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This chapter is from the book

The Slippery Slope

Most business leaders feel uncertainty with new or complex tasks; this is common in business. Self-handicapping comes from this uncertainty and can help create a comfort zone in those situations. The early excuses can quickly become habitual because self-handicapping is extremely effective. It helps peers or bosses think the self-handicapper’s problems are caused by some external agent, keeps them from blaming him personally, reduces any sanctions for failure they may impose for failure, and may enhance their attributions of him. It is much easier to self-handicap than expend all the energy needed to determine competencies and then attain them; or to put up the determined fight to solve problems and overcome challenges. In other words, self-handicapping in impression management is easier than learning, growing, and overcoming challenges. We all do it.


But those excuses are the start of a vicious cycle leading to failure of leadership. A leader who routinely self-handicaps does not typically improve the impressions of his boss or peers over time. Even more devastating is that self-handicapping directly leads to poor leadership. First comes the excuse, “I can’t spend all this time to engage my employees; I am too busy.” This may save time, but the reduced effort that follows means the leader is avoiding learning better ways to interact with his employees or fighting through the feelings keeping him from relating to employees on a one-on-one level. His behavior leads to a huge obstacle—disengaged employees. His employees neither own their own work nor the goals of the organization. Customers suffer.

Here is an example of a behavioral handicap. When faced with motivating an employee with the rationale behind a request versus with a demand, leaders often use the demand. It is quick, it works, and it maintains the image of the leader as a tough guy; the problem gets solved, the work gets done, and the leader moves on. The success of his demanding can make those actions habitual over time. But this choice to save effort and reduce interpersonal engagement on the short-term creates an obstacle to effective leadership because the employee is resentful, becomes disengaged, and the issue shows up later in poor work or even sabotage. You can see the pattern—uncertainty, excuses and expedient choices of leadership behavior, positive short-term outcomes from self-handicapping, reduced effort to learn and gain greater competence, obstacles to effective leadership with employees and customers, and ultimately, a bogged down career. We call this the Excuses-Reduced Effort-Obstacles Spiral (ERO Spiral). The ERO Spiral is the hidden slippery slope to poor leadership for many of us. Great leaders stay off this slope. We will tell you how.

For the leader, it is more difficult to face up to and eliminate behavioral than claimed self-handicaps. We have found that leaders immediately see their excuses and confess to them when they understand the self-handicapping process. But admitting to the impact of the self-defeating behavior that results from using the excuses is much more difficult. There are three reasons for this: (1) It is embarrassing to admit to one’s own self-defeating behaviors affecting employees; (2) It is a habit, and we don’t know we are doing it; or (3) It is suppressed and we deny doing it even if confronted with the evidence. When it is pure habit or suppressed, many leaders fail to recognize or admit to its impact on them and others.

We have found that the key for leaders to reverse self-handicapping is to recognize what they do, admit to its impact on others, and then adjust—find and practice alternative behaviors to break these ingrained habitual tendencies. This requires self-reflection and practice. When leaders see the ERO Spiral and how “innocent” excuses lead down a road to disengaged employees and dissatisfied customers, they are often ready to find better ways. The way out is to find what is triggering this behavior; every habit has a trigger. Training and coaching, of course, can have a significant effect, but we think a conversation in the workforce about the process of self-handicapping will accelerate this effect greatly. Our aim is to start this conversation.

Now for the truly hard part—if self-handicapping is done over years to the point where a leader’s style only creates obstacles, it can cause the leader to withdraw into a shell and blame everyone else for his problems and the bad outcomes. If not short-circuited at the excuse or self-defeating behavior level, this “Box of Blame,” as we call it, will be the end result. This is the worst place to try to intervene. By that stage, the leader is using blame consistently as his self-handicap of choice and will resist self-reflection or learning new behaviors. In their book Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box, the Arbinger Institute explores how managers can treat others as objects to help accomplish goals (termed being “in the Box”) as opposed to viewing others as people, with their own hopes and dreams (being “out of the Box”).11 We have extended this concept into the self-handicapping process. When excuses are exhausted and what the leader does is mostly self-defeating, it becomes overwhelming to take total personal accountability and find a way out. There comes a point when it is easiest to throw all blame outward—to the employees, the boss, peers, the company—to avoid the devastating thoughts that you may have failed in your profession. This is when a leader is in the Box of Blame. Great leaders never go there and will not let their employees go there either.

