of who we are, with all our apparent contradictory moods and urges, can be tortuous. And just as our self-views become increasingly jumbled and complex, we begin to spend an almost unreasonable amount of time wondering what others think of us. As confused as we are during this period, we’re just as likely to think irrationally negative things about ourselves as we are positive ones. This example, from Susan Harter’s book The Construction of Self, should really take you back to that fun process:
What am I like as a person? You’re probably not going to understand. I’m complicated!…At school, I’m serious, even studious…[but] I’m a goof-off too, because if you’re too studious, you won’t be popular….[My parents] expect me to get all A’s and get pretty annoyed with me…So I’m usually pretty stressed-out at home, and can even get very sarcastic…But I really don’t understand how I can switch so fast from being cheerful with my friends, then coming home and feeling anxious, then getting frustrated and sarcastic with my parents. Which one is the real me?
Most of us spend years wrestling with these contradictions, desperate to pin down the essence of our teenage personalities. For some, this self-seeking manifests in many hours of uninterrupted brooding behind a closed bedroom door, often accompanied by deafeningly loud music (in my case, it took the form of long-winded journal entries that are simply too embarrassing to talk about). Other times, it can lead to acting out: shoplifting, cutting class, or bullying.
Thankfully, as we approach our second decade on earth, we start to organize these conflicting self-perceptions into more cohesive theories (Just because I’m shy around people I don’t know doesn’t mean I’m not mostly outgoing). We start to understand and embrace our attributes, our values, and our beliefs, and often deepen our sense of what we can’t do well. We also feel a new level of focus on our future selves, which can provide a welcome sense of direction.
But though most people show a predictable progression toward becoming self-aware, our pace varies wildly. The journey to self-awareness is therefore a bit like the Kentucky Derby: we all begin at the same starting line, but when the gun fires, some of us speed out of the gate, some of us progress slowly but surely, and some of us falter or get stuck along the way.
In the absence of a committed effort to build self-awareness, the average person makes only meager gains as they grow older.*3 Our self-awareness unicorns, however, are different. Though they enter childhood as equally or only slightly more self-aware, their pace accelerates with each passing year. In the race to insight, these Triple Crown winners break away from the pack early on and continue to widen their lead over each stage of their lives.
Remember, though, that the behaviors needed to create and sustain self-awareness are surprisingly learnable. We just have to know where to start—which, at least foundationally, means understanding the obstacles that prevent us from seeing ourselves clearly. Some exist within us, and others are imposed on us by our increasingly delusional world. For the remainder of this chapter, we’ll focus on the inner obstacles to self-awareness—that is, how we get in our own way, and usually without even knowing it.
THE THREE BLINDSPOTS
One of my all-time favorite psychology studies was conducted with prisoners serving time in the south of England. Psychology professor Constantine Sedikides and his colleagues gave the prisoners, most of whom had committed violent crimes, a list of nine positive personality traits and asked them to rate themselves on each in comparison to two groups: average prisoners and average non-incarcerated community members:
•Kind to others
Now imagine you find yourself in jail for, let’s just say, armed robbery. It seems hard to believe that you’d use any of the above traits to describe yourself, right? And yet the prisoners did. In fact, not only did they rate themselves as superior to their fellow inmates on these measures, on no fewer than eight out of nine traits, they even thought they were superior to average non-incarcerated community members. The one exception? Trait number nine. According to Sedikides, inexplicably, “they rated themselves as equally law-abiding compared to community members.” (Don’t think about that for too long or your head will explode—trust me.)
This study is a stark, if somewhat ludicrous, example of just how blind we can be to the truth about ourselves. When it comes to the inner roadblocks that most limit our success, there are three main areas where we get in our own way. And the more we ignore The Three Blindspots, the more pernicious they become.
Professor David Dunning (who first showed us that the least competent people are also the most confident) has spent most of his career trying to understand why we’re so terrible at evaluating our own performance. Though there is admittedly no satisfying single explanation, Dunning and his colleague Joyce Ehrlinger uncovered the powerful influence of something they call “top-down thinking” (I call it Knowledge Blindness)—which is our first blindspot. In a series of studies, they discovered that the opinions we have about our abilities in specific situations are based less on how we perform and more on the general beliefs we have about ourselves and our underlying skills. For example, participants who saw themselves as good at geography thought they’d performed particularly well on a geography test, even though as a group they’d scored no better than anyone else.
