You Don’t See What’s Wrong With You, But Everyone Else Does

Why you need to listen to the people around you

The title of this post is a paraphrase of a line from Season 4 of Mad Men where Don Draper listens as his niece tells him the words above, but he doesn’t really hear her. After all, she’s just a college student and a girl, so what could she possibly tell him that he, an accomplished executive, needs to know?

“Who can see your face? Everyone. Who can’t see your face? You.” (Stone & Heen, 2014)

Draper, though he’s fictional, represents real men and women who can become convinced of their own ability to make all the best decisions yet find themselves tripped up by their own expertise, overconfidence, and recent successes. Their brains (and egos) work against them, reinforcing these cognitive biases.

These behaviors have consequences for an entire organization, particularly as they reinforce a ‘lone wolf’ mentality that can block the formation of effective teams. Within the title of this post however, is a powerful antidote to these poisons: inviting and receiving accurate feedback from multiple sources.

Case In Point: Mount Everest, 1996

An immunity to feedback and shared decision making disastrously affected Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, causing not only their own deaths, but the deaths of 13 other climbers on Mount Everest in 1996. Both men were expert high-altitude climbers who had grown confident in their ability to tame the mountain. Hall, whose record of guiding 39 clients to the summit allowed him to charge $65,000 a head to future climbers, allowed him to say, “I will tolerate no dissension up there. My word will be absolute law, beyond appeal.”

Hall’s belief in himself kept him from not only hearing contrary information, it kept him from planning for contingencies, like a devastating blizzard and the lack of ropes at a critical checkpoint. Most of all, his commitment to an imperial view of leadership, coupled with a rigid plan, prevented him from binding the individual climbers into a team that could adapt to new information and make potentially life-saving decisions.

Similarly, Fischer’s reputation for being daring and ambitious caused him to personalize every setback as he took on all the responsibilities for solving logistical problems for the climb, carrying ill members down the mountain, making him unable to see that he was squandering his energy and health before the expedition even began. His inability to register the concern of his closest guides and advisors, paired with a determination to match Hall’s success, set him up for fatal consequences.

Both men gave cursory attention to building shared understanding of the “Two O’Clock Rule” that was designed to get people turned back down the mountain toward the safety of base camp before dark. Hall assured everyone that he would personally take responsibility for turning everyone around at the right time. These two final decisions worked together to create confusion and ultimately, tragedy.

It’s tempting to dismiss the Everest tragedy as an act of hubris played out in an exotic locale that can’t possibly affect an average C-Suite. Certainly, we comfort ourselves as we read the case study, this wouldn’t happen to us because we’re not fool enough to attempt to scale Everest. Safe at sea level, we can convince ourselves that our ambitions have no inherent danger and the way we’ve always done things will serve us in all our future leadership decisions.

But studying leadership with Harvard Professor Monica Higgins has exposed the folly of distancing myself from the case protagonists we’ve spent a semester reading about. From my own forays into leadership, I know that it is as easy for me to fall into the same snares of ego, personalization, rigidity, and inability to delegate as those that plagued Hall and Fischer.

In my experience, the more sophisticated an organization is, the more susceptible its leader is to these traps. Part of that comes from behavioral norms that allow others to gracefully cover their anger and artfully subsume their concerns. This tendency is fed by each persons’ belief that their career prospects depend on what the leader thinks of them, how the leader responds to them, and what networking possibilities exist if they just agree or keep worries quiet. For the leader, this seeming proof his or her own ability to individually solve problems with little or no pushback becomes an exercise in self-inflicted wounds. Because leadership is fraught, it can create insecurities that demand that you are always the smartest person in the room.

For myself, it’s an appealing fiction to believe that I would never be such a person: Only narcissists and bullies are so shaky in their selfhood that they surround themselves with people who echo their words and become mirrors for their vanity. But the Everest case proves that it’s alarmingly easy to believe only the surface of what is in front of you, to listen only to your own voice, and suppress all counter opinions.

Three Takeaways From The Mount Everest Case

  1. Find a system or structure to get accurate feedback about yourself

This can be as simple as using a set of open-ended questions that you schedule on your calendar to share with your team. For example, during my year as National Teacher, I reflected on three questions after every event: What went well? What needs work? I answered these first two by providing evidence to support my responses. The final question: What do I want to do next? kept me focused on the future as well as my own agency to control the only thing I could, which was my attitude and aspirations. These questions became the basis for informal coaching sessions with people I trusted as mentors. Once I became comfortable with self-assessment, it was easier to directly ask those around me to a form of the questions to get their feedback:

What did I do well?

What should I work or focus on?

What advice would you give me about my next steps?

2. A team of people can see what you can’t, so you need their input

The smartest moves I’ve ever made have been those when I’ve worked with a team that’s deliberately cultivated the kind of psychological safety that makes useful feedback possible for me to hear. This is best done with peers with whom you form a voluntary group of what’s commonly known as “critical friends” and whose opinions you value. Because the group knows you and has a sense of your work, they’re better able to reflect what they see and hear in your work and how you show up for it. This can be done with even one person you view as a mentor. It works even better if you’ve done some thinking about the kind of person you want to be and what that person would do and say. You can then use this as a way to ground your inquiry. For example, you might ask questions like:

How am I showing up in this particular task or project?

What am I doing and saying that makes you say that?

3. Expertise can work against you

Just because you understand something it doesn’t mean that others do or that they understand it in the same way you do. This is particularly true in business and education where we often forget that others may not understand the terms we use.

It takes curiosity, openness, vulnerability, and a real belief in the capabilities of others to be the kind of leader who can opt for humility rather than hubris.


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