What are the drivers that make senior leaders so prone to believing their own bullshit? There are several psychological factors at play.
The first factor is that we all want people to think that we’re capable and competent. We want to seem as though we have the answers. And we want to appear noble and righteous (which has spawned a whole industry of coaches who preach the virtues of integrity and humility).
This is all well and good. But, if you focus on any single attribute in isolation, you can really miss the point. Is fallibility a good trait for a leader to display? I dunno… maybe? It depends… Fallibility, when coupled with competence, is incredibly powerful. But fallibility, when coupled with incompetence, is disastrous. We all fear at some level that we may be incompetent in certain areas.
Showing the chinks in our armor is really hard. For most of us, admitting that we’re wrong can be quite daunting. You have to be quite strong to be completely comfortable doing that. It’s much easier just to believe your own bullshit and say to yourself, “I’m a high performer. I have all the right leadership attributes”
The second factor comes courtesy of our old friend, the Dunning Kruger Effect. It’s named after the two psychologists who carried out this groundbreaking research a couple of decades ago.
Their 1999 study was titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It”. It’s still my all-time favorite title for a research paper.
The study found that we tend to massively overestimate our own capabilities, performance, and impact and underestimate others. This comes through in people’s self-ratings, on everything from their academic ability to their competence in investing.
A slew of studies since then have found that over 80% of people, and sometimes as high as 93%, consider themselves to be… “above average”.
Statistically, of course, this is impossible. The technical term for this phenomenon is illusory superiority bias. And a leader’s overweight opinion of their own performance and ability leads to them believing their own bullshit.
The third driver of this leadership pathology is the lack of quality feedback. The problems caused by conflict aversion are self-perpetuating. If your boss isn’t comfortable giving you feedback and avoids any sort of clinical critique of what you’re doing, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’re doing everything fine.
You tell yourself that you have no performance issues and that you are indeed a high performer. And no one ever corrects your misconception.
The fourth and final factor in leaders believing their own bullshit is that no one holds them to account for their performance lapses. This can give you a skewed impression of your performance and unless you’re really self-aware and introspective about what you do, it’s an easy trap to fall into.
When things go wrong, excuses often flow up the line and they’re accepted, even when it’s simply a case of the dog eating your homework.
There are a bunch of underlying (but observable) psychological factors in all of us that push us to believe our own bullshit. It takes discipline, self-awareness, and insight to overcome these factors, and rise above the facade.