Very Superstitious

Talent Management

November 12, 2007

by Marshall Goldsmith

Success can make us superstitious in how we behave. Specifically, four beliefs – that we have the skills, the confidence, the motivation and the choice to succeed – lead us to this mindset.

Some of you are probably thinking, “No way! I’m not superstitious. I know exactly why I’m successful: because I earned it.”

Fair enough. And it’s probably safe to assume most of you don’t subscribe to “childish” superstitions such as misfortune from walking under a ladder, breaking a mirror or seeing a black cat cross your path. In fact, you more than likely scorn these beliefs as primitive and irrational and assure yourself that you’re above these silly notions.

But let’s re-examine the notion of superstition. Psychologically speaking, superstitious behavior stems from the idea that a specific activity culminating in a positive result is the basis for that outcome, that cause-and-effect is immutable.

The action might or might not be functional (that is, it might affect someone or something else, or it might be self-contained and wholly irrelevant), but if something good follows, then we automatically attribute it to that particular behavior and repeat it for similar results.

Psychologist B.F. Skinner was among the first to highlight this inanity. In his experiments, a group of hungry pigeons was fed small pellets of grain after they twitched in a certain way. They learned to repeat the twitches because they thought this action led to food.

But outside this contrived situation, that twitching motion had nothing to do with getting fed – if your average pigeon on the street instinctually thought that food would just appear if it simply twitched a little, it would starve.

Sounds silly, doesn’t it? We would never behave that way. We assure ourselves that we’re more highly evolved than Skinner’s pigeons.

But from my experience, “hungry” businesspeople who are climbing the corporate ladder repeat certain behaviors all the time because they think it automatically will lead to money, recognition and promotion.

Superstition is merely the confusion of correlation and causality. Any human or animal tends to repeat any behavior that is followed by positive reinforcement (and avoid all actions that are followed by negative reinforcement).

One of the greatest mistakes people make, then, is the assumption, “I behave this way and achieve results. Therefore, I must be achieving results because I behave this way.”

This belief is sometimes true but not across the board. That’s where superstition kicks in. It’s the core fallacy that necessitated my most recent book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. (See? It’s right there in the title.)

Almost everyone I meet is successful because of doing many things right, and almost everyone I meet is successful in spite of some behavior that defies common sense. Of course, that’s the human condition – nobody’s perfect.

One of my greatest challenges is helping leaders in organizations see the difference, understand that they’re confusing “because of” and “in spite of” behaviors and avoid this superstition trap.

I’ve worked with innovators who insisted their cruel comments to colleagues were absolutely necessary because those pithy, memorable zingers led to some of their best ideas. Then, I ask them if they’ve ever met a nice person who’s as creative as they are. That gets them thinking!

I’ve worked with salespeople who think their pushy, almost belligerent tactics with customers close more deals. But if that’s true, I point out, then how do your friendlier co-workers manage to sell anything? Could your success be attributed to the fact that you’re selling a great product or making more sales calls?

I’ve worked with executives who think their remote aloofness with direct reports is a controlled, calculated strategy to get people to think for themselves. I concede that fostering initiative among employees is the leader’s job, but is this detached disposition legitimately designed to establish independence, or are you justifying it after the fact because that’s who you are and you refuse to change? And where will you be if they’ve done all this thinking for themselves and something goes horribly wrong as a result? You’ll be accountable, and you certainly won’t be able to use your impassiveness as an excuse.