I once had the following conversation with a client, and I’m sure you can relate:
‘So, Pat, how did it go with your boss, Robin?’ I asked.
‘Not great,’ Pat replied.
‘Well, after we completed that anonymous survey on Robin’s leadership, we were invited to a meeting to discuss the results. When we got into the meeting, the very first thing Robin said was, “Team, thanks for the feedback. There’s good stuff in there, but I just want to say that you have all rated me poorly on empowerment, and I totally disagree with your ratings. I know I’m great at empowering you.”
‘The entire team and I just sat there and nodded in agreement. We were wrong, Robin was right. Robin left the meeting smiling, we left feeling disengaged once again. I remember promising myself I’d never be honest again. What’s the point? But, you know, pretty much every boss I’ve had has been the same.’
Sadly, defensiveness, denial and even blame occur every day in organisations, families and relationships. Instead of taking a self-aware, growth-mindset approach to life’s challenges, like Robin we often defend our self-image to protect ourselves from emotional discomfort. We don’t do this because we are dishonest or because we don’t want to grow. Rather, we have been hijacked by our primitive brain and the old coping mechanisms that were designed to help us manage difficult feelings like overwhelm, fear, hurt and insecurity.
In organisations, this phenomenon is what Harvard development experts Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey call image management.
Image management refers to the time and energy we waste in organisations on blame, denial, deflection, defence, gossiping, politics, saving face, masking our weaknesses and other fear-based strategies to make ourselves feel safe or look good. Kegan and Lahey maintain that image management is a second job for most people in typical organisations. One research study we performed involving more than 5000 people from various global organisations indicated that image management may suck up about 40 per cent of people’s time and energy on average. This is a staggering waste of time and energy, costing billions of dollars.
More critically, image management creates values breaches, wherein people fail to speak up or admit mistakes, judge or blame others, and avoid addressing inefficiencies — all to ensure their image is protected. This arrests growth, damages leadership credibility, shuts down innovation and impacts mental health, while keeping relationships superficial.
Behind the gloss of image management, we can actually suffer tremendously. The vast majority of accomplished leaders secretly experience ‘imposter syndrome’. If we dig a little deeper, they will admit they need validation to deal with deep insecurities. As a result, they struggle with being truly values-based. Andre Viljoen, CEO of Fiji Airways, calls this phenomenon ‘the plastic hero’. No amount of external success will ever make Pinocchio (our self-image) a real boy or girl. The fancy titles, and the deference and privilege that come with them, are not who we are. Secretly, we know this, and we dread the inevitable loss of this image.
To add to this, our research indicates that less than 10 per cent of us have been educated on how to regulate our emotions, handle challenging feedback and cultivate self-awareness. Is it any wonder that we so often choose protection over growth, image management over vulnerability and numbness over facing difficult feelings?
This phenomenon negatively impacts mental wellbeing, careers, families, teams, organisations, even nations. It ensures we keep repeating behaviour patterns that don’t serve us or others well. This is the price tag of a lack of self-awareness and the associated absence of a growth mindset.