“So what do you think?” Jeff asks after he finishes his presentation. A stifled cough and the rustle of fabric as people shift in their chairs are the only answers. No one asks any questions, no one offers any criticism. Everyone gazes at inanimate objects, seemingly afraid the slightest glance will be too much for him to handle. Awkward moments like these are all too common—we have all sat through these uncomfortable silences. We may chalk our hesitancy up to politeness—after all, Jeff did put an awful lot of work into that presentation. But the real reason we stay mum may have more to do with our own delusions of grandeur than good intentions.
“Many people are very reluctant to give their peers any kind of negative feedback,” says Leigh Thompson, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management. “It’s not because they don’t know how or they’re at a loss for words. And it’s not because people are threatened by us. It’s because people actually think that someone’s going to be totally shattered.” And while we tend to assume the worst in others, we often believe our own feelings to be hardened against such criticism, she adds. Thompson and her co-author, Tanya Menon, an associate professor at the University of Chicago, call this feeling of emotional invincibility “threat immunity,” where we mistakenly believe that we are less vulnerable than other people to the threats posed by others’ skills, talents, and achievements, causing us to sugar-coat our feedback or dumb ourselves down. Thompson and Menon show in their research that playing overly nice may undermine many of our relationships, contrary to popular wisdom.
Withholding criticism creates “a really negative organizational dynamic,” Thompson says. Many organizations are probably full of people brimming with relevant feedback, she adds, but are reluctant to dish it out. Managers, for example, may feel they need to censor their own opinions to foster a collegial atmosphere, Thompson and Menon point out, but in the process they weaken their organizations by failing to champion good ideas.
To probe the many facets of status competition within organizations, Thompson and Menon devised four experiments. In the first experiment, they asked participants—all MBA students—to recall situations where they believed they either threatened someone else or felt threatened themselves. The participants then recorded how often this had happened and how threatened they either felt or imagined the other person to be. Perhaps unsurprisingly, managers believed themselves to be far more threatening than vulnerable. And as a result of this flawed assumption, managers dumbed themselves down, minimizing their own strengths when dealing with someone they believed they threatened.
Thompson and Menon also asked another group of participants to remember similar situations, but added an extra layer of evaluation—they asked participants to assess other group members’ interactions in addition to their own experiences. This time around, the participants reported they threatened others as much as others threatened them. But in a twist, individuals felt themselves to be uniquely immune to others’ threats. In other words, sticks and stones may break my bones, but your talents and skills will never scare me (while mine scare the bejesus out of you).
The third experiment acted out a series of interactions where employees needed to convince a boss they deserved responsibility for a project. Thompson and Menon paired participants based on each individual’s strengths and weaknesses as reported by the Myers-Briggs test, a personality inventory that MBAs hold in high regard, thus lending validity to the experimental setup. Thompson and Menon set up two general situations—one where neither participant knew of a potentially threatening match-up and another where one person was informed of the match-up and the other was not. In the latter scenario, the researchers devised two different conditions—one with a “threatening” employee and another with a “threatened” boss, where, for example, the threatening employee was informed that his or her strengths matched the boss’s weaknesses.
Employees who thought themselves to be threatening were more likely to assume they intimidated their bosses, but bosses whose weaknesses were matched to an employee’s strengths were hesitant to admit feeling threatened. Furthermore, bosses who felt threatened by a consciously threatening employee were dissatisfied with both the interaction and the fictional project’s management structure. So although the Myers-Briggs test has no real scientific validity, the mere idea of dealing with a threatening person upset these relationships. “If everyone has this faulty belief that they’re threatening to others,” Thompson says, “then they’re going around much like the people who saw the emperor with no clothes—no one is saying anything and even the simplest conversations are unrewarding and uncomfortable.”
“It’s Not All About You”
Thompson and Menon’s last experiment—what Thompson calls the “it’s not all about you” experiment—looks at how these negative interactions can be short-circuited. The researchers took cues from the New Age self-help movement, asking one group of participants to think positive thoughts about themselves. The other group was told to reflect on the other participants’ better qualities. While self-affirmation can boost self-confidence, as many gurus extol, it can wreak havoc on group dynamics. “Self-affirmation actually made things a lot worse,” Thompson says.
“If people will get out of their own heads and stop thinking about themselves, and if they think about their colleagues and all the great things their colleagues have done, that’s going to reduce this faulty threat immunity,” Thompson says. “If I can put myself in your position and allow myself to appreciate you, that is the best antidote.”
For all its seemingly detrimental qualities, threat immunity plays a very substantial role in our psychological health. “There’s a lot of psychological research indicating that the tendency to view yourself in a favorable light is…more than instinctive. It’s adaptive in a lot of ways,” Thompson points out. “It may be that tendency that makes most of us avoid clinical states like depression.”
Though sinking into depression clearly is not the way to ease workplace tensions, dropping our Napoleonic visions should lead to more normal interactions and could foster a more collaborative environment, Thompson says. “That’s exactly what organizations need.”