Every leader can choose to honor what is right or betray it—act contrary to what they feel they should do.12 As an example, take us—we are teachers. We get up every day knowing that our job is to help students learn. When we face a difficult situation where a given student or group of students is not learning, we can choose between thinking “What am I doing wrong here?” (honoring our commitment) or, “These students must be stupid” (dishonoring our commitment). When we choose the “stupid” route, we become the victim because the administration gave us students who are stupid and don’t want to learn, we have to work extra hard because we have stupid students, it is unfair because we have to put up with their uncaring behavior, we become smarter because we contrast ourselves with these “stupid” individuals, and more honorable because we keep at it despite these hardships. We think of ourselves as pretty heroic and blame the students and administration for our failure to teach. We blame our colleagues for not thinking as we do. Once this cycle begins, it grows because the students’ and administration’s response to our blame is to create their own Box of Blame and blame us back. Constructive feedback ceases on both sides. But if you step back and look, we put ourselves into the Box of Blame. We chose this route—to inflate others’ faults, our virtue, and blame others because of continued self-handicapping. This is the ultimate self-handicap—the Box of Blame—and even it can be stopped although it is very difficult to do so.

Gerald Piaget tells a story about a man sitting on his roof tearing up newspaper and throwing it off.13 When his neighbor asked him why he was doing such a messy (useless) task, the man on the roof replied that he was keeping the wolves away. Exasperated with the mess, the neighbor exclaimed, “But, there aren’t any wolves around here!” The man on the roof said, “See!” implying that “tearing up the newspaper is working!” The neighbor just walked away shaking his head in disbelief. As far as the man on the roof is concerned, he is doing what he knows brings success—no wolves—and he is keeping all of his neighbors safe. The message in his head is that things are working and there is no need for change. He does not know that the wolf problem was solved a century ago and he could now be doing more productive things with his time. As far as he is concerned tearing up newspaper is not a waste. It is a necessary task. His neighbor thinks he is causing a mess and wasting time but takes the issue no further. He feels sorry for him, walks away, says no more, and avoids him in the future. Employees witness self-handicapping like this daily from their leaders—and often think it is this crazy—not confronting bad employees or playing the blame game. They wish for the day their leader would be “rational.”

One reason a leader may not appear rational in the employees’ eyes, is that his perception follows the same logic as the guy on the roof, and the self-handicapping is facilitated by the fact that the employees or peers watching are unlikely to deliver anything but ambiguous, mildly negative feedback at worst. Employees rarely confront their boss with his self-defeating behavior or the obstacles this causes. Employees don’t see the ERO Spiral that got the manager to that stage; they just see the poor leadership today. The self-handicapping leader, therefore, is likely to perceive that the costs of his behavior are much less than they actually are. Employees know they cannot solve his problems and peers don’t want to be seen as the bad guy confronting him and suffer the repercussions. So, the leader is comfortable, as he goes nowhere. Meanwhile, the employees and the team are not comfortable. The obstacles emanating from a stifled, disengaged workforce have far more impact and importance than a leader saving face or avoiding accountability.

There are solutions. We believe that leaders can stop the excuses (when the self-handicapping conversation is started) and change their behavior to alternatives that are successful—not obstacles—with some self-reflection and effort. When leaders stop placing handicaps on themselves and reduce the negative consequences of that on employees and customers, they have time to move forward, to be humble, and to think about mastering the job of leadership. Exceptional leadership comes from eliminating self-handicapping. That is the focus of the following chapters. Self-handicapping does not have to inevitably lead down the road to failure. We want you to see this book as a reference for when you are uncomfortable—when things aren’t working. It is not the short read on the plane about the ten things that will make you exceptional. This book is about how to do things differently to be an exceptional leader.

