Are you in the “sweet spot?”

The March 2016 issue of Harvard Business Review revealed research results that got me thinking about conversations I’ve had lately… and questions emerging in my mind, “Do we hire and promote for the wrong reasons? And does this contribute to problems and ultimately staff departures?”

According to HBR, a recent study found that the most competent undergraduate students underestimate their knowledge and the less competent overrate their knowledge. Sound familiar? Another study found that people in a group that followed someone that projected more confidence, was taller or louder, performed worse than their peer groups. Even after being told the group was on the wrong track, 45% continued listening or deferring to this “leader.” What is going on here? Does this happen in your organization, civic group, or board? Or in politics?

Another study surveyed sales reps and managers to determine who were best at forecasting their revenue. Researchers discovered the most accurate forecasters depend upon both logic and intuition. The least accurate rely overwhelmingly on intuition and obviously don’t bother with logic guided by facts. The salespeople surveyed were asked to rate their confidence in their forecasts. Interestingly the most confident forecasters were as inaccurate as those who expressed little confidence. The best predictors of future revenue were the salespeople and managers that expressed a “middle-of-the-road” confidence – holding to the notion their position is guided by facts while recognizing they might be wrong. It’s been said that exhibiting leadership on tough issues requires holding equally to the possibility that you could be wrong as you could be right.


Olaus Murie (image courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service)

What lessons can we learn here? Do we follow or promote people that are humble or that project certainty? Is there a “sweet spot?” How many find and stay in that spot? Are we more likely to defend ideas expressed by an outspoken, charismatic person or someone that isn’t so certain they’re right? What role has “leader” bias played in appointments to the upper ranks of our organizations? And if this bias is at work in those appointments, what’s the long-term impact?

When I reflect upon the more notable conservation professionals in American history I sense they were in the “sweet spot.” As scientists they maintained a sense of humility that spurred their curiosity and learning. They listened and offered an opinion when asked. They didn’t rise to the top of their organizations. But what if they had? Would they have retained their humility or over time would they have become overconfident?

My purpose here is to surface a tough issue I hear about quite abit in my circles… to try and move the conversation from the individual to the system so we can make progress. I’m curious what you think.


About cognizantfox

Cognizantfox has served his country over twenty-five years doing the unselfish, noble work of conserving America's natural heritage.
Aside | This entry was posted in Adaptive Leadership, Conservation, Leadership, Olaus Murie, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Are you in the “sweet spot?”

  1. discontinuouspermafrost says:

    Self- reflection, and when appropriate self-doubt, is a trait too undervalued in today’s business world. It shows up in national politics to the extreme. A self-reflective president ridiculed for “projecting weakness,” a former president praised for his “decisiveness” leaded us to unwarranted war and a destabilized Middle East, and a current presidential candidate that is capable of no critical self analyst to the point of absurdity.

    • cognizantfox says:

      Thank you for the comment here. Self-reflection and a willingness to doubt one’s competence are characteristics that are likely present in the business world though not as prevalent as we may wish. Are these traits undervalued? I believe there are glimmers of hope. The Harvard Kennedy School of Government provides training in leadership that promotes the idea of humility. And I sense more parents are learning the consequences of sheltering their children from the realities of life – the reality that no one is perfect.

  2. skaclmbr says:

    Interesting. I wonder how this relates to the belief that a willingness to fail is crucial for success? Do those who rate themselves higher than their performance acknowledge their failures, or ignore them?

  3. Jennifer Nguyen says:

    Interesting reading. Makes me think, a lot. Thanks for taking the time to blog. I am excited to read more, learn and grow…and practice interventions with a purpose!

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