How often have we heard colleagues explain the defensive, aggressive, or self-aggrandizing behavior of others with the observation that he or she is “really insecure”. That is, any expression of self-assurance they assert is mere pretense, the surface display of behavior meant to convey confidence is actually false, a cover for a lack of confidence. Like you perhaps, I believe there is often a good deal of practical wisdom in these insights. In fact, I believe there’s even more to this phenomenon.
In my experience, what we notice intuitively as false in others, may, upon reflection, suggest important truths about the nature of genuine security and confidence, and how it differs from the fake version. As we examine the fuller meaning of these false behaviors, a funny thing happens. Our feelings of annoyance and offense at the person exhibiting them calm a bit. For now, we are seeing them as someone afflicted and controlled by something that does not make them strong at all.
Let me explain briefly.
None of Us Are Perfect
Genuine feelings of security and confidence can be rather abiding qualities of a person, and still we can see those possessing these qualities act out of character with them under conditions of fatigue and stress. If we’ve known anyone for any length of time whose qualities of leadership include confidence, we have witnessed this. True dispositional tendencies of this kind, qualities that underlie and explain resilience and perseverance, and that earn a positive reputation and loyal relationships are not perfectly stable.
Indeed, what distinguishes true confidence from its false expression is precisely the willingness to reveal one’s lack of full confidence in the moments when it has been shaken. We with dispositional tendencies toward confidence feel less need to pretend. Notice that I say “less” need. The truly confident and secure to believe that perfection is not a necessary condition for earning and maintaining the affection and respect of others. And it’s certainly not necessary for success.
Now you can see why perfectionism in an individual, or as an attitude in a work group or team, can be toxic. It actually undercuts our adaptive capacity to perform by inducing intense anxiety and rigid standards that are not always linked to the real requirements of the situation, which often change.
But does this anti-perfectionism attitude put us at risk of being overly tolerant of imperfections, irregularities, errors? Worse yet, might it induce a lack of conscientiousness? Important question.
None of Us Are Off the Hook
As managers and leaders, we are both responsible and accountable[i] for performance, our own and that of those we lead. Of course, in this imperfect world, we will never have all the information we might need to determine once and for all the requirements of performance. Nor do have perfect access to the inner experience of others to know the thought and effort that guide their performance.
Therefore, as leaders, there is always the duty to learn, observe, validate our perceptions of those we lead in order to act with good judgment in holding them accountable. When we assert our own best efforts and supervise responsibly the efforts of others, we are best able to hold ourselves and others accountable.
In the course of doing so, we have opportunities to demonstrate true confidence, grounded in a genuine (if imperfect) sense of security in who we are, and an accurate appraisal of what others are doing, capable of doing, and, with our encouragement, what they are capable of doing even better. Acting from this insight and ethic, our imperfections in action are fewer, smaller, and our resilience is much greater.
As is true in so many phases of life, there is a paradoxical truth in evidence here: The harder we try to conceal the truth of our experience and our own fallibility, the less able we are of realizing our most perfect abilities to contribute.
[i] I have elsewhere offered a definition of these terms in an article on Responsible Leadership. The upshot of that definition is that responsibility signifies a self-imposed, value-based standard that defines one's duty autonomously, e.g., a work ethic. Accountability, on the other hand, concerns what others have reason to expect of us, and what we owe to them as specified in the definition of our role and the demands of the organization’s management.
As always, we're happy to discuss any questions you may have about how the topic in this blog might be relevant to you and others in your organization, and your ways of being helpful to them. Contact me by phone at 401.885.1631 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.