Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Preventing self-deception is about playing hard ball versus soft ball

In various studies scientist have found that all of us practice self-deception.  When asked to rank how well we do our job versus how others do their job, most of the time, we rank our performance as superior to our peers. This known bias is what gave birth to the 360 degree performance feedback system that is used by many organizations.  By using 360 degree feedback (subordinates assessing the positive or negative characteristics of their bosses) the theory is that bosses will often get feedback that tempers their assessment of their own performance and gives them a realistic assessment of their own performance. 

In practice, getting honest feedback and assessing our performance is tricky business.  Even though we have an awareness of our own self-deception, over time it can act as a drug that we are addicted to. We know this drug is bad for us but “it feels so good” it becomes easier and easier feed the beast within; this is especially true as you rise in position and influence. We convince ourselves that everything is great; our department is great, we are great, we control all problems, and we never need help.  We discourage any thoughts or discussions to the contrary and it is not long before our staff learns to suppress bad, and/or controversial news, not offer new ideas, and overall, be less than honest regarding feedback.  “Trouble-free” days become the norm.  This type of management behavior is more common than we would like to believe and it often leads to hiding or ignoring problems. The constant congressional and celebrity indiscretions and subsequent incessant denials and lies that follow are great examples of self-deception.

I wish I had a dollar for every time when I discussed a potential improvement project with a department-head I heard these comments: “The problem was already fixed”, “Our new process will soon take care of that”, and “This issue is a problem caused by another department, not us” Of course, I started the conversation because everyone else in the organization agreed that there was a problem (except those closest to it). 

How do we avoid such self-deception?  Ask the hard questions, not only to your staff but to your peers.  For example: When was the last time you went out of your way to ask the departments you support: “What can I do to help you?”  “What does my department do well and what can we do better – be 100% honest with me”   How about asking your employees a direct question like “What do I do well and not so well?” Do you encourage or stifle employee push-back. I’m talking about constructive push-back versus whining.  For example when an employee indicates that your idea needs more resources or more refinement and they are making thoughtful and valid points that’s constructive push-back versus whining at random with s comment like: “We tried that before and we could not get it to work”.  Don’t make this a “soft-ball” exercise. For example, asking such questions in a by-the-way manner as you pass someone in the hallway – That is rarely the forum to get an honest or thoughtful answer. You need to set some time up and discuss specific metrics and expectations. 

I have worked or consulted in many organizations and I have noticed a strong negative correlation between the practice self-deception and organizational excellence; the greater the self-deception the lower the performance and the greater the hidden cost of inefficiency.  If your organization is going to get to the next performance level maybe it’s time to ask some hard questions.      

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