Ironically, the more expertise we think we have, the more harmful knowledge blindness can be. For an example, let’s look back to 2013, when the Boston Red Sox beat the St. Louis Cardinals in a nail-biting World Series. Before the season began, ESPN published the predictions of 43 bona fide baseball experts on the outcome of the season. How many do you think predicted that either Boston or St. Louis would make it to the World Series? The answer is zero. The same was true for the experts polled by Sports Illustrated. Baseball America’s picks performed only slightly less terribly, with one out of ten predicting that St. Louis would go the distance. So these 60 well-paid, highly respected baseball authorities showed an absolutely abysmal 0.83 percent success rate in predicting the World Series teams. Had each expert chosen two teams at random, they would have been more than seven times more accurate!
At first glance, this seems like a freak occurrence—a statistical anomaly. But as it turns out, experts are wrong more often than we think, and not just when it comes to sports. In 1959, psychologist Lewis Goldberg conducted a seemingly simple study where he compared the accuracy of expert clinical psychologists’ diagnoses with those made by their secretaries (as they were then called) to demonstrate the important role of experience in such judgments. You can imagine his dismay upon discovering that the experts were no better at diagnosing psychological disorders than their inexperienced counterparts (who were actually 2 percent more accurate!).
Yet even for non-experts, being overconfident about our skills and talents can get us into trouble. We might choose a field or specialty for which we’re poorly suited (“I’d be a great astrophysicist; I’m good at math!”), overlook mistakes in our personal life (“It’s okay to let my five-year-old walk to school alone; I’m a great parent!”), or take poorly advised business risks (“We should definitely buy this failing company; I’m great at turnarounds!”).
Our inner roadblocks don’t just create blindness about what we think we know—they distort our perceptions about what we think we feel. To understand Emotion Blindness, our second blindspot, imagine the following question:
On a scale from 1 to 10, how happy are you with life these days?
How would you go about answering this? Would you go with your gut instinct, or would you thoughtfully consider the various factors in your life and made a more measured judgment?*4 Most people are adamant that they would use the more thoughtful approach—after all, accurately assessing our precise level of happiness is not an easy task. Indeed, studies show that when we’re asked how happy we are, we have every belief that we’re considering all the available data in a rational way. But unfortunately, our brains prefer to use the least possible effort and therefore don’t always cooperate. So even when we think we’re carefully deliberating a certain question, we’re actually making more of a gut decision. For this reason, we’re surprisingly awful at judging our emotions, including happiness. According to Daniel Kahneman and other researchers, our brains secretly and simplistically morph the question from “How happy are you with life these days?” into “What mood am I in right now?”
To illustrate Emotion Blindness in action, Kahneman describes a study by German researcher Norbert Schwarz, who set out to investigate life satisfaction. Unbeknownst to his participants, he arranged for half the group to find the German equivalent of a dime on a nearby copy machine outside the lab. Though they had no idea why, those who found the coin—a mere 10 cents!—subsequently reported feeling happier and more satisfied with their lives as a whole.
In another study, students were asked two questions: “How happy are you these days?” and “How many dates did you have last month?” When the questions were presented in that order, their love lives weren’t related to their overall happiness. But when the questions were reversed, and participants thought about the number of dates they’d been on before evaluating their happiness, those who’d gone on more dates reported being happier.
The main danger of Emotion Blindness is that we often make decisions, even important ones, from a place of emotion without even realizing it. In the fall of my senior year of high school, I was deep into my search for the perfect college. My parents and I took two separate trips, a few weeks apart, to eight schools on the East Coast. The weather during the first visit was sheer perfection. At every school I visited, happy students were frolicking outside, enjoying the cool, crisp temperature and the peak fall foliage. But my second trip coincided with one of those dreadful New England storms that dumped sheets of freezing rain and kept the sky gray for days. Naturally, when I visited those schools, the students weren’t so much frolicking as they were helplessly running from building to building in a futile attempt to stay dry.
So which colleges do you think ended up on my list of favorites? You guessed it—all four schools from my first visit and zero from my second. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I now know how much of an impact my emotions had on my judgment. It can be disconcerting to realize that we’re so ill-equipped to evaluate the thought processes that drive our decisions, but as with all blindspots, the more aware we are of their existence, the better chance we have of overcoming them.
Which brings us to Behavior Blindness, our final blindspot. It’s also one that most of us experience far more often than we realize. A few years back, I was invited to deliver the closing keynote at a professional conference for engineers. Because of our shared practical mindset and the three years I spent working at an engineering firm, I’ve always gotten along famously with engineers, or “my fellow geeks,” as I affectionately call them. But from the moment I set foot on stage that day, something felt off. For the life of me, I couldn’t make my points cogently; my jokes were bombing; and I just didn’t feel like myself.
