Talent Assessment Archive

Danger of Humbleness

By Mike Lehr
Wisdom Sun

The Sun doesn’t know how bright it is.

Michelle Held (Twitter), an entrepreneur who helps businesses develop corporate pro-social presences and mentors nonprofit start-ups, prompted this post. She requested elaboration on how people misinterpret others not telling the truth as lying after reading, “Why Employees Lie Even When the Truth is Better.”

The truth is not necessarily clear. It often varies depending upon perspective and talent, thus making it vague and unbelievable many times. Yet, when it’s clear to us and not others, it’s easy for us to view them negatively.

Much of this stems from what I call the downside or danger of humbleness. It’s when we discount our talents so much that we believe it’s easy for others to do, think, understand, see, remember and feel what we do. For instance, Michelle noted that she “once read that people with exceptional memories tend to think others lie” because they don’t understand how others could forget.

Culturally, we’re taught humbleness is a virtue, bragging and showing off frowned upon. As a result, it’s easy to believe our talents commonplace. It just boils down to hard work, nothing special. It becomes easy to say when people can’t:

  • Do what we do, they’re lazy
  • Think what we think, they’re not concentrating
  • Understand what we understand, they’re being obstinate
  • See what we see, they’re dismissing us
  • Remember what we remember, they’re lying
  • Feel what we feel, they’re being mean

I often use the analogy, “the sun doesn’t know how bright it is.” Darkness doesn’t exist for it. All it sees is its own brightness. Thinking our talents commonplace prejudices our assessments of others by forcing them to live in our light, producing exactly what humbleness should avoid: gross exaggeration of our self-view.

They’re not lying. They’re just unable to see truth as we see it.

 

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This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series Psychopaths in Workplace

Psychopath & Sociopath The DifferencesPreviously, I recommended revisiting Emotional Intelligence (EI) as proposed by advocates of Daniel Goleman. That centered on empathy. This is on self-regulation, another of the five components of EI Goleman created. Again, looking at psychopaths relative to self-regulation illustrates legitimacy for revisiting the EI concept.

Imagine a sensitive person born with very intense emotions and another born psychopathic, with far fewer, if any, emotions. The psychopath has little to maintain, little to regulate. It’s much easier for the psychopath to self-regulate than the sensitive person. The psychopath won’t be moody or impulsive. Moreover, if the sensitive person is emotionally empathic, he will not only have to deal with his emotions but those of others (more). In other words, a psychopath could score very high in self-regulation, while the sensitive person very low.

High-EI people aren’t necessarily compassionate, sensitive or emotionally empathetic. They are social adept and persuasive. These require being intelligent about – not sensitive to – emotions (timestamp 0:33). Finally, EI is learnable, meaning bright psychopaths who weren’t born with the troublesome emotions of sensitive people could pick it up more easily. Throw in inconsistent definitions of psychopathy and empathy, and new discoveries about our brain, subconscious and intuition, and calls for upgrading EI are legitimate.

The impact to businesses is approaching EI from an accurate perspective. For instance, EI advocates are fond of saying, “High IQ will get you hired. But EI will get you promoted.” Since EI deals much with managing our relationships, this slogan could just be the intellectualization of “It’s not what you know, but who you know.”

Therefore, while EI might be great for careers, is it great for businesses? Will it foster the diversity and conflict necessary for innovative cultures or foster homogenous and compliant ones dominated by the persuasive?

 

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People prefer One over ManyFrequently, we warn ourselves against falling for the silver bullet. Problem is that it arrives in many forms, including in the form of star players or employees. They are the silver bullet incarnated.

We like to believe sports teams are bastions of optimal talent and team development, frequently citing them as models of excellence and team play. Nevertheless, humans run them and face all the psychological traps that the rest of us do. For example, Derek Thompson cites this finding in “The Savior Fallacy: Over-Betting on Star Players in Sports and Business” (The Atlantic, April 2014 edition) from the National Basketball Association (NBA):

The teams with the top three picks in any given draft are almost twice as likely to never make the playoffs within four years . . .

Translating to business and quoting Rakesh Khurana (“The Curse of the Superstar CEO”), Thompson continues:

Large companies’ fortunes are “varied, highly nuanced, almost frighteningly complex, and certainly beyond the power of even the most charismatic leader.”

To the NBA, Thompson says this means:

Almost every championship team going back three decades had not one but three above-average starters.

In other words, when it comes to developing a team, it’s not about one Great One but many above average ones. We can extend this though; it’s rarely, if ever, about finding the one key idea, person, solution or product. It’s about doing many little things right. That’s why we can anticipate problems if our companies are looking for the One rather than Many in solutions.

Still, we spend a fortune on silver bullets in all its forms, often because it’s simpler. That’s why KISS is for the stupid, so they can justify falling for every new silver bullet that arrives. Free lunches might not exist, but expensive ones abound.

