Are Your Secret Superstitions Holding Back Your Career?


October 7, 2010

by Marshall Goldsmith and Kelly Goldsmith

Walking under a ladder. Breaking a mirror. A black cat darting across your path. So what, right? As a worldly business person, you probably scorn superstitions as silly beliefs of the primitive and uneducated. Deep down inside, you assure yourself, you’re above these antiquated notions.

Not so fast. To a degree, everyone is superstitious. And in many cases, the higher one climbs up the organizational totem pole, the more superstitious one becomes.

Psychologically speaking, superstitious behavior comes from the belief that nonfunctional activity followed by positive reinforcement is actually the cause of that positive reinforcement. Years ago, psychologist B.F. Skinner showed how hungry pigeons may repeat nonfunctional behavior when their twitches and scratches are reinforced by small pellets of grain. From our experience, hungry corporate leaders may also repeat nonfunctional behavior when their behavior is followed by large pellets of money and recognition.

Superstition is merely the confusion of correlation and causality. Any human (in fact, any animal) will tend to repeat behavior that’s followed by positive reinforcement. The more one achieves, the more reinforcement one gets. One of the greatest mistakes of successful leaders is the assumption, “I behave this way, and I am successful. Therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way.”

Almost everyone we meet in our work is successful because of doing a lot right, and almost everyone we meet is successful in spite of some behavior that doesn’t make any sense. One of my greatest challenges is helping leaders avoid the “superstition trap.” This occurs when they confuse because of and in spite of behaviors.

Consider Jim. He was a brilliant, dedicated executive who consistently made his numbers. He wasn’t just smart; his creative ideas led to groundbreaking new procedures. Everyone agreed that he had been instrumental in helping turn around his organization. He sincerely cared about the company, employees, customers, and shareholders. On top of all that, Jim had a great wife. His two kids were enrolled in top colleges. He lived in a beautiful home in a great neighborhood. Overall, life was very good for Jim.

Except for one thing. Jim was a remarkably poor listener. Even though his direct reports and coworkers respected him, they felt that he didn’t listen to them. They were somewhat intimidated by his genius and creativity. At times, they felt that if Jim had made up his mind, it was useless to express another opinion. His wife and kids loved him, but they also felt that he didn’t hear a word they said. If his dog could speak, it would have said the same thing.

We suggested to Jim that he was probably successful because of his talent, hard work, and some good luck. And we also suggested that he was probably successful in spite of being an appallingly bad listener.

Jim acknowledged that other people thought he should become a better listener, but he wasn’t sure that he should change. He had convinced himself that his poor listening actually helped him succeed. Like many high achievers, he wanted to defend his superstitious beliefs. He pointed out that some people present awful ideas and that he shouldn’t just pretend to listen to those stupid suggestions to make them happy. He proudly asserted that he didn’t suffer fools gladly.

When asked whether he really believed that his coworkers and family members were fools, he grimaced and shamefacedly conceded that his comment was stupid. These were people he respected. Upon further reflection, he concluded that perhaps he sometimes acted like a fool.

Jim then went into defensive reaction number two: fear of overcorrection. He expressed concern that he might start listening too much and that the company might not benefit from his creative ideas. Perhaps he would become too unwilling to share his opinions. We pointed out that the danger that a 55-year-old man who had been seen as a bad listener for his entire life would overcorrect and become excessively interested in others’ opinions was extremely remote. We assured him that he could remove this concern from his things-to-worry-about list. Ultimately, he decided it was more productive to hear people out than waste time justifying his own dysfunctional behavior.