Over the course of the hour, I became increasingly hysterical, and my inner monologue turned into a blow-by-blow account of my incompetence. Why didn’t that joke get a laugh? How could I have forgotten to mention that point? Why do they seem so bored? Much to my horror, I remembered mid-talk that the bureau agent who had booked me was in the front row. Well, that’s it, I concluded, he’ll never recommend me to a client again.
When my talk was over, I rushed offstage just about as quickly as my legs would carry me and ran smack into the bureau agent who’d come backstage to find me. Ready to face the music, I asked, “What did you think?” Sure that he was going to demand his client’s money back, I braced myself for the inevitable torrent of criticism that was sure to follow. But his gleeful response was literally the last thing I ever expected to hear: “Oh, my gosh. They loved it!”
Struggling to grasp how this could be possible, I asked, “REALLY?” and he nodded earnestly. At the time, I thought he was being unnecessarily polite (i.e., lying). But later that day, when I checked to see how many audience members had opted in to my monthly newsletter,*5 I was stunned to discover that a higher percentage had signed up than any audience I’d ever spoken to!
How could I have been so wrong? Psychologists used to think the inability to see our own behavior clearly or objectively was the result of a perspective problem; that we literally can’t see ourselves from the vantage point that others can. By this account, I couldn’t have accurately evaluated my speech because I couldn’t see myself from the same perspective as the audience did.
But this explanation turns out not to hold water. In one study, participants were given a series of personality tests and videotaped making a brief speech. They were then asked to watch the video and identify their nonverbal behaviors—things like eye contact with the camera, gestures, facial expressions, and voice volume. Because the participants could see themselves from the same angle that others could, the researchers predicted that their ratings would be fairly accurate. But shockingly, their ratings failed to match up with those of an objective observer even when they were offered money for correct answers. (By now, we’ve established that money is of little help in making us more self-aware.) Though scientists are still working to definitively uncover the real reasons for our Behavior Blindness, there are, as we’ll soon see, a few tools you can use to avoid falling victim to it.
BRAVER BUT WISER: FROM BLINDNESS TO (IN)SIGHT
To understand how almost anyone can move from self-blindness to self-insight, let’s turn back to my coaching client, Steve. As we got deeper into our work, it was obvious that the blindspots I’ve just described were alive and well. It might now make sense that Steve Disease is actually a combination of all three blindspots. Steve’s knowledge blindness about his leadership expertise had given him an overconfidence that could only be described as epic. His emotion blindness was leading him to make decisions based on gut feelings rather than reason. And he was completely oblivious to how his behavior was going over with his staff.
With these forces at play, I knew that Steve would be one of my greatest professional challenges, though he certainly wasn’t my first. After all, a central part of my job is to tell senior executives the truth when everyone else is afraid to or doesn’t know how (and I’m proud to report that I’ve only been fired once for it). In so doing, I’ve found that with some effort, delusion can usually be overcome, and even the most unseeing can learn to open their eyes—sometimes they just need a little shove.
In Steve’s case, I was that shove, and it was going to have to be an unusually forceful one. But before we could begin to deal with his willful resistance to self-improvement, I first had to tackle his willful resistance to letting me get a word in edgewise. I decided that a direct approach was necessary. With his diatribe showing no sign of losing wind, I locked my eyes with him until he finally stopped pacing. “Steve,” I said, “there’s no way around this. Your team hates you.” He wouldn’t have looked more shocked if I’d stood on my chair and claimed to be his long-lost daughter. Glancing at my folder of research, he asked, “What did they say about me?” I had no choice but to tell him. And since his team had warned me about his temper, I was prepared for what came next. The raised voice. The clenched jaw. The menacing stares. The vein in his neck. And right there across the desk, Steve’s face was turning bright red.
“How could they SAY THOSE THINGS ABOUT ME? HOW COULD THEY SAY THAT I YELL!?”
Then, as if exhausted by his own delusion, he slumped in his chair and gazed out the window for a good minute. The last time Steve had been silent, it had been an attempt to demonstrate the power he believed he had over me. But this silence had an altogether different quality. “So,” he said at last, swiveling his chair toward me with an expression of calm intention, “I’ve been doing these things for the last four months—or twenty years?—and nobody told me?” Indeed, rather than face his harsh reality, he’d chosen the path of blissful ignorance, which was easier in the moment but disastrous in the long run. That’s the problem with blissful ignorance. It works just fine…until it doesn’t.
Many people have experienced a “come to Jesus” moment like this—an alarm clock event that opens our eyes to the unpleasant reality that others don’t see us the same way we see ourselves. These moments often come without warning and can cause serious damage to our confidence, to our success, and to our happiness. But what if we could discover the truth earlier and on our own terms? What if we could see our behavior clearly, before it begins to hurt our relationships and undermine our career? What if we could pair a quest for the truth with a positive mindset and a sense of self-acceptance? What if we could learn to be braver but wiser?
