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Why We Self-Handicap?

Self-handicapping is often a habitual, knee-jerk reaction to uncertainty and apprehension. We know it is done to avoid accountability and externalize blame. It can be very effective as an impression management tool, and therefore, continued use is reinforced, but in using it, the leader also avoids consideration of any long-term consequences and often slides down the ERO Spiral. You might think one of the major keys to reversing self-handicapping is the motivation behind the action. Yet we all know changing minds is not easy and does not necessarily mean changing behavior. Look at all the public health campaigns to get us to stop doing something bad—they don’t work very well. Think about the last time you tried to lose weight. Unless we find new ways of doing things, the old eating habits have a magical way of coming back. The reason for this is that habits are not guided by goals, but by situations and are triggered. Failure to change habits does not necessarily indicate poor willpower or weak goals, but instead, the power of situations to trigger responses—we all choose the expedient response under pressure, avoid irritating situations and things we fear, etc. Time is always an issue in business and creates many situations that trigger self-handicapping. Habitual triggers often keep us doing what we have always done, despite our best intentions to act otherwise. Reversing self-handicapping is a search for triggers, not a search of one’s personality for bad motivation or lack of clear goals.

Self-handicapping is usually triggered by three things—expediency (saving time/effort), avoidance, or apprehension. It also emanates from self-deception but that is easier thought of as a result of long-term self-handicapping than a trigger. When in the Box, one is in a cycle—blame begets more blame. These triggers can drive us to use habitual excuse and behavioral handicaps—learned anywhere from childhood on—and are difficult to change without understanding and removing the triggers. When the doing is easier than the thinking, people do. We all work on automatic sometimes and that is a significant driver for self-handicapping. Under time pressure, leaders do what is quick and works without thinking about it (the guy on the roof). Recognizing your self-handicapping triggers and finding different responses to them is an important key to success in eliminating self-handicapping. It is a major part of recognizing and acknowledging your self-handicapping. These triggers are expanded as follows to show the situations that may cause them to appear. As you progress down this scale, the issues become more painful and are more difficult to unlearn to break the binds to self-handicapping.


The leader is on automatic and doesn’t see or acknowledge the behavior or the impact. He:

  • Doesn’t have the time so he chooses what is easy
  • Isn’t interested so he delegates inappropriately or does what requires less time
  • Is on automatic and his mind is elsewhere
  • Is truly doing the only thing he knows but it isn’t the best way


The leader sees and acknowledges the behavior, but is avoiding the impact. He:

  • Is doing habitual behavior and doesn’t see a need to change
  • Is avoiding admitting his lack of competence—low self-efficacy
  • Is using ineffective trait-based (eg, introverted or pessimistic) behaviors
  • Doesn’t know what to do, so he is consciously faking to avoid embarrassment
  • Is consciously trying to not look bad—managing up
  • Is consciously doing things to protect his self-esteem—bragging, exaggerating


The leader sees it, may or may not acknowledge the behavior, but fears the impact. He:

  • Has a legitimate fear of his dysfunctional leaders
  • Is driven by the culture of his team or organization
  • Is doing things that work satisfactorily and fears risking trying something different
  • Is driven by fear of failure—making mistakes
  • Believes he lacks competence—shame


The leader does not see or acknowledge the behavior or the impact—He has suppressed it. He:

  • Is unconsciously doing things to protect his self-esteem
  • Fears losing control
  • Is in a cycle of blame
  • Is doing things because of some unknown fear—possibly from childhood

What is critical in looking through this list is that, in attempting to influence how others view us or how we view ourselves, we can do bad things to ourselves. These situations have very little to do with solving problems, helping others, or furthering the mission of the team or organization. Self-handicappingwhether excuses or self-defeating behavioris not solution building; it is to protect the individual by managing impressions. Each of these examples is about a leader solving an immediate personal problem—not providing leadership. As we explore each self-handicap category in the following chapters, we examine each of these triggers so that you can reflect on what situations may drive your self-handicapping.

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