Hubris can sabotage your career. Here’s how to avoid it
Unrestrained pride in your abilities or achievements can lead to shame, humiliation, and—without correction—disaster.
Excessive pride can sabotage your career. But unfortunately many of us experience a similar pattern: First we are strivers, then we are achievers, and then hubris takes hold.
I’ve experienced this pattern more often than I care to admit. Maybe you have, too.
Power and success are tricky to manage. We’re all prone to hubris. The trick, especially at work, is recognizing hubris and adjusting our behavior before it causes damage. Hubris has a stealthy way of warping our self-awareness when we need it most. And in the office, hubris can damage our relationships, limit collaboration, and hinder learning. Ultimately, being humble will always garner the most positive response.
Here’s why hubris is so common, and how to avoid it:
THE DANGER OF HUBRIS
When I think about hubris, I often think about a life-changing moment I had during a driving lesson on a local track. Among the four of us in the car (an instructor and two fellow students), I was the third to take the wheel. Eager to do my best, I followed the instructor’s directions. I didn’t want to look like an idiot.
I gripped the wheel and zeroed in on the track, the car, and the dynamics in play.
After the first couple of turns, our instructor praised my technique. I felt myself relax as I guided us with a surge of confidence into the next bend. I realized just a bit too late that I was going too fast. The car, destabilized by a slight lift in the track, lost traction, started to slide sideways, and then, entirely out of my control, spun off the track and came to rest in a cloud of dust.
A moment of quiet followed. We all breathed a sigh of relief as the dust settled. Our instructor turned to me and said: “My compliments went right to your head.”
In seconds, I had gone from striving to achieving to being overconfident. In the end, I put us all at risk.
WHAT IS HUBRIS?
Hubris is a word that describes unrestrained pride in your abilities or achievements, leading to shame, humiliation, and—without correction—disaster. It is a word that captures why so many successful leaders sabotage their careers, and it also describes what I experienced on the track that day.
Just like when the instructor’s praise went to my head, success can warp our understanding of what is required for continued success, particularly for a leader.
Success without hearing the insights critical feedback can provide us is dangerous, especially at work. Without critical feedback, anyone in a management role at any level can become hubristic, not realizing their limitations and weaknesses. We may be well-intentioned, but it’s far too easy to simply not be aware of our own blind spots.
So how can you tell when confidence is approaching hubris? Here are some signs I’ve seen in myself and others in the workplace:
1. You refrain from talking with your customers.
I had a colleague once tell me that he actively avoids his clients. He said, “I’m really terrible in those client meetings. My time is way better spent thinking strategically about my own business.” Avoiding what your clients think puts you in a hubristic danger zone. The simple fact is that being in touch with clients allows you to solve problems when they are small enough to handle easily. Clients can help us see opportunities for improvement that only they can alert us to. Thinking we’re too important to spend the time to talk with clients is a warning sign that success is leading us to hubris.
2. You blame others.
If “Whose fault is it?” is the first question you ask colleagues when something goes wrong, you may be experiencing hubris. Not seeing issues as an opportunity to improve is a mistake. Blaming others rather than taking accountability is not only horribly damaging but it also indicates that you are blind to underlying problems.
3. You get defensive.
If you feel yourself getting defensive during the slightest challenge from staff or partners, you may be experiencing hubris. This may feel like the need to circle the wagons when you perceive any threat. The protective feeling of safety that success often provides can get in the way of self-examination. But keep in mind: We all have to reflect on our work and potential shortcomings to get better at anything.
4. Your team is scared to disagree with you.
If your team always agrees with you, you may have created a problem-avoidance culture in which people do not feel safe enough to disagree with you. Perhaps you’ve marginalized or, worse, fired those who’ve dared to disagree. Having a team that’s afraid to call it like they see it is a significant sign of hubris among leadership.
5. You make all final decisions.
Yes, making decisions with a big committee can be slow and cumbersome. And yes, you may be capable of making decisions on your own. However, not seeking insights from those you work with is a warning sign of hubris. Asking for others’ advice when making decisions is a sign of strength, not weakness.
6. You always have lunch with the same people.
Fraternizing with only a few peers can separate you from coworkers who might be able to help you, your career, and the organization. I must confess: I used to only have lunch with the same people. I remember doing it deliberately to avoid the discomfort of meeting new people as well as the potential that others might make suggestions about my work. It was a comforting habit that didn’t help me grow and improve. I wasted opportunities to learn from others.
7. Your goals are unreasonable.
Big, audacious goals are often motivating. The idea is to reach for the stars, think big, and go for it. This can be positive and can help you get out of the day-to-day thinking and into “what’s possible” thinking. However, problems arise when the audacious goals become ridiculous, and your staff isn’t willing to tell you it’s ridiculous. Setting goals that are unreasonable is one of the biggest signs of hubris.
HOW TO AVOID HUBRIS
Fortunately, there are many ways to avoid hubris. One of the best ways is to be open to others’ questions and criticism. Successful leaders listen deeply to critical feedback. This is often called active listening. It means really listening, not just waiting for your turn to speak. Focus your full attention on what is being said. Concentrate, and make sure you can remember the main points. Try to not be defensive.
Active listening can feel completely unnatural. It sure did to me when I first tried it. I felt the discomfort that shame rising in me always brings. I desperately wanted to defend myself. And I felt helpless knowing it was wrong to defend against the critique. But taking in the criticism without defending myself helped me understand the negative aspects of my management style and prompted me to change.
The next step is to ask questions. The purpose of asking is to gain a deeper understanding of the criticism. The goal isn’t to find flaws in the critique but to fully digest it. Try to understand that the person giving you feedback is helping you improve and perhaps feeling vulnerable themselves. For me, note-taking keeps me from blocking out things I’d really rather not hear. Taking notes while getting critical feedback helped me retain the crucial points.
Once your team knows you listen and respond to critical feedback and once they see you learning and improving, they will be encouraged to bring up issues without fear. Encouraging your team to speak up will be more effective when they know it’s safe to bring up uncomfortable issues. Once they feel safe, they will be more willing to tell you what they really think, rather than what they think you want to hear.
Ultimately, anyone can avoid hubris by listening to critical feedback and responding with positive action.