The Greek myth of Icarus is an apt metaphor. Icarus tries to escape the island of Crete using wings that his father, Daedalus, built from wax and feathers. Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too high or too low: flying too low meant the sea would weigh down the feathers and flying too high meant the sun would melt the wax. But against his father’s instructions, Icarus decides to fly too high. And sure enough, the wax melts, knocking him out of the air and sending him to his death.
When it comes to the way we see ourselves, we must be brave enough to spread our wings, but wise enough not to fly too high, lest our blindspots send us soaring straight into the sun. When we learn the truth, it can be surprising, or terrifying, or even gratifying—but no matter what, it gives us the power to improve.
This is what I had to help Steve understand, and I knew we had our work cut out for us. We reviewed his feedback for hours. At first he was resistant, searching for any excuse to counter the criticism. But to his great credit, he slowly started to accept what he was hearing. By the end of our first session, I was seeing a new side of him. “I’ve never questioned my leadership approach,” he told me. “Not for years, anyway. Why would I? Everything’s always been pretty great. But the last couple months, something’s felt off. I didn’t know what it was. Results haven’t been what I was expecting, and the worst thing is, it’s been following me home.” He smiled ruefully.
“The good news is that these problems are totally fixable,” I told him. “And you’ve just taken a major step.”
“Really? What did I do?” he exhaustedly inquired.
I grinned. “You just accepted reality.”
Indeed, the commitment to learn and accept reality is one of the most significant differences between the self-aware and, well, everybody else. The self-aware exert great effort to overcome their blindspots and see themselves as they really are. Through examining our assumptions, constantly learning, and seeking feedback, it’s possible to overcome a great many barriers to insight. Although it would be unreasonable to expect that we can see or eliminate our blindspots altogether, we can gather and assemble data that helps us see ourselves and the impact of our behavior more clearly.
The first step is to identify our assumptions. This may sound obvious, but unfortunately, it’s rare to question our assumptions about ourselves and the world around us, especially for ambitious, successful people. I witnessed a telling example of this when I used to teach a weeklong executive strategy program. On the morning of the second day, participants would enter the training room and find a small, plastic-wrapped puzzle at each table. When we told them that they’d have five minutes to assemble the puzzle, many of these powerful people would scoff at such a silly activity, wondering why we were wasting their valuable time. Humoring us, they’d open the plastic seal, dump the puzzle on the table, and begin turning the puzzle pieces, which were blue on one side, face-up (or what they assumed was face-up). After a few minutes, having assembled only about 80 percent of the puzzle, they would be scratching their heads in, for lack of a better word, puzzlement. Just as time was about to run out, one person—mind you, almost without exception, it would be just one out of about 20 senior executives—would realize that the puzzle could only be solved by turning some of the blue puzzle pieces “upside down.”
In our day-to-day lives, we rarely even think to ask ourselves whether we should turn over any proverbial puzzle pieces. As Harvard psychologist Chris Argyris explains in his must-read book Increasing Leadership Effectiveness, when something doesn’t go the way we want or expect, we typically assume that the cause exists in our environment. Surely there was a screw-up in the puzzle factory, or the missing pieces somehow got lost on their way out of the box. The last place we look is at our own beliefs and actions. Together with his colleague Donald Schön, Argyris labeled this type of thinking, one in which we fail to seek data that confronts our fundamental assumptions of ourselves and the world, “single-loop learning.”
In contrast, the process of double-loop learning involves confronting our values and assumptions and, more importantly, inviting others to do so as well. In his work with executives, Argyris discovered that double-loop learning can be especially difficult for successful people who are used to “inventing, producing, and achieving”—after all, they’ve gotten this far with their current assumptions, so they must have gotten something right. But what they don’t often realize is just how critical turning over the proverbial puzzle pieces is for their continued success.
So how can we learn to do this? One approach is to get into the habit of comparing our past predictions with actual outcomes. Celebrated management professor Peter Drucker suggested a simple, practical process that he himself used for more than 20 years. Every time he would make an important decision, he would write down what he expected to happen. Then, when the chickens had come home to roost, he would compare what actually happened with what he had predicted.
But what if you want to identify your assumptions in real time rather than in hindsight? Another tool comes from decision psychologist Gary Klein, who suggests doing what he calls a pre-mortem by asking the following question: “Imagine that we are a year into the future—we have implemented the plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Write a brief history of that disaster.” This process tends to reveal potential pitfalls in a way we’d rarely consider otherwise. The same approach can be used for most big decisions, such as moving to a new city, accepting a new job, or deciding to settle down with a romantic partner. (And by the way, in appendix G, you can find a few questions to help you unearth your assumptions and discover whether you might have some, as Donald Rumsfeld might call them, “unknown unknowns” about yourself).
