There are fewer directors than there are middle managers, and there are fewer C-Suite executives than there are directors. As positions become increasingly scarce at higher levels of a company, more self-interested behaviors tend to emerge.
Even in companies with generally good cultures, pockets of people with zero-sum mindsets chart their path to win against those with growth mindsets who continue to focus on doing the right thing for everyone. In many cases, those guilty of this zero-sum behavior aren’t even consciously aware of it, and even if they are, their behavior is easy to rationalize*.
This is especially true in established companies. Whereas entrepreneurs are typically rewarded for doing right–their survival depends on truth-seeking–few people in large companies have enough impact to actually determine business success or failure. It is hard to attribute business outcomes to an individual person’s actions, and so advancement depends on what kind of story you can tell.
Consider how promotions happen. Just like the squeaky wheel gets the grease, promotions typically go to those most comfortable self-promoting. (In case you don’t believe me, Google “how to ask for a promotion” and see how many articles, books and even full-fledged courses on it pop up). Self-promotion is a valuable skill for anyone, but too often comprises behaviors that make someone awful to work with. It’s rare to see it done in a humble, non-competitive way.
As a result, the people most responsible for others are often, paradoxically, those most interested in themselves. It’s quite ironic, isn’t it? We know that the best leaders view their primary responsibility as serving those they lead, but the easiest path to that leadership seat is through opportunistic self-service.
It is not easy for a company to recognize and weed out self-interested behaviors at scale, especially where many of the most powerful people obtained their positions on the back of these very behaviors. But it is not impossible, nor as complicated as you might think.
Here are a few suggestions to scope out self-interested behavior:
- Introduce randomness into the evaluation & feedback process
To their credit, most companies have made a concerted effort in recent years to introduce more objective ways of evaluating talent. However, the talent management programs I’ve used clearly lack human centricity, designed to be used in theory without considering empirical feedback of how they are actually used in practice.
One system I worked with recently measures how an employee works–their impact on others–in addition to more traditional targets. While excellent in theory, the scheme allows each person to self-select the individuals who give them their how feedback. This means that in practice, even the most self-interested person can build a few tit-for-tat pacts with similar people, and their feedback on the record ends up looking the same as the most unselfish team player.
For this system to work as designed there needs to be an element of randomness, where a person has no idea who’ll be asked for feedback on them. Then, the system would actually create incentive to treat everyone consideration and respect.
- Solicit bi-directional feedback across multiple levels of the organization
This seems rather obvious to me, but is shockingly absent from a lot of talent review programs. I’ve worked in multiple organizations where a group of managers doesn’t have any input into the review of their managing director–the reviews only flow top-down. It should be a given that every people manager’s performance evaluation (up to the top of the org chart) includes inputs from every direct report he or she leads.
- Find a creative way to collect a lot of feedback
Our blind spots are generally bigger than we care to acknowledge, and leaders are no different. The people best placed to evaluate the way someone works are those who work most closely alongside them day in and day out. A savvy organization looking to get culture right will find a way to collect quantity of feedback about people rather that just a few bits of anecdotal evidence.
There isn’t a way to make this kind of process perfect (and I’ll admit I don’t have a ready-made, foolproof solution at the moment), but sufficient quantity should mitigate the risk that certain people unfairly bash a particular peer because of a competitive streak. In this kind of system, you can effectively dismiss isolated pieces of negative feedback, but where there’s smoke there’s fire. If one person has a mountain of negative comments from different peers, you can bet there are some undesirable behaviors on display.
A core part of our human nature adds to the challenge: we are all biased towards those we perceive as being like us. When leaders with the most influence on hiring and promotion decisions attained their position through self-promoting behavior in the first place, similarity bias tends to ensure those behaviors persist. Without an exceptional level of self-awareness, we aren’t usually consciously aware of our own competitive behaviors, so that makes it hard to recognize them as a red flag in evaluating others. So, it’s worth doing some deep-reflection on whether you reward people for being just like you.
*Bonus anecdote on rationalization:
When I first started managing teams, I had a nasty habit of cutting people off. I was so eager to make things 1% better that I completely stepped on my team’s toes. Of course, I had a good reason: I just wanted to help. But when my boss did it to me, I labeled him as an egotistical micromanager.
This is fundamental attribution error in a nutshell: I find a valid justification for my shortcomings, while I look at other people’s shortcomings as a reflection of who they are. We are all susceptible to this. Higher-level leaders may even be more so, because they’ve had a track record of only positive reinforcement.