By Marshall Goldsmith
Walking under a ladder. Breaking a mirror. A black cat darting across our path. Whoa! Most of us scorn superstitions as silly beliefs of the primitive and uneducated. Deep down inside, we assure ourselves that we’re above these antiquated notions.
Not so fast. To a degree, we’re all superstitious. In many cases, the higher we climb the organizational totem pole, the more superstitious we become.
Psychologically speaking, superstitious behavior comes from the belief that nonfunctional activity followed by positive reinforcement is actually the cause of that positive reinforcement. Years ago, psychologist B.F. Skinner showed how hungry pigeons may repeat nonfunctional behavior when their twitches and scratches are reinforced by small pellets of grain. From my experience, hungry corporate leaders may also repeat nonfunctional behavior when large pellets of money and recognition follow.
Superstition is merely the confusion of correlation and causality. Any human (in fact, any animal) tends to repeat behavior that is followed by positive reinforcement. The more we achieve, the more reinforcement we get. One of the greatest mistakes of successful leaders is the assumption, “I behave this way, and I achieve results. Therefore, I must achieve results because I behave this way.”
Almost everyone I meet is successful because of doing a lot right, and almost everyone I meet is successful in spite of some behavior that doesn’t make any sense. One of my greatest challenges is helping leaders avoid the “superstition trap.” This occurs when we confuse “because of” and “in spite of” behaviors.
Consider Harry. He was a brilliant, dedicated executive who consistently made his numbers. He wasn’t just smart. His creative ideas led to groundbreaking new processes and procedures. Everyone agreed that he had been instrumental in helping turn around his organization. He sincerely cared about the company, employees, customers, and shareholders. On top of all that, Harry had a great wife. His two kids were enrolled in top colleges. He lived in a beautiful home in a great neighborhood. Overall, life was very good for Harry.
Except for one thing. Harry was a remarkably poor listener. Even though his direct reports and coworkers respected him, they felt that he didn’t listen to them. They were somewhat intimidated by his genius and creativity. At times, they felt that if Harry had made up his mind, it was useless to express another opinion. His wife and kids loved him, but they also felt that he didn’t hear a word they said. If his dog could speak, it would have said the same thing.
I suggested to Harry that he was probably successful because of his talent, hard work, and some good luck. I also said that he was probably successful in spite of being an appallingly bad listener.
Harry acknowledged that other people thought he should become a better listener, but he wasn’t sure that he should change. He had convinced himself that his poor listening actually helped him succeed. Like many high achievers, he wanted to defend his superstitious beliefs. He pointed out that some people present awful ideas and that he shouldn’t just pretend to listen to those stupid suggestions to make them happy. He proudly asserted that he didn’t suffer fools gladly.
When I asked whether he really believed that his coworkers and family members were fools, he grimaced and shamefacedly conceded that his comment was stupid. These were people he respected. Upon further reflection, he concluded that perhaps he sometimes acted like a fool.
Harry then went into defensive reaction number two: fear of overcorrection. He expressed concern that he might start listening too much and that the company might not benefit from his creative ideas. Perhaps he would become too unwilling to share his opinions. I pointed out that the danger that a 55-year-old man who had been seen as a bad listener for his entire life would overcorrect and become excessively interested in others’ opinions was extremely remote. I assured him that he could remove this concern from his things-to-worry-about list. Ultimately, he decided it was more productive to hear people out than waste time justifying his own dysfunctional behavior.
Think about yourself. What are you doing because it helps you achieve results? What are you doing because of some irrational superstitious belief that may have been affecting your life for years?
What’s on your because-of list? I have never met anyone who was so perfect that there was nothing on her in-spite-of list. What’s on yours?
Marshall Goldsmith is the coach and founding director of the Alliance for Strategic Leadership.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.