What’s wrong with this statement? “I behave this way, and I achieve results. Therefore, I must be achieving results because I behave this way.”
Harry was “a brilliant, dedicated executive who consistently made his numbers. He wasn’t just smart. Harry saw things no one else at the company could see. Everybody high and low conceded this. His creative ideas led to groundbreaking new processes and procedures, for which everyone credited him profusely,” writes Marshall Goldsmith in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful.
Everyone agreed Harry had played a central role in turning around his organization.
There was, however, a problem. Harry was a poor listener. Not just a poor listener. “A world-class aggressive non-listener,” Marshall writes. “His colleagues consistently felt that if Harry had made up his mind on a subject, it was useless to express another opinion. This was confirmed up and down the company by feedback I conducted,” Marshall shares. “And it was confirmed at home too, where his wife and kids felt that Harry often did not hear a word they said.”
Marshall is one of the top executive coaches in the world, and he had been brought in to work with Harry to make him more effective.
What was Marshall’s biggest challenge working with Harry? “Harry acknowledged that other people thought he should become a better listener, but. . . had convinced himself that his poor listening actually was a great source of his success.”
Being a bad listener was a good thing, Harry believed.
“Bad ideas were like brain pollution,” he said. “He needed to filter them out, and he wouldn’t pretend to hear out bad ideas simply because it made other people feel better. ‘I don’t suffer fools gladly,’ he said, with a little more pride than patience,” Marshall shares.
If he listened too much, that would “diminish his creative impulses. He would become too unwilling to share his opinions and eventually dry up creatively,” he insisted.
Marshall calls beliefs like Harry’s “superstitions.”
Not me, we say. We “scorn superstitions as silly beliefs of the primitive and uneducated. Deep down inside, we assure ourselves that we’re above these silly notions.
“Not so fast,” Marshall suggests. “To a degree, we’re all superstitious. In many cases, the higher we climb the organizational totem pole, the more superstitious we become.”
Examples of superstitious beliefs include clients who “insist their cruel comments to colleagues are absolutely necessary because their pithy memorable zingers are where their great ideas begin.”
Or “salespeople who think their pushy, belligerent sales tactics with customers are the reason they close more deals than their peers.”
Or “executives who insist their remoteness, their inscrutable silences, their non-accessibility to their direct reports is a controlled, calculated tactic to get people to think for themselves.”
When we are successful, we naturally want to keep doing what we’ve been doing. We tell ourselves our past behavior is the key to future success.
“I did it this way before. Look how far it’s gotten me!” we tell ourselves. “Then there’s the protective shell that successful people develop over time,” writes Marshall, “which whispers to us, ‘You are right. Everyone else is wrong.'”
Once we are in the superstition trap, it’s hard to get out. Being told others hate how we act doesn’t always get our attention. They are wrong, we tell ourselves. They are confused.
As an executive coach, Marshall works to find the “hot button” to push to motivate change. “People only change their ways when what they truly value is threatened,” he writes. “It’s in our nature. It’s the law.”
In Harry’s case, it was “the abhorrent thought that failing to do so meant ceding ground to his arch rival,” Marshall writes. “Not the noblest of motives, but I don’t pass judgment on why people change. I only care that they do.”
Another time Marshall had a client who “was notoriously nasty and sarcastic,” he notes. “He agreed to change because he could see that his two sons were imitating his behavior at home. He didn’t want his legacy to be two sarcastic jerks.”
Our superstitious beliefs are simply due to the confusion of correlation and causality. We tend to “repeat behavior that is followed by positive reinforcement,” Marshall writes. “The more we achieve, the more reinforcement we get.”
We say: “I behave this way, and I achieve results. Therefore, I must be achieving results because I behave this way.” Instead, we need to ask ourselves: “Is this behavior a legitimate reason for my success, or am I kidding myself?”
It’s the difference “between success that happens because of our behavior,” Marshall writes, “and the success that comes in spite of our behavior.”
Reflection: What behaviors are getting in my way? Are parts of my “winning formula” no longer working for me?
Action: Journal about it.