Leadership May 1, 2010

Get Over Yourself

Why we think we’re forces to be reck­oned with

Based on the research of

Tanya Menon

Leigh Thompson

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.

Threat Recall
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.”

Featured Faculty

Leigh Thompson

J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolution & Organizations, Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Tim De Chant was science writer and editor of Kellogg Insight between 2009 and 2012.

About the Research

Menon, Tanya and Leigh Thompson. 2007. Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful: Self-Enhancing Biases in Threat Appraisal. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 104(1): 45-60.

Read the original

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