I woke up this morning and checked my in-box. The usual ‘Business Standard’ daily morning briefing was there. I saw an article with a brief description about hubris and humility. These issues fascinate me. Human frailty, fragility and behavioural quirks and features greatly fascinate me. In another setting, I might have avoided doing a Management Degree, a Ph.D in Exchange Rates, etc and become a psychologist, perhaps! Who knows? Anyway, ‘what if’ questions are always interesting.
But, the funny part of it was that while I scrolled the mail for other headlines, I missed seeing this one again. I searched frantically and I could not locate it. It is not possible. So, I thought I would search in the internet and I found several other articles.
In the meantime, I did find the article that emphasised humility over hubris. It is written by my friend R. Jagannathan (‘Jaggi’). It is well written. In fact, it is top-drawer stuff for many of its ‘tongue-in-cheek’ elements. His main subject matter, the Finance Minister of Tamil Nadu, has indeed been talking too much and talking a little too abrasively. Not necessary.
That said, I did like his prepared remarks made (or was not made) at the GST Council Meeting on the 28th May 2021. They were substantive. My personal view is that he should let his work and intellect speak for themselves.
My friend Harikiran Vadlamani (HKV), the man and the brain behind Indic Academy (check it out) shared this once:
Humility is a strange thing – the moment you think you have it, you’ve lost it! – Swami Chinmayananda
Hubris is even stranger – the moment you think you don’t have it, you have gained it ! – HKV
They are cute and, yes, they are simplistic. But, yes, they are also exaggerations that make a point. That is what exaggerations are for.
If we think about it, we often say accusingly or disapprovingly, that someone is so full of himself or herself. But, there is a flip side and a positive one at that. Only those who have an irrational self-belief or self-confidence will defy odds, will do and achieve things that reasonable people won’t or won’t even try. They are the disruptors and change agents – for the better or for the worse. What is funny or sad – depending on the effect on the world – is that those who do such odds-defying feats eventually end up being change agents for the worse. They continue to disrupt all right but the larger good suffers.
So, for the rest of us, it is important to remember that people who are full of themselves are the ones who change the paradigm (sorry for the cliched expression) and who achieve things beyond the three-sigma range. Most of us will be calculating odds and will never even attempt them. But, at some stage, the self-belief become delusional and the decline begins. But, they are too proud and too consumed by their self-belief to notice it even. That is how the cookie crumbles or has crumbled in history.
It would all be nice if they know when to switch from being disruptors to being ‘maintainers’. The latter requires reasonable, risk-averse behaviour. But, that is as rare as it is desirable and admirable.
We can start with a definition of hubris:
The simplest definition for the word “hubris” is dangerous overconfidence. But the word has additional nuanced complexities. It’s an ancient Greek word that also included taking pleasure out of humiliating others and even encompassed a connotation of sexual conquest and exploitation. Hubris, according to the Greeks, is an insult to humility and epitomizes insolence to the gods. [Link]
Christopher Bergland writes:
Believing that you possess both the power of Atlas and are as insignificance as an Ant is a difficult paradox for the human ego to navigate, but it is the key to being extraordinary. A lot of athletes are incapable of doing this. I’ve struggled with it myself over the years. [Link]
These brief lines from Scott Miller (part of the blog of Franklin Covey) were interesting:
As you’re climbing up, throw a rope down and lift them up with you. Encourage them to climb above you. If you’re confident in both your character and competence, your shoulders can handle some weight….. Remember, humble leaders are more concerned with what is right than being right. [Link]
Dr. Steven Berglas of the Harvard Medical School wrote this in 2014 for the Harvard Business Review:
Hubris, … is a reactive disorder: Either the unfortunate consequence of endless laudatory press clippings leading to supreme over-confidence, or the culmination of a winning streak that causes a person to suffer the transient delusion that he is bullet-proof. Many good people will, under bad circumstances, suffer from hubris— but they tend to recover after toppling from their pedestals shrinks their egos back down to size.
Of course, one way for hubris to be reined in is for leaders to create and institutionalise mechanisms for someone to play the devil’s advocate, communicate freely and challenge the established view in a group setting. It is not without its pitfalls. Some may take advantage of it and may think that the leader is weak. Alternatively, some may try to poison the leader’s mind about the ‘naysayer’ (even if the leader had appointed him or her to be a naysayer). It is not easy.
