Want to deal with hubris? Start with yourself

posted in: Hubris | 4
An illustration of the concept of hubris

Hubris. Over-confidence. Egomania. We all know companies and departments who have become less effective because one individual conflates their own needs with those of the organisation, while holding everyone else in contempt. They are narcissists who make life unpleasant for all of us normal people. Indeed, hubris is widely seen as a medical condition to be treated by doctors.

But wait a minute: is hubris really so medically pathological? The need for recognition and the striving for status are, in fact, hardwired into human psychology. Mentally healthy people tend to have a slightly inflated view of themselves (it is the clinically depressed who are more likely to view themselves with brutal realism), and thank goodness: we all need a healthy dose of self-confidence.

In fact, you can think of self-confidence as an inflated balloon, deflating in response to the normal minor humiliations of daily life, and then reinflating to return to a normal, healthy size. Problems occur when someone’s self-confidence inflates so much that their ego becomes distended – in other words, the pathological narcissist – but this is very rare. More commonly, hubris occurs in an otherwise kind and reasonable person – that’ll be you or me – when the external regulatory forces of deflation are taken away. This can happen to powerful managers, stars or politicians, but it is just as likely where an individual becomes a recognised expert within a team, company or sector.

Think how you feel when an intern contradicts you on your specialist area. Or when a long-trusted colleagues expresses concern about a particular cherished strategy. Few of us find it easy to embrace challenges to our professional identity – instead, most of us decide that the challenger must be wrong. But if you make that decision on a feeling about your own status, before you have the facts to hand, you are suffering with a – hopefully mild – case of hubris. Some people are more susceptible than others, but almost everyone is at least a bit susceptible. When everyone around you bows, it’s hard not to interpret this as a sign of your own greatness, infallibility, and superiority.

So how can you fix your own hubristic tendencies? There is no antidote, but disciplined self-awareness and self-questioning can go a long way. Are you in a position of power, even to a limited degree? The key is to admit to yourself that you could turn arrogant. When you see someone exhibit clear hubris, think: “This could be me.”

Watch for tell-tale signs: do you feel you are surrounded by imbeciles? Do you get annoyed when people around you do not share your reasonable and competent opinion? When was the last time you had an argument because someone working for you disagreed? Make it a habit to ask yourself whether it could, in fact, be you that is wrong, and always be on the lookout for evidence that this could be the case. View dissenters as key to identifying weaknesses in your opinions and strategy.

You could even agree that your power should be limited. I cannot believe I am saying this, given the number of fights I have with “stupid” committees, but sometimes I have to admit that the challenges raised in the committee improved even my genius proposal. Another good rule of thumb is to stay rooted in the values you had developed before power took hold, such as creativity and equality – the kinds of principles that are tempting to throw overboard for convenience or for avoiding annoying challenges. Finally, try not to beat yourself up too much.

Hubris may be a fantastic ride, but it is dangerous and destructive – both to the egomaniac in question and their team or business – in the long run. Studies have shown that some CEOs overreach in acquisitions because having bought a larger company is a bigger ego trip. Once you feel that you are the only competent person on the planet and everyone around you is an idiot, your decision-making will go haywire. The price will be paid by your organisation, and ultimately it is likely to catch up also with you.

Self-confidence is a virtue – just one best enjoyed in moderation.

Illustration: Damien Weighill

4 Responses

  1. anne judge

    Christoph, excellent advice. Especially to stay rooted in the values you had before you became rich and famous.

  2. Marie Taylor

    Absolutely. I have seen so many leaders lose their personal power by failing to observe their own behaviour and spot increasing narcissistic tendencies. It can creep into a style of management so subtly until it is suddenly front and centre. When this happens, decision taking and rational thinking are almost irretrievable without brave and bold intervention by someone who can point to the observed changes in behaviour.Sometimes- very carefully and very objectively!

  3. Angela Ogier

    This ethos of self-reflection is exactly what I felt was the biggest learning of my MBA at the Judge. Practicing self-reflection in the face of challenge is very valuable. I’m not an expert but a keen practitioner.

    But how do we deal with it at an organisational scale? What about when hubris is embedded within a culture? The self-reflective get submerged or seen as a Cassandra-like figure. Is there any potential for reasoning with hubris at a group-think level? Are such organisations doomed to failure?

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