John Miller, in his book QBQ: The Question behind the Question, proposes a very easy formula that we use to think about reversing self-handicapping and moving to a quest for mastery of leadership skill.14 Instead of asking “Why me?” or “Why don’t other people do their jobs right?” and using the answers for excuses, one should only ask “What can I do?” and “How can I solve that?” These questions cannot be used as excuses and are the keys to a mastery goal-orientation in leadership. Notice that these questions do not include “Why,” “When,” or “Who.” “Why” questions are about being the victim and avoiding accountability. “Who” questions are about finding a scapegoat. “When” questions are about waiting and procrastination. “What” and “How” questions lead to solutions, add value for the customer, and produce action. They are the questions of a person seeking to reverse self-handicapping and be an exceptional leader. Of course, those words must be coupled with “I,” not “you,” or “we.”

Eliminating self-handicapping is not about changing others; it is about changing you and these questions are where to start. “What?” and “How?” questions are the effective solution to starting to reverse self-handicapping. Even so, leaders must find new ways of operating, practice them, and keep from falling back into old habits. This requires understanding what triggers one’s self-handicapping, acknowledging and admitting to what you do, and asking “What?” and “How?” It may sound elementary, but try it for a day or two and see how hard it is to get out of your habitual impression management behaviors.

Picture trying to get the paper-tearing guy down off his roof. He must first recognize the things he does are self-handicapping and have become self-defeating. Then, he will need to admit the impact of his behavior. It is wasted effort and creates a mess for others. This won’t be easy as he has been in a state self-deception about it for some time. He will then have to adjust—find the things that trigger his habits and learn new behaviors to replace the newspaper tearing. Of course, he will want to make sure that they work before he gives up what he knows. Leaders can’t just stop being pessimistic, they have to learn how to be optimistic, and then be reinforced for optimism (and yes, optimism can be learned).15 Paying attention to the triggers for self-handicapping and the impact of one’s leadership style are a big part of jolting individuals out of their comfort zone and reversing the negative effects of self-handicapping.

Here is an example—many leaders are late to meetings because somewhere along the line, they learned that 12 minutes late is not really late—just like the airlines. If someone says to the leader, “You are always late (even jokingly),” the leader can honor his position and choose to say, “Yes, I am,” and ask himself “What am I really doing?” and “How can I change it?” If these steps occur, he has recognized and acknowledged his self-handicapping. Part of the “what” question here is what is triggering this behavior. He can ask himself “Why did it become habit?” Is it because he is disorganized in arranging his schedule or is it disrespect for the team? If he says, “No, I’m not.” we likely have a case of self-denial (the “Box”) with no acknowledgment, recognition, or admission. It may take lots of people very directly saying, “You are always late” (instead of giving the usual ambiguous, indirect feedback) to get this leader to move toward acknowledging or admitting his behavior.

When the leader admits to the impact his lateness has on himself and others (the disrespect team members feel for their time and retaliation of coming late next time—or not coming), he has started to reverse the self-handicapping. He can then adjust by changing the context that is triggering the habit (morning meetings, meetings directly after lunch, crammed schedule) or finding better ways of operating (plan more time to get to the meeting, schedule them at different times, or let others know that he is running late). He then needs to practice these new ways until they are the new habits. He could even apologize for his past lateness.

Mentally look at your interactions with people. Do you know someone who does not admit to themselves or others that they understand the implications of their actions? Do they neglect to say, “I am sorry?” (or even better, “I am sorry and I won’t do it again.”) Are they in complete self-deception about it all? Or are they trying to find new ways of behaving? As you read this book, you may be like a reformed smoker and not be able to tolerate “the smokers” as you work on self-handicapping. The more you rid yourself of the tendency to shoot yourself in the foot, acknowledge the self-sabotage, and adjust to better ways of dealing with situations, the more you will be able to identify and acknowledge these behaviors in others and see the negative impacts. But remember, if you want to change the world, you have to change yourself first. Telling others what to do rarely is effective. They may not appreciate your advice to stop their “bad” behavior and need to discover this themselves. Forget labeling others, talking behind their backs, or telling them how to change. Become a role model and change them by showing them your exceptional leadership and offering stories about self-handicapping and how you reversed yours. Help us start the conversation.

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