Improve Your Business By Being Brutally Honest With Yourself

“No persons are more frequently wrong than those who will not admit they are wrong.”

François de La Rochefoucauld

It’s much easier to see what others are doing wrong than it is to see our own shortcomings.  This is not a profound insight— it’s a well-known fact. The best business leaders are those who are able to accept and apply this truism, but that doesn’t come easy. It takes a willingness to be brutally honest with yourself and a lot of effort, but the rewards of seeing yourself as others see you are well worth it.

One local executive’s key to success

I was recently contacted by the CEO of a local company who had taken a course in organizational behavior from me, back when I was a college professor. His comments were more than flattering, in that he cited my class as one that continues to be an influence on his approach to management to this day. The fact that his medical supply company is thriving made his compliments all the more meaningful and rewarding.

I think his appreciation stemmed from the fact that I always made it clear that I didn’t consider myself an academic intellectual. I was what I called a “nuts and bolts guy”— an old industrial engineer whose ideas were shaped as much by my prior experience in business as by my studies in college and graduate school. Formal education had been helpful, but my field experience in industry instilled in me the importance of taking an unpretentious approach to dealing with people in work and life.

In any case, his comments indicated that his business really began to take off after he learned (the hard way, as he put it) to realize how he was coming across to his employees and his customers. He was always on the ball with technical knowledge, but his company’s performance took a quantum leap for the better when he realized that he needed to work on himself and improve his social consciousness.

Another local executive’s key to success

Another local CEO, this one in manufacturing, once told me that her ability to scrutinize herself— that is, her ability to see herself as others see her— is crucial to the bottom line in her firm. By “getting outside of herself,” as she puts it, she minimizes her potential for error and is better able to create an atmosphere in which her employees can get the best out of themselves. In an economy in which manufacturing is not doing well, her firm is thriving and has a very bright future. 

Cases such as the two executives cited above are overrepresented among firms that are growing and thriving. At some level, we all know that we need to take good long looks at ourselves, and how we deal with others. With self-centeredness and insensitivity running amok in our society, those who develop their social consciences will always have an edge.

Thinking too highly of ourselves

One of the worst things that has happened to our nation in recent decades has been the proliferation of a social movement that lauds holding ourselves in high esteem as a virtue. Several years ago psychologists Jennifer Crocker and Lora Park published an article titled “The Costly Pursuit of Self Esteem,” in which they reviewed the results of studies on programs designed to encourage people to think highly of themselves. 

More than anything else, the results have been ego inflation, increases in insensitivity to others, bullying, and the unwillingness to accept even constructive criticism. All of the above are disastrous in the business world, but we’re now embedded in a “culture of self” that encourages such nonsense.

Humility is good for business

The two successful CEOs I cited above attribute the growth of their businesses to their willingness to take honest stock of themselves and make corrections as needed. Both find humility to be much more valuable to the bottom lines of their businesses than thinking highly of themselves.

For over 20 years, behavioral scientists who base their thinking on sound research having been warning us about the problems wrought by the “self-esteem movement.”  A little known fact is that this movement did not emerge from the field of psychology.  It can be traced to the writings of feminist Gloria Steinem in her popular book Revolution from Within, released in 1990. Until only recently, humility had always been regarded as much more useful than the exaltation of self— and for very good reasons.

Since none of us is perfect, it’s important to continuously review our own performance as well as our attitudes and then quickly break up any destructive patterns that we find ourselves falling into. Humility enables and encourages us to do so. Obsessing over how wonderful we are does not.

Arrogance at the top destroys businesses

I frequently review case histories of good companies that have gone bad, and continuously find repeated references to “arrogance and rigidity” among top executives as causes of their declines. In arrogance these executives ignored the needs of their employees, offended long term customers, and in the process became their own worst enemies. They soiled their companies’ reputations, lost market share, and their competitors ultimately became the beneficiaries of their destructive personal styles.

At the height of his success, Texas billionaire Ross Perot once remarked that this problem is “as old as history.” Success breeds arrogance, and arrogance is a form of blindness. We’ve all seen the results in companies such as GM, Enron, and countless others.

Scrutinizing yourself

Industrial psychologist James Reason, in his book Human Error, distinguishes between random error and systematic, repetitive patterns of error in business systems. Random error is problematical, but it’s the patterns of repetitive error that most often lead to catastrophic business failures. This typically occurs because of executives who very simply do not face their own personal quirks and get them straightened out. The results are dysfunctional corporate cultures that lead to business decline.

In athletics, the value of self-awareness is very well understood— athletes watch videos of themselves in action, searching for mistakes and ways that they can eliminate them.  Coaches and sports psychologists work with them regarding their attitudes and work ethics. The ability to view yourself from an outside perspective is invaluable regardless of what business you’re in. It’s pretty hard not to improve if you put the ego aside and make improving performance a top priority.

Self-deception:  A route to business decline

One step in the right direction is to accept the fact that as human beings, we’re all prone to error. It’s no fun to face, but it’s really nothing to be ashamed of. It’s when we refuse to apply this principle to ourselves that it becomes a serious problem for the businesses we run. 

The Arbinger Institute, an internationally renowned consulting firm, thrives by working with executives to reduce their propensities for defensiveness. The philosophy responsible for the Institute’s success is encapsulated in its bestseller, Leadership and Self Deception. It’s a worthwhile read for executives of businesses of any size. What the book makes clear is that the ability to rise above the problem of self-deception often requires change on the scale of a religious conversion. 

Assessing yourself honestly

Various techniques are available for maximizing one’s levels of self-awareness relative to one’s potentials for error and oversight in various areas of function. Some of these are ancient and obvious. Others are a little more “high tech,” being derived from psychometric research. A mix of these is what I would recommend. But again, these things are not useful if all one is in search of is flattery.

High tech approaches

On the high tech end, my firm, Redwood Enterprises, partners with a company called “Innermetrix,” headquartered in Tequesta Florida. Innermetrix specializes in tried and true assessment tools such as the Values Index, the Attribute Index, and the DISC Index.  All of the above have been in wide use in business and industry for decades.

Requiring only minutes to complete, these provide valuable feedback for individuals regarding their views of themselves, their workplaces, their decision-making styles, and their motivational driving forces. Having been thoroughly evaluated for their usefulness in work settings, these tools provide feedback regarding personal styles of thinking and problem solving and are very useful to those who are dedicated to improving themselves and their businesses.

Other means of self-assessment

Formal assessments should always be used in concert with old-fashioned means of taking good looks at ourselves. Since the dawn of written history, the best leaders have kept personal journals of their daily activities and reflections upon them. It’s amazing what such simple tools can convey if used diligently. Devoting a little time to reviewing your day and how you handled things helps you identify what you’re like when you’re at your best (and your worst).

Enlisting one or more “accountability partners” or trusted confidants is also invaluable.  Many executives also employ professional consultants or business coaches to help them ask the kinds of questions and face the issues that they may otherwise avoid or overlook. These approaches however, are only useful if those serving as sources of feedback are not fearful of offending those whom they are enlisted to advise. The old 1950s concept of “yes men” in business is passé.

Being the best you can be

Research on factors that predict success shows that attributes such as IQ and technical knowledge are essential, but many executives fail despite being well equipped with these. All other things being equal, it is those who are brutally honest with themselves about everything, including how they deal with others, that are most likely to succeed.  Effective leadership requires a desire and a willingness to get it right, regardless of the immediate consequences for the ego. Deep down, we all know this to be true. The problem is putting this truth to work on a daily basis.