Hubris looked at the numbers and thought to himself ‘The board is looking closely at me, I am the star of the high potential programme and these numbers are currently mediocre. I need to show more profit for the half year… I’ll reduce accruals and move them into profit and I’ll put them back next month. I don’t want them thinking I have lost my touch and I am not really as talented as they think.’
Overconfidence, arrogance and not accepting one’s errors are encouraged all around us. So-called reality programmes and televised competitions promote this through the misguided belief that overly confidently promising something is a sign of strength. Saying you are certain that something will succeed shows conviction and this in some strange way gives people more confidence than a more rounded and realistic appraisal of a situation. Whilst in many cases these arrogant behaviours provide entertainment for large audiences, in organisations these behaviours can be dangerous and unintentionally lead to the destruction of business value. By business value I am referring to all forms of value that determine the health and wellbeing of a business in the long term.
Are you in the Talented Box? Or Not?
There is a human fixation with putting people in boxes. We see it with personality where some individuals are desperate to know and give everyone a letter to describe something about them. They can’t be in the middle or balanced, they have to be a letter. As opposed to seeing individuals with a range of ability in different aspects of their work, the fixation in defining people extends to defining them as ‘talented’ (or not) and this is a problem.
Telling someone they are talented has been shown repeatedly by academics as both beneficial and detrimental to their future success. The benefit comes from the increased opportunities offered to individuals who are in the talented box. However, the detriment kicks in when an individual believes that their ability is due to talent – i.e. it is innate. Research shows that the problem with believing something is innate is that it can lead to a reduction in effort, impact resilience negatively and lead to the quest to looking for confirmation of the innateness. For example ‘I delivered a cracking presentation because I am a great presenter’ or ‘I can’t present well, I am just no good at it!’
Let me tell you more about Hubris.
Hubris’ philosophy was quite straightforward. When he did something well, he decided he was talented at it and if he struggled he believed he was not talented. It was life pattern that came out when I carried out an ERCONIC™ interview with him 1. As a child, he was tall and got off to a good start in rugby and basketball and decided he was talented at them. However, he couldn’t handle it when he got dropped from teams and so gave up both sports. He found maths easy and did well all the way to getting his 1st class degree. He was very clear that everything is about natural ability and thought that training or practising was more about fine-tuning rather than growing. He never admitted to getting things wrong and disagreements were all about winning his points.
“In the wrong conditions, he was quick to inflate and misrepresent reality in order to fuel his deep need to confirm he was a successful high potential individual”
Behaviours Expected by the Organisation
As a high flyer in his mid 30s Hubris’ career had progressed well. He was very confident with people, a quick thinker, funny and a great presenter. He had spent his life picking what he was good at and had been told he was on track to his first Director role. The organisation had put him on a hi-potential pedestal and repeatedly complimented him for his confidence.
The problem was that Hubris’ career was now dependent on his leadership skills and in particular delivering results through other people. When his numbers were excellent and yet he had been overly critical about his team, his director had made positive noises and complimented him for setting such a high bar. But when Hubris’ team’s performance dropped, the Board was critical that he was raising his voice with his team, not listening to them, pre-judging what they had to say and being economical with the truth with customers.
His director went from describing him as ‘high potential’ to a ‘problem child’ and other board members were quick to agree. Hubris was destroying business value (and his career). However, most of his behaviour was exactly the same as when he was performing well. The real difference was the numbers were low and the way in which his behaviour was interpreted by the Board was different. So the message had been it is ok to be arrogant, overly critical and unhelpful when you are doing well but not when you’re not hitting the numbers. This board behaviour amplified aspects of his personality. In the wrong conditions, he was quick to inflate and misrepresent reality in order to fuel his deep need to confirm he was a successful high potential individual.
The Coaching Challenge = Hubris + Toxic Culture
Hubris’ personality profile and ERCONIC™ interview were very good predictors of how he would do things. The organisation, however, had been ‘toxic’ at encouraging all the wrong behaviours when his results were good.
You might not be surprised to learn that it was quite hard for me to coach Hubris and there were three main reasons:
- Hubris always had a very good reason for anything negative he did – it was out of his control so he would use that to reject feedback.
- When anything was difficult or uncomfortable he wouldn’t get help or advice because he would see it as a sign of weakness. He thought that he was talented and talented people don’t need help.
- He was very good at finding evidence to show how great he was at something and presenting me with a warped view of reality.
However, Hubris respected maths and responded well to the results of a psychological profile which he had completed. It allowed us to predict that he would always try and win a discussion, reject feedback, catastrophize problems and avoid getting input from other people. He loved personal praise.
Hubris also responded well to the use of sport metaphors. He had always assumed that the best sportspeople in the world were naturally talented and had always done well. He was very surprised to learn about the athletes’ failures and defeats along the way and their resilience to learn and apply the learning in the next attempt. When he realised this he started to open up more about his anxieties, the pressure he put himself under and his failure to delegate or ask for help.
I worked with Hubris and his team to understand their roles, accountabilities, responsibilities, decision making and the behaviour required to drive success. Hubris initially struggled with the notion of being accountable for the performance of a team. We focussed a lot on the ‘fuzzy’ areas which were part of his accountability as he had historically blamed other people if something had gone wrong. I spent some time with his director too who had inadvertently encouraged the wrong behaviours (the discussion started with him reacting badly to my feedback to him that he was part of the problem.)
Hubris and the team moved back in the right direction – however, this time in the right direction without the toxic behaviour.
Personality, motivation, upbringing and mindset all contribute to ones’ behaviour. However, the creation of a toxic culture is more than a set of individuals who are pre-disposed to behaving that way coming together. A toxic, value-destroying culture is created by the organisation’s response to the behaviour of those individuals. Addressing that behaviour even when things are going well is essential to ensure you don’t unintentionally produce the next generation of corporate killers.
1. OE Cam’s ERCONIC™ approach focuses on a leader’s life & career history, looking for consistent & inconsistent patterns to understand motives & drivers.