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Imperfect insight

The Bird of Self-Knowledge, Anonymous, 18th Century

Confucius is quoted as saying, “When you meet someone better than yourself, turn your thoughts to becoming his equal. When you meet someone not as good as you are, look within and examine yourself.”

Self-awareness has been uppermost in my mind of late, thanks to some stimulating conversations and experiences I’ve had in the course of my work.  I was listening to a CEO recently, speaking about the importance of creating greater engagement at work.  They spoke about the importance of providing regular feedback to their people, being positive and strengths-based in their approach to people management, how vital it is to ‘get out of the way’ of their staff so that they can do what they do best and being available for support and coaching when the situation required.  Listening to this, one would reasonably assume that we were in the presence of one of those great leaders; one of those CEOs everyone aspires to be.  From the tone of the speech, here, also, was a person who had already got how essential it is for someone at C-level to be engaged in some sort of self-development; to have the kind of humility that a truly great leader possesses.  Here was the kind of leader whom people find irresistible.  Or so you’d think.

I had some inside information, however.  As I listened, what came to me were two words I have recently come across: asymmetric insight.

Were this person’s staff in the room, they would have thought we were being treated to a stand-up comedy routine.  I am privileged to know a number of this person’s direct reports and as far as they are concerned, many of the blockages and obstacles that the organisation is currently facing sit in the CEO’s chair.  A lot of what this person was advocating was what was sorely lacking in their own behaviour.

I came away feeling a little sad for this CEO and their staff.  An already strong organisation could shift into the ‘high-performing’ category if the leader developed greater insight into themselves and their functioning at work.  Greater insight would shine a light on opportunities for their self-growth.  Knowing this organisation and its people as I do, it would not take a mammoth effort on the part of the CEO either.  They are so nearly there.  What is required is a quantum shift; quantum being a word which is used to describe the smallest thing and the largest thing.  From my experience, it is usually the smallest shifts in individuals or teams that create the biggest and most significant ripple effects in performance and culture.

It is often an insight into ourselves that is the first step on the path to shifting our attitudes and behaviours.  How accurate and complete is our insight, though?  There is an illusion called asymmetric insight that sometimes gets in the way.  According to studies by Pronin, Kruger, Savitsky and Ross, “people, it is hypothesised, show an asymmetry in assessing their own interpersonal and intrapersonal knowledge relative to that of their peers”.  We tend to believe that: 1) we know more about others than they know themselves; 2) we know more about ourselves than others could know about us and; 3) we know others better than they know us.  It is asymmetric insight that this CEO was displaying.  The self-image and the perceived level of personal awareness did not match the universal view of others with whom they work closely.

There is a good description of how this illusion plays out in this excellent piece about the Amanda Knox trial in The Guardian.  It describes how “there is a fundamental asymmetry about the way two human beings relate to one another in person. When you meet someone, there are at least two things more prominent in your mind than in theirs – your thoughts, and their face. As a result we tend to judge others on what we see, and ourselves by what we feel.”

The source for this bias seems to stem from the unshakable belief that what we observe in others is far more revealing that our own similar behaviours.  What is not part of this equation, however, is the fact that we all have blind spots.  Furthermore, the fact that they are our blind spots means that we cannot even see what they might be about.  That is the point.  We are blind to them.

I suspect that the illusion of asymmetric insight creates a complex reinforcer against change.  If I know myself more deeply than you know yourself, so the thinking goes, then any feedback you have for me is probably less than reliable.  If you tell me that I am not as competent as I think I am, you are probably not to be believed because I know more about myself, and you, anyway.  You also know far less about me than I know about you, so how could you possibly know that I need to improve: you have less insight than I do.  See?  No need to do anything different, no need for change.  And if I’m your CEO, you are unlikely to press the issue, so I win.  Now get back to work and I’ll keep making sure I send YOU on all these training courses.  You need them more than me, after all.

Sometimes, even evidence and hard fact doesn’t get through.  I may have a trail of formal complaints about my bullying behaviour, but documented evidence and witness statements mean nothing.  It’s clearly about them, not me.  They need to lighten up.

If you are a regular reader of the Harvard Business Review, you will likely be sold on the idea that authentic leadership comes about by growing self-awareness through on-going and courageous self-exploration.  The biggest hurdles that leaders face in gaining greater self-awareness, though, are human things like denial, narcissism, arrogance and fear.  All natural things, these.  Heavens preserve me from people who pretend they don’t exhibit any of these at some times in their lives.

by Doug Savage

If you have the slightest idea that there might perhaps be the tiniest discrepancy between your self-image and how others experience you, you may be interested in these courses of action:

  • Ask for and act upon feedback regularly and often.  You will need to devote some time and energy developing trusting relationships with those who work closely with you.  This means your peers, your direct reports and your superiors.  All of these people will have information about you that you may find enlightening.  If you demonstrate over time that you are actually interested in hearing their feedback, they will be more and more forthcoming about it.  If you ask people what they think and become defensive or attacking, they will quickly get the message that feedback is unwelcome.  It is one thing to say “I’m open to hearing your feedback about me,” it is another thing to model this openness.
  • Develop strong networks.  Leading can be lonely.  The illusion of asymmetric insight will distort our views of ourselves.  Growing strong networks of support people, both formal and informal, will keep your feet on the ground.  One of my favourite stories is The Emperor’s New Clothes.  Do you surround yourself with people who name the uncomfortable truths about you?
  • Be curious about yourself.  Be courageous.  A useful model to apply here is the Johari Window.  Many of you will already be familiar with this matrix.  In my view, life is a never-ending quest to diminish the ‘blind self’ and enlarge the ‘public self’.  When you think you know something about yourself, ask yourself, “How do I know that I know?”

If, however, you are entirely confident that you are fine, your behaviours are completely congruent with your words, your self-knowledge is ample, I’ll just leave you with a quote from Rumi.  You might want to quote it to people who do need some self-development and are less self-actualised than you.

“O, happy the soul that saw its own faults.”


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