 

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This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Sun Tzu Top 7

1982 Reprint Oxford University Press 1963

1982 Reprint
Oxford University Press 1963

At number two in my top-seven list of Sun Tzu quotes from The Art of War, I have:

And therefore I say: ‘Know the enemy, know yourself; victory will never be endangered. Know the ground, know the weather; your victory will then be total.’

Versions of this quote often include only the first sentence. They ignore the quote’s essence: an integrative, holistic perspective. Sun Tzu describes the oversight as one between victory and total victory. Sports’ count victories whether won by a little or much. Life is quite different; the extent of victory matters greatly. In warfare, it can determine whether enemies fight another day.

In business, we often ignore conditions that favor us. It’s human nature to over attribute success to our own efforts, especially when it’s difficult to measure an outcome’s other aspects.  A poor sailing crew can sail faster than an expert one with the wind behind them. Thus, success often blinds us, preventing us from achieving total victory (defined as solving problems).

An integrated perspective has tremendous consequences on many business problems. It means expanding the scope of our analysis more than we think we need to do. It means assuming the different aspects of the problem are integrated, not segregated. A problem in one area often affects other areas.

Yes, we can solve problems with the first sentence of Sun Tzu’s quote. However, to enjoy complete, perhaps long-term solutions, employing the second sentence is vital. It’s not enough to know simply ourselves and other people. Knowing the situation and the rhythm of events is important too, especially how we integrate with them. This can mean the difference between a band-aid solution and an enduring one, helping us avoid nasty surprises.

So, how do you integrate into your world?

 

Note: Versions of this quote usually appear in the 26th paragraph of the tenth chapter, Terrain.

 

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Dice (Twelve & Two)  [0691] One of the outside factors that tends to cause us to make the fundamental attribution error in assessing talent is randomness . . . or “luck” as it’s commonly known. For example, when an expert predicts an event, especially an unusual one, we tend to credit him with foresight.

In Jerker Denrell’s research though, as reported in the article “’Experts’ Who Beat the Odds Are Probably Just Lucky” (Harvard Business Review, April 2013 edition), it’s probably better that we attribute his success to luck. Denrell goes further by saying that “people who successfully foresee an unusual event tend to be wrong about the future over the long run.”

If a hundred people predict the role of two dice, it’s best to pick seven, the most likely number. However, if we wish to standout, two or twelve are better because few will pick these. Consequently, an expert in the backwaters of his field can suddenly move to the front by taking a chance on a wild prediction. It’s the experts’ version of the Hail Mary pass in football.

Randomness affects us all though, not just experts. This means we need to assess its influence on all jobs. For instance, randomness plays more in sales than it does in accounting; that’s why sales performance is less predictive of talent than accounting performance is.

Simply being aware of our tendency to over attribute will guard us from those who oversell theirs or others’ talents. While “the proof is in the pudding” is fine for making pudding, it doesn’t work in the expanded range of variables influencing business. Our control over the pudding-making process is far greater than our control over business factors. In short, assessing talent is more than just assessing past outcomes. It requires assessing conditions surrounding success.

 

Related reading: 12 Most Important Unspoken Truths about Experts

 

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3 Gold StarsIf we awoke one day with amnesia with life totally scrambled, would we have the same leaders? In his article, “The Turnaround Trap” (The New Yorker, March 25, 2013 edition), James Surowiecki discusses the ouster of Ron Johnson as CEO of J.C. Penney after his very successful stint at Target and finds that psychologists recognize:

. . . “the fundamental attribution error” – our tendency to ignore context and attribute an individual’s success or failure solely to inherent qualities.

Additionally, Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, Boris Groysberg, and Nitin Nohria include in their article “How to Hang On to Your High Potentials” (Harvard Business Review, October 2011 edition) under their heading “Align Development to Strategy” this conclusion:

. . . flexibility is key . . . companies that set rigid goals about the type or number of high potentials, instead of taking a dynamic approach, become complacent and don’t get much out of [high potential] programs.

If strategy is conditional and talent is conditional to strategy, then leadership talent is conditional too. However, we tend to ignore this. That’s why great players on losing teams are unlikely to receive “most valuable player” awards, why future CEO’s strive to lead hot, growing divisions, and why employment candidates from good companies receive preference.

We like to believe we have more control than we do. Attributing success directly to a person gives us comfort, security and certainty, providing clarity without having to integrate life’s fuzzy truths.

Thus, in rising to leadership do not underestimate the power in “being at the right place at the right time.” Surowiecki states this more negatively by concluding with this quote from Warren Buffett:

When a manager with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for poor fundamentals, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.

 

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Identifying creativity isn’t easy, but it is possible and can be done without assessment tools. It begins with identifying outlying answers to our questions. There are differences between people who give standard answers and creative ones, and differences between people who can solve problems and people who are problem solvers.

In other words, when we ask people questions, we should to anticipate their answers. The more different they are from the ones we expect the more creative they might be. Of course, different is necessarily creative. For example, someone gives a different answer to a question, but when we ask, “How did you come to do that?” and they answer along the lines of, “Well, some friends suggested I do that,” the act might be different to us but was not creative to the person.

