The insight illusion


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streetartparisParis street art. Photo by John Wenger, 2014.

Confucius is quoted as saying, “When you meet someone better than yourself, turn your thoughts to becoming his equal. When you meet someone not as good as you are, look within and examine yourself.”

…and yet we reinforce our “us vs them” in response to real human tragedies in Syria, Paris, San Bernardino.  It’s hard not to sometimes.  It takes real work not to.  It is a real effort to role reverse.  It is serious work to try to drop the “I know best”.  It is hard when our natural revulsion dominates and clouds reason.

Our views of others are inevitably saying something about ourselves.  No matter how much self-development work we have done, there is always more.  We don’t get “enlightenment credits”; we can’t coast on some self-awareness we developed ten years ago.  Noticing our responses to others can be a useful cue for more self-examination.  What are we actually afraid of?  What might we inform ourselves about a little more?

A few recent conversations, as well as observing the responses to the Paris attacks, the seemingly endless mass shootings in the USA and the ongoing tragedies in the Middle East have all focussed my thoughts on “self-awareness”, what we think and believe of others how we replicate an us/them view of the world.  What do we allow ourselves to see and what do we dispense with because it doesn’t fit the narrative?   I have also reminded myself of an experience I had some years ago.

I once went to a gathering of CEOs and other senior business leaders.  A CEO did a presentation in which he spoke about the importance of creating greater engagement at work.  He spoke about the importance of providing regular feedback to his people, being positive and strengths-based in his approach to people management, how vital it is to ‘get out of the way’ of his staff so that they can do what they do best and being available for support and coaching when the situation required.  Listening to this, one would reasonably assume that we were in the presence of one of those great leaders; one of those CEOs everyone aspires to be.  From the tone of the speech, here, also, was a person who already understood how essential it is for someone at C-level to be engaged in some sort of self-development; to have the kind of humility that a truly great leader possesses.  Here was the kind of leader whom people find irresistible.  Or so you’d think.

I had some inside information, however.  As I listened, two words echoed in my head: asymmetric insight.

Were his staff in the room, they would have thought we were being treated to a stand-up comedy routine.  I was privileged to know many of his direct reports and as far as they were concerned, many of the blockages and obstacles that the organisation was facing at the time sat in the CEO’s chair.  A lot of what he was trumpeting was what was sorely lacking in his own behaviour.

I came away feeling a little sad for this CEO and their staff.  An already strong organisation could have been shifting into the ‘high-performing’ category if the leader developed greater insight into himself and his behaviour at work.  Greater insight would shine a light on opportunities for his self-growth.  Knowing this organisation and its people as I did, it would not have taken a mammoth effort on the part of the CEO either.  He was so nearly there.  What was required was a quantum shift; I use “quantum” to describe both the smallest thing and the largest thing.  From my experience, it is usually the smallest shifts in individuals or teams that create the biggest and most significant ripple effects in culture and performance.

It is often an insight into ourselves that is the first step on the path to shifting our attitudes and behaviours.  How accurate and complete is our insight, though?  There is an illusion called asymmetric insight that sometimes gets in the way.  According to studies by Pronin, Kruger, Savitsky and Ross, “people, it is hypothesised, show an asymmetry in assessing their own interpersonal and intrapersonal knowledge relative to that of their peers”.  We tend to believe that: 1) we know more about others than they know themselves; 2) we know more about ourselves than others could know about us and; 3) we know others better than they know us.  It was asymmetric insight that this CEO was displaying.  The self-image and the perceived level of personal awareness did not match the universal view of others with whom they worked closely.

In a piece from 2011 about the Amanda Knox trial, there is a description of how “there is a fundamental asymmetry about the way two human beings relate to one another in person. When you meet someone, there are at least two things more prominent in your mind than in theirs – your thoughts, and their face. As a result we tend to judge others on what we see, and ourselves by what we feel.”

The source for this bias seems to stem from the unshakable belief that what we observe in others is far more revealing than our own similar behaviours.  What is not part of this equation, however, is the fact that we all have blind spots.  Furthermore, the fact that they are our blind spots means that we cannot even see what they might be about.  That is the point.  We are blind to them.

I suspect that the illusion of asymmetric insight creates a complex reinforcer against change, against reconciliation, against inter-being.  If I know myself more deeply than you know yourself, so the thinking goes, then any feedback you have for me is probably less than reliable.  If you tell me that I am not as competent as I think I am, you are probably not to be believed because I know more about myself (and you) anyway.  You also know far less about me than I know about you, so how could you possibly know that I need to improve: you have less insight than I do.  See?  No need to do anything different, no need for change.  And if I’m your CEO, you are unlikely to press the issue, so I win.  Now get back to work and I’ll keep making sure I send YOU on all these training courses.  You need them more than me, after all.

Sometimes, even evidence and hard fact doesn’t get through.  I may have a trail of formal complaints about my bullying behaviour, but documented evidence and witness statements mean nothing.  It’s clearly about them, not me.  They need to lighten up…..(and it doesn’t fit my narrative).

Many of us will likely be sold on the idea that authentic leadership comes about by growing self-awareness through on-going and courageous self-exploration.  The biggest hurdles that we face in gaining greater self-awareness, though, are human things like denial, narcissism, arrogance and fear.  All natural things, these.  Heavens preserve me from people who pretend they don’t exhibit any of these at some times in their lives.

by Doug Savage

If there is the slightest idea that there might perhaps be the tiniest discrepancy between our self-image and how others experience us, we might consider these courses of action:

  • Ask for and act upon feedback regularly and often.  We need to devote some time and energy developing trusting relationships with those around us.  This means our peers, our supervisors (for those of us who take regular supervision) and those who work with us, both up and down the “chains of command” (if you work in one of those organisations).  All of these people will have information about us that we may find enlightening.  If we demonstrate over time that we are actually interested in hearing their feedback, they will be more and more forthcoming about it.  If we ask people what they think and become defensive or attacking, they will quickly get the message that feedback is unwelcome.  It is one thing to say “I’m open to hearing your feedback about me,” it is another thing to model this openness.  No good inviting feedback if we just reject the stuff that doesn’t fit our narrative.
  • Develop strong networks.  The illusion of asymmetric insight will distort our views of ourselves.  Growing strong networks of support people, both formal and informal, will keep our feet on the ground.  One of my favourite stories is The Emperor’s New Clothes.  Do you surround yourself with people who name the uncomfortable truths about you?
  • Be curious about yourself.  Be courageous.  A useful model to apply here is the Johari Window.  Many people will already be familiar with this matrix.  In my view, life is a never-ending quest to diminish the ‘blind self’ and enlarge the ‘public self’.  When I think I know something about myself, I find it useful to ask myself, “How do I know that I know?”

…and to finish, a quote from Rumi:

“O, happy the soul that saw its own faults.”

This is an update of an article I published in 2011.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

John Wenger
John Wenger is one of the Directors of Quantum Shift. He has a background in education, counselling and management of commercial and not-for-profit organisations. He brings a passion and understanding of learning and human behaviour to his current work in organisational learning and development. He has a particular interest in uncovering solutions which get people to be less stuck and more creative in their workplaces.


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