Seeing Ourselves as Others Do


April 18, 2007

by Marshall Goldsmith

In the early ’70’s, as a PhD student at the University of California, Los Angeles, I considered myself to be very hip and cool. In my mind I was a deep person who was focused on meaningful issues such as self-actualization and uncovering profound wisdom. I was convinced that I was above petty faults such as materialism or the need to impress others that seemed to afflict so many “lesser” people.

Fortunately for me, one of my teachers was a truly wise man, Dr. Robert Tannenbaum. Bob was a full professor who had published the most widely distributed article in the history of the Harvard Business Review. I think he invented the term “sensitivity training”. He was an important person in our school.

In Dr. Tannenbaum’s class, we were encouraged to share our views on any topic that we thought was important. I was quite animated in sharing my views concerning the “shallow” people in Los Angeles. For three weeks I performed lively monologues in class on how “screwed up” they were.

New Line of Questioning

I made insightful comments like, “They wear these $78 sequined blue jeans and drive around in gold Rolls Royces.” “They are so plastic and materialistic.” “All they care about is impressing others.” And “They have no understanding of what is deep and what really matters in life.” (It was easy for me to be an expert on the people of Los Angeles. I had, after all, grown up in a small town in Kentucky – and had lived in L.A. for a month!)

After listening to me babble for three weeks, Bob looked at me quizzically and asked, “Marshall, who are you talking to?”

“I am speaking to the group,” I answered.

“Who in the group are you talking to?”

“Well, I am talking to everybody,” I replied, not knowing where he was headed with this line of questioning.

Bob then commented, “I don’t know if you realize this, but each time you have spoken you have looked at only one person. You have addressed your comments toward only one person. And you seem interested in the opinion of only one person. Who is that person?”

“That is interesting. Let me think about it,” I replied. Then (after careful consideration) I said, “You?”

He said, “That’s right, me. There are 12 other people in this room. Why don’t you seem interested in any of them?”

Staying Self-Centered

Now that I had dug myself into a hole, I decided to dig even faster. I said, “You know Dr. Tannenbaum, I think that you can understand the true significance of what I am saying. I think that you can truly understand how ‘screwed-up’ it is to try to run around and impress people all the time. I believe that you have a deeper understanding of what is really important in life.”

Bob looked at me and said, “Marshall, is there any chance that for the last three weeks all you have been trying to do is impress me?”

I was amazed at his obvious lack of insight! “Not at all!” I declared. “I don’t think you have understood one thing I have said! I have been explaining to you how screwed up it is to try to impress other people. I think you have totally missed my point and frankly, I am a little disappointed in your lack of understanding!”

He looked at me, scratched his beard, and concluded, “No. I think I understand.”

I looked around and saw 12 people scratching their faces and I could tell they were thinking, “Yes, we understand.”

I had a deep dislike for Dr. Tannenbaum for six months. I devoted a lot of energy to figuring out his psychological problems and understanding why he was confused. After six months it finally dawned on me that the person with the issue about impressing other people wasn’t him. It wasn’t even the people in Los Angeles. The person with the real issue was me. I finally looked in the mirror and said, “You know, old Dr. Tannenbaum was exactly right.”

Two lessons that I began to learn from this experience were:

1. It is a whole lot easier to see our problems reflected in others than it is to see them in ourselves;

2. Even though we may be able to deny our problems to ourselves, they may be very obvious to the people who are observing us.

Three-Sixty Feedback

As human beings there is almost always a discrepancy between the self we think we are and the self that the rest of the world sees. The lesson that I learned (and that I strive in my professional work to help others understand) is that the rest of the world often has a more accurate perspective than we do. If we can stop, listen, and think about what others are seeing in us, we have a great opportunity.

We can compare the self that we want to be with the self that we are presenting to the rest of the world. In a major corporation we may get 360 degree feedback. If we are on our own, we can still just start by asking people “How can I get better?” We can then begin to make the real changes that are needed to align our stated values with our actual behavior.

I have thought about this story for years. Often when I become self-righteous, preachy, “holier than thou,” or angry about some perceived injustice, I eventually realize that the deeper issue is often not with others. The deeper issue is usually in me.

Lifelong Lessons

Today I have the opportunity to coach top executives in large organizations. I provide them with confidential feedback, which allows them to compare others’ perceptions of their behavior with their own perceptions. I try to help them deal with this feedback in a positive way, learn from it, and (eventually) become a better role model for the desired leadership behavior in their organization. The lesson that I learned from Bob Tannenbaum has not only helped me in my personal life, it has also helped shape the course of my professional life.

Bob Tannenbaum was a wonderful teacher. He is no longer with us – but his insights are still helping me. Thank you, Dr. Tannenbaum.

Ask yourself these questions: What really bothers you about the “rest of the world?” Is there a chance that some of your concerns may be a reflection of your problems, not theirs? How can honest feedback from others help you in aligning your values with your behavior?