We all deal with insufferable people at work. Maybe the worst of the bunch is the person who has no problem telling you how great they are. There is a certain level of arrogance and dishonesty in these people that I'll probably never understand. It's even more difficult when those people are in charge. The truth of the matter is that about 2/3 of the people you interact with at work are mediocre at their job, half of them are below average, and over 15% of them are really bad.
Take a moment and think about your feed on Instagram. It's filled with the highlights of people's lives, the things they want to brag about. Despite what some people think, our timeline doesn't accurately reflect the reality of the people we follow. You probably won't see a picture of your nephew's math test that he got a failing grade on, you won't see a video of your cousin yelling at her kids in the grocery store for misbehaving, and you definitely won't see a photo of the meatloaf your college roommate burned. Unfortunately, this type of behavior is more common all around us and this desire to boast and brag is destroying traits like honesty, humility, and self-awareness in our society. But how did this happen?
In the social media example, they have created a simple yet powerful form of immediate positive reinforcement: the "like". These likes are quite literally shots of dopamine to the system. Share your highlights and you get immediate positive reinforcement. The frustrating thing is that this behavior has been learned so deeply that it has spilled over into other key areas of daily life and it's especially prevalent in the workplace.
So why do so many people walk around with such a high level of self-confidence? And why are so many of those people often in positions of power at work? One reason is that arrogance is rewarded at work.
Here is a real-life example of what I mean:
Two people are up for a promotion. One, Tim, constantly walks around and boasts to colleagues about his work and accomplishments. When his manager asks how things are going, he blames his failures on others and takes credit for the success. He rarely seeks the input of others. He often sends out team-wide emails announcing progress he is making. The other, Bob, tends to keep to himself about his accomplishments and progress at work. When his manager asks how things are going, he will talk about struggles, challenges, and obstacles and seek advice from colleagues who have experience with the challenges he faces.
Tim very well may end up getting that promotion and be rewarded for his arrogance because of the perception of Tim and Bob based on limited interactions. Since Tim is always talking about how well he is doing, this becomes the perception. This is not only encouraging him to be more insufferable as he is elevated at work, but it also encourages others to imitate Tim’s behavior.
A lot of managers enable this type of behavior without realizing it. As an example, Tim tells his manager about a breakthrough in the project he is working on and the manager then publicly praises Tim for his efforts. The manager thinks he is encouraging a member of the team. In reality, he is encouraging Tim to be more boastful and showing the rest of the team that if you want public recognition you have to brag to the manager. The reason this happens is that, quite frankly, some managers are just plain lazy. They take anecdotal evidence from a single source rather than forming their opinions based on multiple data points and their own experiences. Weak managers make decisions based on perception; how they perceive things to be and how they are perceived by their colleagues, team, and management.
This is why emotional intelligence is so important. To someone with low EQ, Tim is a much better performer because they always hear about his accomplishments, either from him or a colleague, or a manager. They see emails about his accomplishments, but they don’t see emails about the work Bob does. They see Bob as either poor or average because they don't hear much about his work. At some point in the past, Bob has asked them for input or advice, and they attribute asking for help as a weakness or a sign of incompetence.
We all want our managers to like us. To a varying degree in different organizations, they hold the power to change our lives in positive and negative ways, including the possibility of removing us from the organization altogether. For that reason, we are afraid to talk about challenges or struggles with our manager. We are afraid that we will be perceived as weak or high maintenance or difficult. We would rather spend time telling our manager about our value to the business and the success that we are having while trying to blame our shortcomings on others or outside factors.
This is an extremely dangerous cycle for a business. People are promoted to managers based on their ability to control the perceptions of the people in power and not based on their ability to lead a team or perform. As they get promoted, others in the organization try to mimic their path to leadership. And as they begin to promote others, they surround themselves with people who won’t question their position and be complicit. This is how company cultures spiral out of control.
Humility, honesty, and self-awareness are on the verge of extinction in a lot of businesses because those traits aren’t currently valued. A strong culture can alleviate this issue but if those virtues aren’t valued from the top, there is no chance. As Gary Vaynerchuk says, the best way to create culture is through firing and you might need to fire your most talented employee. I would add that carefully promoting is another key way to create a company culture.