(Photo by Aidan Un)
As humans, we want to assume we are exceptional. Exceptional means we can take it easy, secure in our greatness. If we’re exceptional, then we don’t need to be better.
Business people are especially prone to fall into the trap of self-delusion. Whereas skill in quantifiable hard skills such as chess and poker is obvious (we either win or lose), skill in business and leadership is difficult to measure — and easy to overestimate.
In a study of Stanford University MBA students, 87 percent rated their academic performance as above average. In a study of over 1 million U.S. students, 70 percent stated that they possess better leadership skills than average. Strangest of all, 25 percent of students rated themselves in the top 1 percent in their ability to get along well with others.
That is not data error — it’s human error.
We as humans naturally assume that we are better than we are. Social psychologists call this cognitive bias illusory superiority. We are especially likely to fall prey to this bias in areas where skill is difficult to quantify, like management and leadership.
The truth is that being exceptional is a daily practice of growth. But we won't do the work of getting better if we believe the delusion that we're already great.
No matter how young or old you are, to be exceptional you must assume that you have unidentified weaknesses, seek them out and exert yourself every day to be better.
I think about this when evaluating my opportunities for improvement in process, efficiency and client satisfaction. I think about it in creating marketing strategies and executing effectively. I ask people to hold my feet to the fire.
You might be surprised if you try what I call my “Angry Investor Scenario.” It works like this: I ask you to imagine that you are the biggest investor in my company. You are telling my board of directors that I must go, because otherwise the company will crumble. What are the two biggest reasons that you give?
You might not be surprised that this exercise causes the imaginer a great deal of stress. No one wants to be a critic — especially if they are critiquing their own boss. So, as managers, we ask for feedback and hear, “You’re exceptional! My only criticism is that I didn’t meet you years ago!” To overcome this, we have to create a secure, safe environment where critical honesty is rewarded.
I have found that the best way to create security and empower honesty is through storytelling.
Jason Kelly, an intern here at Muhlenhaupt + Company, gave me valuable insight into my weaknesses. I gave Jason my investor scenario, and he gave me an honest answer: That I make too many assumptions about what team members already know.
Jason’s answer gave me the chance to experiment with a better way. I found that taking 30 percent more time to explain a project in order to get the job done right the first time at lower cost resulted in a significant return on my investment. The outcomes are better now. The team is happier. The clients are happier. I’m happier. All thanks to Jason’s deeply honest feedback.
To help Jason open up, I shared stories with him about team members who have helped me understand my weaknesses. I explained that that feedback has changed my way of doing business and made me a better leader. I explained how amazing it was to receive their honest criticism. In contrast to situations he has encountered in the past, Jason knew that I would only hold a grudge if he sugarcoated his feedback — and that brutal honesty would be rewarded with deep appreciation.
I repeat that process regularly. Each time I gain new insights from a colleague, client or friend, I also gain a new story to share, which in turn makes it easier to get real, honest feedback. The cycle of improvement is transformative.
Every leader needs people like Jason to see themselves from a new angle. To unlock constant, never-ending improvement, we need to recognize that we have weaknesses, and we need to have simple strategies to uncover those weaknesses.
Give it a try. Who can you ask to be your Jason today?-30-
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