1: “Do you know the concept of proprioception, of how you know where you are and where you’re oriented?” film director Harold Ramis asked.
Harold was reflecting “on the reasons behind the fading career of Chevy Chase, one of the stars of [Harold’s movie] Caddyshack, writes Marshall Goldsmith in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful.
“Chevy lost his sense of proprioception, lost touch with what he was projecting to people, “Harold said. “It’s strange because you couldn’t write Chevy as a character in a novel, because his whole attitude is just superiority: ‘I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not,'”
Losing touch with how and what we are projecting to other people. It happens to all of us. Especially in the workplace, where we spend upwards of 50 percent of our waking hours.
It may just be “one annoying thing” that we do repeatedly on the job, Marshall observes. We don’t realize how this one “small flaw may sabotage our otherwise golden career. And, worse, we do not realize that (a) it’s happening and (b) we can fix it.”
The insurance company UNUM once ran an advertisement with an image of a mighty grizzly bear standing in the middle of a roaring stream. “His neck extended to the limit, jaws wide open, teeth flaring,” Marshall describes. “The bear was about to clamp on to an unsuspecting airborne salmon jumping upstream. The headline read: You probably feel like the bear. We’d like to suggest you’re the salmon.”
The print ad was created to sell disability insurance, but it makes a powerful statement about “how all of us in the workplace delude ourselves about our achievements, our status, and our contributions.”
All too often, we “overestimate our contribution to a project,” Marshall observes. We “take credit, partial or complete, for successes that truly belong to others; have an elevated opinion of our professional skills and our standing among our peers; conveniently ignore the costly failures and time-consuming dead-ends we have created; and exaggerate our projects’ impact on net profits because we discount the real and hidden costs built into them (the costs are someone else’s problems; the success is ours).”
It’s our successes that lead us down this path. “We get positive reinforcement from our past successes,” Marshall writes, “and, in a mental leap that’s easy to justify, we think that our past success is predictive of great things in our future.”
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“This wacky delusional belief in our godlike omniscience instills us with confidence,” he observes. “It erases doubt. It blinds us to the risks and challenges in our work. If we had a complete grip on reality, seeing every situation for exactly what it is, we wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. After all, the most realistic people in our society are the chronically depressed.”
2: But then, we receive some challenging feedback from our boss, a colleague, or a client. We are disoriented and typically react in three predictable ways; Marshall tells us: “First, we think the other party is confused. They’re misinformed and don’t know what they’re talking about. They have us mixed up with someone who truly does need to change, but we are not that person.
“Second, as it dawns on us that maybe the other party is not confused—maybe their information about our perceived shortcomings is accurate—we go into denial mode. The criticism does not apply to us, or else we wouldn’t be so successful.
“Finally, when all else fails, we attack the other party. We discredit the messenger. ‘Why is a smart guy like me,” we think, “listening to a loser like you?'”
The reason we react this way? Cognitive dissonance. One of the most-researched principles in psychology is “the disconnect between what we believe in our minds and what we experience or see in reality,” Marshall writes. “The underlying theory is simple. The more we are committed to believing that something is true, the less likely we are to believe that its opposite is true, even in the face of clear evidence that shows we are wrong.”
Imagine we believe our co-worker Bill is a jerk. We “will filter Bill’s actions through that belief,” Marshall observes. “No matter what Bill does, we’ll see it through a prism that confirms he’s a jerk. Even the times when he’s not a jerk, we’ll interpret it as the exception to the rule that Bill’s a jerk. It may take years of saintly behavior for Bill to overcome your perception.”
The same thought pattern is at work in reverse when we lose touch with how others perceive us. We “have no idea how our behavior is coming across to the people who matter—our bosses, colleagues, subordinates, customers, and clients,” writes Marshall.
We think we have all the answers, but others view us as arrogant. We believe we are adding value by sharing our opinions, but others see us as budding in. We think we are delegating, but others see it as passing off our work. We feel we are letting others think for themselves, but others see it as ignoring them.
3: So, what’s the answer? Feedback, Marshall tells us. As one of the top executive coaches in the world, his job is to “show these people what their colleagues at work really think of them.
“More often than not, they are simple behavioral tics,” he writes, “bad habits that we repeat dozens of times a day in the workplace—which can be cured by (a) pointing them out, (b) showing the havoc they cause among the people surrounding us, and (c) demonstrating that with a slight behavioral tweak we can achieve a much more appealing effect.”
Reflection: How do I typically respond when colleagues give me feedback?
Action: Seek out feedback from a trusted team member. Listen. Express gratitude.