by CIO Staff

Avoiding Hubris in the Workplace

May 26, 20056 mins

In the spring of 2005, the American public was treated to the spectacle of well muscled baseball players testifying in front of a Congressional committee. Only one former player admitted to using steroids.

In effect, these players took their cue from their commissioner, Bud Selig: He delivered testimony that essentially positioned him and the owners as blind, deaf and dumb to the issue of artificial performance enhancement that was enabling players to rewrite the record books.

The players’ union was even more outrageous; labor leader Donald Fehr said that the issue of testing and subsequent punishment was strictly a matter for collective bargaining, never mind that such substances negatively affect health and welfare of players.

The performance of the commissioner, the union and the players was a classic example of hubris, the total disregard for what others think and belief that you are held unaccountable for your actions.

Guilty as Charged

Hubris is not reserved for baseball. It just seems to find itself in the crosshairs more often. Politicians are notable practitioners; many posture relentlessly, pretending to take the high road when the low road is where they actually travel. Business leaders are equally guilty. When a product launch fails, a marketing campaign sputters or a policy goes down in flames, they cross their arms over their metaphorical chests and refuse to budge. Michael Eisner took hubris to the nth degree when he refused to relinquish his CEO role in the face of a shareholder revolt. True he surrendered the chairmanship, but he remained in charge. Does this mean that politicians, coaches and businesspeople must kow tow to public opinion? No, but as purported leaders they need to listen to criticism.

Hubris is a human failing. The Greeks originated the word and Greek playwrights made liberal use of it in their tragedies. Most of us mortals are guilty of it. And to deny that guilt is an act of hubris in itself. Hubris is a divisive act. When leaders make mistakes they fail to acknowledge yet punish others for similar failing, they are guilty of the “superiority complex.” That is, the rules do not apply to me.

Such highhandedness undermines the moral fabric of an organization. Therefore, we must acknowledge hubris and guard against it. Managers, especially those who have been modeling themselves on CEO types who are guilty of hubris, are particularly vulnerable. Projecting hubris is a sure way to turn off your people, and in the process fail to meet your objectives. And when that happens, you may find yourself looking for another form of employment. The unemployment lines may be the last refuge of those who took hubris one step too far. So here are some things to focus on.

  • Open the door. Managers who fall prey to hubris are often those who are isolated. They manage from behind a desk or from behind closed doors. Often this is a learned behavior. Their bosses did it to them so they do not really try to break the model. As a result they rule like martinets: My rule or no rule. Hubris, yes, but also self defeating. They become prisoners of their own capabilities. They do not invite others to share the responsibilities. And so when things get tough, they act more and more defiant. Not only do they hurt themselves; they hurt their ability to achieve results.
  • Look for alternatives. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger came to governorship of California as the alternative candidate. As an actor, he utilizes his movie star appeal to win over the opposition. He invites people from outside of government to contribute ideas to California’s many crises. At the same time, he has stood down opposing Democrats by appealing directly to the people. He demonstrates that he has an open mind on some issues and is willing to listen. As a result, in his first year of office, California regained some of its equilibrium and the “Governator” maintained public support. Managers who are willing to look to people with differing viewpoints as resources rather than enemies have a better chance of getting things done faster, better, and even more imaginatively.
  • Be humble. Lately politics have caught up with Schwarzenegger. His charm is wearing thin and the people want results, which, given California’s dire state budget constraints, will be tough in coming. A little humility might be in order. In this matter, the example of a previous California governor, Ronald Reagan, might be in order. Reagan had enough self confidence in himself honed by his years as an actor and union leader to learn to work with the opposition as governor and as president. No leader has all the answers, nor should he pretend to. Humility invites people to your side. They want to help you, something every manager from CEO to night shift supervisor needs.
Getting Past the Emotions

The emotion that underscores hubris is pride. And there is nothing wrong with demonstrating pride when it is appropriate. For example, when you achieve a team goal, go ahead and stick out your chest, let out a roar. If you bring a project in on time and under budget, beat your chest. And if you reduce defects to an undetectable level, jump up and down throw your fist into the air. You deserve to be proud, and even brag a bit. That’s also very human. As well as very nurturing to the human spirit.

Defiance is another by product of hubris. When you know you have made the best decision you can, and you are supported by the facts as well as some of your people, it is rightful to stand up and defy the odds. The history of business is a case study of entrepreneurs who defied the odds: from Edison to Gates and Jobs to Dell, no one made it easy on them and they succeeded. However, if their entrepreneurial zeal goes so far that they believe only in themselves and no one else, hubris dominates. And problems occur. Each one of these folks suffered a comeuppance or two but they were able to push past it. In part by acknowledging other points of view.

Too much defiance, egged on by too much pride, leads into the trap of hubris. The sad part of hubris is that you do more than hurt your ability to lead. You handcuff the abilities of your people. You chain them to your ego and so they have no alternative but to follow your lead, even if you may be leading them down a dark path.

Some of the white collar criminals who found themselves doing time did so because of this trap – hubris and following the wrong example at the wrong time. All hubris does not lead to jail but it can lead to negative consequences – missed deadlines, failed projects, and disenchanted and disengaged employees.

When then happens, trust melts away and results evaporate. It is a failure of leadership that might have been avoided if only the leader has listened more or been less bull headed. But then again that’s hubris!