All of us are at times tempted to lie — tempted by the lure of both deception and self-deception. But when you as a manager fall to that temptation, it’s especially evil.
Here’s how to spot your self-deception and overcome it — and why you need to.
Why We Lie
We lie to manipulate how others will respond to our actions and behavior.
If we think their response to the truth will be unpleasant, so we’re tempted to provoke a nicer response by providing that person with outright falsities, selective facts, or selective omissions.
Why We Lie to Ourselves
Lying to oneself is a special category of lie. We primarily lie to ourselves for these reasons. Self-deception makes it easier to:
- Lie to others
- Ignore unpleasant facts
- Postpone scary decisions and actions
Since all humans face the temptation to lie to others, and to lie to ourselves, who cares if you lie to yourself as a manager?
Lying to yourself as a manager is especially evil, for two reasons:
- Managers, due to their role, have a unique combination of high power and low accountability.
- Managers are the ones who must confront unpleasant facts, make scary decisions and take action.
High Power and Low Accountability
Managers are unique among all professions, says Henry Mintzberg in his classic Structure in Fives: Designing Effective Organizations, because managers have the broadest and least clearly defined jobs, compared to all other professionals. Managers both define work for those below them, and judge its quality.
This is a potent combination that gives a manager potentially huge power over their own work, the success of the company, and the work experiences of their subordinates.
Power Creates Self-Focus
Experiments show that the more powerful we feel, the less we regard other people’s opinions and feelings. We also (based on the Fundamental Attribution Bias) judge others on their results, but ourselves on our intentions.
Moreover, the powerful are often disconnected from reality.
If we lie to ourselves and then judge ourselves on our supposed intentions, we can give ourselves as managers permission to do things we’d never tolerate in others — anything from dominating meetings, to humiliating subordinates, to theft.
Common Signs of Managers Conducting Harmful Forms of Self-Deception
1. It’s Not That Bad
You’re putting off an uncomfortable change that is necessary. You’re saying things like “it’s not that bad” and “I think it’s getting better…”
2. Judging Yourself on the basis of Motives, Others on Outcomes
This is also called Fundamental Attribution Error, a classic cognitive bias. It is toxic when you as manager pass judgment on your subordinates without bothering to learn the details of a situation; this is worsened when it comes time to interrogate your own decision-making process, and you are unwilling to accept responsibility for failures.
3. Blaming the Worker for the Results of the System
W. Edwards Deming famously said 95% of the variability of a worker’s output was caused by the worker’s system and were totally beyond the worker’s control. When you as a manager blame workers for variation you haven’t investigated, and tell them to “try harder” or “pay more attention”, and so forth, you’re falling into this error. It destroys morale without fixing the problem. Solution: systems thinking.
4. Assuming Low Performance Means Low Motivation
When a worker isn’t performing, never immediately assume it’s connected to a lack of motivation. (For example, Iiagine someone put a gun to your head and told you to jump to the moon. You’re motivated; you just have no way to comply.) This assumption is toxic and distracting: you’re blaming the blameless while NOT focusing on things that could help, such as: training, templates, job aids, a shared definition of “good work,” samples of good work, and a comprehensive understanding of the system of production.
5. All Your Subordinates Are Idiots
This unhelpful managerial attitude is characterized by thoughts like “I can’t delegate” and actions like ignoring all employee ideas. When you treat people like idiots, you rob them of the ability to be anything else. This is on you.
6. You Have All the Answers
Insecurity and power can lead you to get your emotional needs met through being (or feeling) like you have all the answers. If you’ve created or inherited an environment of low emotional safety, workers may be hunkered down into a “tell me what to do” mode that makes you feel like you have to have all the answers. Don’t fall for it. Get out of this by using a structured system like that set forth in the excellent book Turn the Ship Around! by L. David Marquet. (I’ve interviewed David twice: listen here and here.)
7. High Turnover Isn’t My Fault
It’s almost entirely your fault. Gallup found that 68% of voluntary turnover is caused by that person’s direct manager (also known as: you). Look at indirect influences and it rises above 80%.
8. They Won’t Get It Right Unless I Review It
Also known as “They Don’t Care About Quality As Much As I Do” approach. Re-doing someone’s work can rob them of pride in their workmanship. Is the quality standard clear, documented, and buttressed with samples and a step-by-step process for reaching it? That’s another example of the system determining outcomes. Of course you can and should review work — enough to ensure it meets a quality standard that your people are trained and equipped to reach without your redoing it.
Also, the negative expectation that “they won’t get it right” will corrode their self-esteem.
9. My Style Got Me This Far
Your strengths inevitably become your weaknesses, as amply documented in the excellent What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by legendary executive coach Marshall Goldsmith. (This book is itself a compendium of managerial self-delusion, and worthy of a close reading.)
10. I’m Not Them (Management)
Also known as the “My Direct Reports and I Are Friends” approach. No, you’re management. To paraphrase the gurus at www.manager-tools.com (my favorite site for management advice), when you’re management, you are “the company” to your directs. Don’t ever tell your team how you disagree with “those people” above you. You’re them. If you try to build solidarity with your people by throwing your boss or senior management under the bus, all you do is make the team afraid. Your role power as a manager makes you ‘The Man’.
How to Fight Self-Deception
Given these risks to your success as a manager, what can you do? There are actually a number of things, and they include:
- Developing Self-Awareness
- Focusing Less on Goals, More on Prevention
- Becoming a Servant Leader
- Becoming a Systems Thinker
The number one cause of a failed management career is a lack of self-awareness. Develop greater self-awareness through developing mindfulness and by regularly conducting anonymous 360-degree assessments. You could also hire a professional executive coach.
Focus Less on Goals, More on Prevention
Research by Professor Andy Yap shows that if you feel powerful, and are focused on prevention (of harm and loss) instead of ambition, you’re more likely to do the right thing. (On the other hand, the combination of feeling powerful and focusing on personal goals leads to rule-breaking, cheating, and corruption.)
Become a Servant Leader
Excellent guidance abounds for those who are willing to embrace the values of the Servant Leader. Such leaders bring out exceptional performances from their teams, which leads to personal advancement and promotions — not to mention the other benefits of building up others (instead of tearing them down).
Become a Systems Thinker
The ultimate in self-awareness and contextual awareness comes when you realize that you are embedded in a system, and that you are responsible for the system that your subordinates are embedded within. When you become a systems thinker, take ownership of that system, and begin to act on it intentionally, you’ll deliver outstanding results to your boss, and create a motivating and enjoyable work environment for your subordinates.
Featured photo credit: Bury your head in the sand by Sander van der Wel via commons.wikimedia.org