This technique is similar to polling, meaning we need several questions on divergent topics to use it well. We also need to adjust for cultural and environmental differences. For example, people might give us different answers because their culture is different from ours and we have little experience with theirs. Thus, while their answers might be different from what we expect, our expectations might be too narrow.

On the other hand, their answers can’t be unconnected to our question. For example, if we ask, “How do you normally get to work?” and they answer, “Breakfast,” while it’s different, there isn’t a connection, and we’ll need to ask for one.

Nevertheless, in the end, the more different we find people’s answers are from our expectations and from what we could expect from their situations, the greater their creative potential is. That brings up another point: most people don’t realize how creative they are so they haven’t developed it.

 

Related article: Test Your Creativity: 5 Classic Creative Challenges

 

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My October 13, 2011 post, “Eloquence Trumps Honesty in Trust & Likeability Wars,” discussed how style affects our assessment of talent. Now, in the November 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review, the article, “It’s Not What You Say but How You Say It,” cites the research of Timothy DeGroot’s team from Midwestern State University indicating the attractiveness of leaders’ voices influence our perceptions of their effectiveness.

Again, the challenge is that we often don’t realize this influence is occurring. Moreover, we tend to believe other people are influenced but we aren’t. Combining this with the way labels influence our perceptions of content and how beauty and attractiveness influences us, we begin to see easily how incompetent people can receive promotions especially if they are confident.

In combating this influence, it’s important to begin with two perspectives:

  1. Acknowledge that style influences us (“That includes me!”)
  2. Remain focused on more intrinsic indicators of talents such as process (how a person works, thinks and interacts)

Often, we erroneously focus on results when we don’t factor in extraneously factors such as the team, timing and situation of the person’s experience. Perhaps the person was just along for the ride. Culture, processes and tools can also affect outcomes. When we fail to account for these, we tend fall into the trap of believing people are “winners” if they come from “winning organizations.”

In the final analysis, what makes assessing talent difficult is not the intrinsic analysis of it but rather being able to do so while trying to navigate the murky cloud of our own perceptions and biases. Many forces intuitively influence us on a subconscious level to stir up this mud.

 

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Classical business literature emphasizes focus: set goals, plan, and then focus on execution. However, it’s relatively void of focus’ downside: obliviousness to peripheral threats and opportunities.

In the mid-1900’s, when conditions didn’t change as dynamically as today’s, extensive research, planning and focus worked. Today, most research is outdated upon completion. Consequently, situational awareness (SA) becomes more important as part of an adaptive business strategy.

SA is the degree to which a person or company can be aware of surrounding conditions while focused on a task or plan. Ironically, SA came of age with aerial combat; you need to know where you are in the sky while focused on engaging enemy aircraft. If not, you could crash your plane from flying too low or from enemy fire simply because you were oblivious to those factors.

Context strongly influences our planning; however, if conditions forming that context are dynamically changing, that means our plan – the object of our focus – might become invalid by new threats and opportunities, and our focus and poor SA might cause us to overlook them. Psychological influences such as anchoring and optimistic planning will create additional pressures to keep us focused and ignorant.

These will also influence our assessment of talent by tending to make it too static and historical. Rather than basing it on people’s potential within new conditions, we will tend to base it on performances under old conditions. We will tend to believe that successes and failures transfer rather than assess actual skills and actual aptitudes within a new set of actual conditions. More simply, this is pigeonholing.

Technology and the internet strongly influence today’s dynamic conditions. Our focus shouldn’t blind us. SA will help us see the many threats, opportunities and talents that will influence our success.

 

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Intuitive approaches often work because we don’t believe they do. Advertising is an excellent example: it influences us because we often believe it doesn’t.

This extends to our complaints about politicians not answering the question. Todd Rogers and Michael I. Norton researched this and were asked to “Defend Your Research” in “People Often Trust Eloquence More Than Honesty” appearing in the November 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review. They found:

People who dodge questions artfully are liked and trusted more than people who respond to questions truthfully but with less polish.

In fact, when answerers perform the dodge effectively, less than half of the people could remember the question accurately. The key rests in the answer’s first ten words by disrupting the cognitive link we have for the question and expected answer. In everyday life, we like to complain about the fast-talking salesperson; however, on a higher level, fast-talking becomes eloquence. It’s here that we increasingly trust and like eloquence more than honesty.

Even though I promote the practical understanding and application of intuition in business on this blog, people can use intuitive approaches for ill or good. For instance, my guest 12 Most post, lists ways to influence people intuitively to build morale; however, people can use these techniques for questionable purposes too.

How do we defend ourselves? There are two broad introductory ways:

  1. Realize people can influence us intuitively and subconsciously even if we believe they can’t
  2. Raise our awareness regarding intuitive approaches

In this way, we can begin accounting for these natural biases in our decision-making and actions. However, believing others can influence us without our knowledge is scary for many of us, especially if we believe in the supremacy of the conscious mind and free will.

 

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