Allison M. Vaillancourt

Vice President, Organizational Effectiveness at Segal

Stop Flaunting Your Flaws

Full vitae front self awareness

Image: iStock

Socrates, who took the phrase "Know thyself" (off a Greek temple) and ran with it ("The unexamined life is not worth living"), might be disappointed to know that it has taken more than 2,000 years for the importance of self-awareness to become a mainstream concept. But finally, everyone seems to be talking about it — everyone in management positions, anyway, including those of us in campus administration.

It is rare to have a conversation lately about workplace dynamics in academia that does not include discussions about the notion of emotional intelligence and the critical need for self-awareness among those who want to effectively lead or interact with others. Understanding our strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots is increasingly considered essential to good management.

  • Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and author of the 1995 best seller Emotional Intelligence, said in an interview this year that self-aware leaders are more effective and productive: "What we used to think of as crises are now more routine, which means that it’s more important for leaders to manage themselves as well as other people. It’s about taking charge of a situation and not panicking."
  • Supporting that perspective, Erich C. Dierdorff and Robert S. Rubin, both faculty members in management at DePaul University, wrote about self-awareness in an essay for the Harvard Business Review. High levels of self-awareness, they argued, increase team performance, decision making, and conflict management. They noted, however, that most of us are remarkably clueless about how others perceive us: "With no external data, the results of self-knowledge assessments are presumed to be accurate, when instead they may reinforce inaccurate perceptions of ourselves. The net result can be harmful to development and performance and, as we observed, the effectiveness of teams."
  • That phenomenon is explored extensively in Insight, a new book by Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist. According to Eurich, 85 percent of us have a faulty understanding of how we appear to others or how we affect them.

In an effort to improve those numbers, my university is working with formal and informal leaders on our campus to increase their awareness of the strengths moving them forward, and the challenges holding them back. To do that, we are collecting and sharing feedback in multiple ways. For example, we are offering leaders the opportunity to participate in voluntary "360 reviews" — in which a mix of colleagues offer their perspectives on a manager via a survey tool that assesses various leadership competencies. The survey tool contains a narrative section that asks what the leader should start doing, stop doing, do more of, or do less of, to be more effective.

Throughout our university we are encouraging candid conversations, with specific advice about how to be more effective. We are providing both: (a) workshops to give managers the language to offer direct and constructive feedback, and (b) development sessions on how to request and accept feedback. Our philosophy is that evaluations without road maps forward are not helpful, so we must commit to being both honest and constructive. That means pointing out opportunities for improvement, while providing both resources and precise guidance about how to resolve areas of concern.

You would think all of this honesty at my institution — and inside other organizations with which I work — would be paying big dividends. But I am noticing a surprising trend: I see more and more leaders who seem to be embracing negative feedback and almost bragging about their perceived deficits, while continuing to engage in the very behaviors that colleagues have asked them to stop or tone down. Things like:

  • "I know people think I have too much to say" shared one person who tends to go on and on — while, of course, going on and on and on.
  • Another leader recently stated, "Apparently, people consider me dismissive; that’s their opinion," as she proceeded to reject the perspectives of everyone around the table who disagreed with her.
  • One leader who is known for overcommitting and underdelivering commented, "I know I tend to overcommit, but that’s just who I am. I think most people understand that when I say ‘yes,’ my intentions are good."
  • Yet another commented, "People say I’m brusque. I can see that, but I am unusually efficient; and I think that is more important."

I’m curious: When did it become acceptable to embrace the characteristics that others have identified as detrimental to our mutual professional success?

I suspect many of the people who trot out their fatal flaws are attempting to create a defense shield to protect themselves from further criticism: "You will not speak of my fatal flaws because I have mentioned them first and am therefore immune to your potential condemnation." It’s a classic offense-as-defense strategy.

That approach may work for a while but eventually it prompts some pointed questions:

  • "If you know you talk too much, why do you continue to take up all the air time?"
  • "If you know you are considered dismissive, why do you believe it is in your best interest to denounce the perspectives of anyone who thinks differently than you do?"
  • "If you know you overpromise and underdeliver, what makes you think people will continue to take you seriously?"
  • "Why do you assume steamrolling over others is a sustainable strategy?"

It is good to be self-aware. But demonstrating self-awareness, while at the same time showing a lack of discipline to fix issues of concern, is worse than being clueless about our shortcomings. When people close to us offer consistent and considerable feedback about a behavior that is not serving us well, we need to listen up.

Dismissing feedback that does not comport with the way we see ourselves is understandable, but it is not strategic. The most effective people I know sometimes whimper for a bit after receiving constructive criticism, but they quickly put a plan in place to modify the annoying or offending behaviors. By doing so, they demonstrate respect and appreciation for those brave enough to share difficult truths that are offered with the very best intentions. We need our colleagues to help us be better, but they can’t help if we’re not listening.

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