Free Will and the Success Delusion

Talent Management

July 8, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

A few years ago, the insurance company Unum ran an ad showing a powerful grizzly bear in the middle of a roaring stream with its neck extended to the limit, jaws wide open and teeth flaring. The bear was about to clamp those imposing teeth down on an unsuspecting airborne salmon jumping from the water. The headline read: “You probably feel like the bear. We’d like to suggest you’re the salmon.”

The ad was designed to sell disability insurance, but it struck me as a powerful statement about how all of us in the workplace delude ourselves about our achievements, status and contributions. How many of us are guilty of:

– Overestimating our contribution to a project?

– Taking partial or complete credit for others’ successes?

– Having an elevated opinion of our professional skills and our standing among peers?

– Conveniently ignoring the costly failures and time-consuming dead ends we’ve created?

– Exaggerating our projects’ impact on net profits because we discount the real and hidden costs built into them?

All of these delusions are a direct result of success, not failure. We get positive reinforcement from our past successes, and in a mental leap that’s easy to justify, we think past success is predictive of great things in our futures.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This wacky, delusional belief in our godlike omniscience often instills us with sorely needed confidence. It erases doubt and blinds us to risks and challenges in our work.

If we had a complete grip on reality, seeing every situation we experienced exactly how it is, we wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. After all, the most realistic people in our society frequently are chronically depressed.

But our delusions become a serious liability when we need to change. We sit there with a godlike aura, and when someone tries to make us change, we regard them with unadulterated bafflement. We usually respond in three ways:

1. We think they’re confused — they’re misinformed and don’t know what they’re talking about.

2. It dawns on us that maybe they aren’t confused, but we go into denial mode. Their criticism just doesn’t apply to us because we’re successful the way we are.

3. We attack them. We think, “Why is a smart person like me wasting time listening to what this loser has to say?”

Those are just initial surface responses, the denial mechanisms. Couple them with the positive interpretations successful people assign to their past performance, their ability to influence their success (rather than just being lucky), their optimistic belief that their success will continue and their sense of control over their own destinies, and you have a volatile cocktail of resistance.

Successful people consistently compare themselves favorably to their peers. If you ask successful professionals to rate themselves against their peers — as I have done with more than 50,000 people in my training program — 80 to 85 percent of them will rate themselves in the top 20 percent of their peer group, and 70 percent will put themselves in the top 10 percent.

Doctors might be the most delusional bunch of all. I once told a group of them that my research proved that half of all medical doctors graduated in the bottom half of their classes. Two of the people in the room insisted this was impossible.

Imagine trying to tell people like this that they’re doing something wrong and need to change.

To get them to change boils down to what I have termed the “natural law” of human behavior: People will do something, including changing their actions and attitudes, only if it can be demonstrated that doing so is in their best interests as defined by their own values.

I’m not being cynical or implying the only motive in life is selfishness. Plenty of people perform selfless acts of goodness of their own free will every day, with no obvious quid pro quo.

What I am saying is, when you take free will out of the equation and forces beyond your control are involved, natural law applies.

I’ll describe this principle in greater detail in my next column and explain how it can help us or hold us back.