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How to Tell Leaders They’re Not as Great as They Think They Are

Source | Hbr.org | Tomas Chamorro-Premuzi, CEO Hogan Assessment Systems

Although we live in a world that glorifies self-belief and stigmatizes self-doubt, there are really only two advantages to thinking that you’re better than you actually are. The first is when you’re attempting to do a difficult task. Believing that you can do something difficult is half the battle, but if you truly overrate your abilities, then by definition you will fail. The second is fooling others into thinking that you are competent. Most people will be found out eventually, and the personal benefits of faking competence will be offset by the negative consequences for others. For example, deluded leaders may come across as charismatic and talented, but their overconfidence puts their followers at risk in the long run. In contrast, when leaders are aware of their limitations, they are less likely to make mistakes that put their teams, organizations, and countries in danger.

And yet — as I demonstrate in my latest book — leaders are not generally known for their self-awareness. Although leadership talent is normally distributed, 80% of people think they are better-than-average leaders. Moreover, with narcissism rates rising steadily for decades, there is no reason to expect future leaders to be more accurate in their self-evaluations, let alone to be humble. Strengths-based coaching, and removing negative feedback from performance appraisals are aggravating the problem, validating leaders’ fantasized talents much like when parents tell their children that they are the brightest and cutest in the world. This is especially likely when leaders are intimidating, or when they surround themselves with sycophantic employees. As a result, leaders are deprived of the very feedback they need to get better.

Whether you manage or coach leaders, or are just trying to provide some feedback to your own boss, here are three simple points you may wish to consider in order to have this difficult (but necessary) conversation with them:

  • Tap into their personal motives: Nobody likes to be criticized — especially high-status individuals. However, if you can help leaders understand how they can achieve their personal goals, they will pay attention. The most effective way of doing this is by tapping into the leader’s motives and values. For instance, leaders who are driven by recognition care a great deal about their reputation. Telling them that they are seen as less capable than they think they are will probably mobilize them, even if you allow for the possibility that their reputation is unwarranted. On the other hand, when leaders are driven by power, you will be able to appeal to them by linking the feedback to their performance and career progression: “If you change X and Y, you will be able to outperform your competitors and make it to the top”. In contrast, when dealing with altruistic leaders, your best strategy for delivering negative feedback is to convey that “by changing X and Y, you will be able to harness your team’s potential and improve their engagement and wellbeing”.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Readon..                                                                 
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