A second technique to minimize our blindspots is simply to keep learning, especially in the areas where we think we already know a lot. In their landmark 1999 study, David Dunning and Justin Kruger found that when overconfident poor performers were trained to improve their performance on a task, not only did they improve, so did their awareness of their prior ineffectiveness. A true commitment to ongoing learning—saying to ourselves, the more I think I know, the more I need to learn—is a powerful way to combat knowledge blindness and improve our effectiveness in the process.
Finally, we should seek feedback on our abilities and behaviors. Out of all the tools we’ve reviewed so far, objective feedback has the best odds of helping us see and overcome all three blindspots. Why? As we’ll discuss later, the people around us can almost always see what we can’t. And as such, we need to surround ourselves with those who will tell us the truth, both at work and at home. We need colleagues, family members, and friends who will (lovingly) knock us down a peg when we’re getting too big for our britches. In the category of “amusing yet accurate observations,” Stanford researcher Hayagreeva Rao believes that leaders who have teenage children are less prone to overconfidence for this very reason. As anyone with a teenager knows, they are perpetually unimpressed and will never hesitate to tell you how great you aren’t. (And it’s true that surrounding yourself with people who disagree with you is one of the most fundamental building blocks of leadership success. Great leaders have people around them who call them out, and failed leaders almost never do.)
I’ll be the first to admit that seeking feedback can be one of the most intimidating and terrifying things you’ll ever do. But trust me, the insight you will gain will be worth it. Just ask our friend Steve. At the end of our first meeting, he made a decision. Looking me in the eye, he bravely announced, “I don’t like this information, but I accept it. And with your help, I’m going to figure it out.” It was another huge step in the right direction.
At this point, Steve now had the will to make different choices, but he still needed to develop the skill. So in the months that followed, I helped him share his intentions, read his effect on his team, and seek feedback from people who would tell him the truth. In one coaching session a month or so after our initial meeting, Steve was still struggling to understand why everyone thought he was such a loose cannon. So I tried a different approach: “Do you understand how you reacted during our last meeting when I gave you the feedback from your team?” “Sure,” he replied. “I don’t think you do,” I said, and then did my best impression of his response—aggressively staring at him, raising my voice, and clenching my jaw—so he could see just how hostile his behavior had been. “I don’t think I’ve always been like this,” he said, “but I’m pretty sure I’ve been scaring my family just as much as I’m scaring my team.” And now that he better understood how his behavior was affecting others, he could begin to experiment with a different and more effective approach.
This process went on for months. And like anyone undertaking such a task, Steve had his fair share of setbacks, but he continued to make progress. In the months that followed, he saw an improvement in his effectiveness and felt a new level of confidence. Eventually, his team began to notice that something was different—and so did his family. They all started to talk about this wonderful person they called “the New Steve.” It was also not a coincidence that his team met their aggressive business plan that year, or that his CEO started to trust his abilities and decisions.
Steve’s tale illustrates both how incredibly hard it is to confront the reality about ourselves and why it’s unquestionably worth the effort. When it comes to making the choices that guide our lives, truth is power, whether that truth is music to our ears or sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard. As Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön points out, “The most fundamental…harm we can do to ourselves is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.” And luckily, the difference between unicorns and everyone else has less to do with innate ability and more to do with intention and commitment. Throughout the rest of this book, we’ll discuss more strategies to help us find the courage and respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently—and in so doing, become more successful in our careers, more satisfied in our relationships, and more content in our lives. But before we do that, it’s critical to understand—and fight—the second big roadblock to self-awareness: something I call the Cult of Self.
*1 It’s been shown that, in general, we become more accurate at self-assessing between the ages of 25 and 35, but our accuracy tends to decrease between 35 and 45. Also, and quite shockingly, business students, compared to students majoring in physical sciences, social sciences, and the humanities, most strongly inflated their self-assessments relative to their objective performance.
*2 This study was conducted in 1976—when Baby Boomers were in college—providing evidence that Millennials were not the original instigators of this pattern! And I say this, totally objectively, as a Millennial.
*3 For you statistics geeks, the correlation we’ve found between age and internal self-awareness is only .16, and for external self-awareness, it’s .05.
*4 In his book on the subject, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman calls these processes “thinking fast” and “thinking slow,” respectively.
*5 Which you can do at www.TashaEurich.com.