Also, conformity is hard-coded in us as this book extract says. It is from ‘Meltdown: why our systems fail and what we can do about it?’:
“We show that a deviation from the group opinion is regarded by the brain as a punishment,” said the study’s lead author, Vasily Klucharev. And the error message combined with a dampened reward signal produces a brain impulse indicating that we should adjust our opinion to match the consensus. Interestingly, this process occurs even if there is no reason for us to expect any punishment from the group. As Klucharev put it, “This is likely an automatic process in which people form their own opinion, hear the group view, and then quickly shift their opinion to make it more compliant with the group view.”…. Our tendency for conformity can literally change what we see….
….And when people went against the group, there was a surge in activity in brain regions involved in the processing of emotionally charged events. This was the emotional cost of standing up for one’s beliefs; the researchers called it “the pain of independence.”
When we shift our opinions to conform, we’re not lying. We may not even be conscious that we’re giving in to others. What’s happening is something much deeper, something unconscious and uncalculated: our brain lets us avoid the pain of standing alone. [Link]
In other words, it is not just the hubristic person but even people around him or her are hard-wired to encourage hubristic tendencies.
And listening to a dissenting voice can be as hard as speaking up….
It turns out that the effect of being challenged — of having your opinions rejected or questioned — isn’t just psychological. Research shows that there is a real, physical impact on the body. Your heart beats faster and your blood pressure rises. Your blood vessels narrow as if to limit the bleeding that might result from an injury in an impending fight. Your skin turns pale, and your stress level skyrockets. It’s the same reaction you would have if you were walking in the jungle and suddenly spotted a tiger.
This primal fight-or-flight response makes it hard to listen. And, according to an experiment conducted at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, things get even worse when we are in a position of authority….
….that even the faintest sense of power — being in charge of something clearly inconsequential — can corrupt. And it’s just one of many studies drawing the same conclusion. Research shows that when people are in a position of power, or even just have a sense of power, they are more likely to misunderstand and dismiss others’ opinions, more likely to interrupt others and speak out of turn during discussions, and less willing to accept advice — even from experts.
In fact, having power is a bit like having brain damage. As Keltner put it, “people with power tend to behave like patients who have damaged their brain’s orbitofrontal lobes,” a condition that can cause insensitive and overly impulsive behaviour. [Link]
The extract then goes on to give two examples. One is the case of a dentist where he had empowered the receptionist to challenge him and direct him to take a look at a patient. He does so and sends him for treatment immediately to a heart centre because the man was experiencing symptoms of an ongoing heart attack and his family had a history of heart attacks.
The second example is that of cockpit authority and airline crashes. Passengers were safer when the less experienced pilot was flying the plane:
Of course, it’s not that captains were poor pilots. But when the captain was the flying pilot, he (and most often it was a “he”) was harder to challenge. His mistakes went unchecked. In fact, the report found that the most common error during major accidents was the failure of first officers to question the captain’s poor decisions. In the reverse situation, when the first officer was flying the plane, the system worked well. The captain raised concerns and pointed out mistakes and helped the flying pilot understand complex situations. But this dynamic worked only in one direction.
This is indeed an apt conclusion:
But learning to embrace dissent is hard. When Crew Resource Management was introduced, many pilots thought it was useless psychobabble. They called it “charm school” and felt it was an absurd attempt to teach them how to be warm and fuzzy. But as more and more accident investigations revealed how failures to speak up and listen led to disasters, attitudes began to shift. Charm school for pilots has become one of the most powerful safety interventions ever designed.
A paper written by Nassim N. Taleb, Daniel G. Goldstein, and Mark W. Spitznagel in the Harvard Business Review in 2009 on the six mistakes in risk management is related to listening and speaking up, in a way.
The six mistakes are:
(1) We think we can manage risk by predicting extreme events
(2) We are convinced that studying the past will help us manage risk
(3) We don’t listen to advice about what we shouldn’t do
(4) We assume that risk can be measured by standard deviation
(5) We don’t appreciate that what’s mathematically equivalent isn’t psychologically so
(6) We are taught that efficiency and maximizing shareholder value don’t tolerate redundancy
I like (3) followed by (5). The whole article is here.
In conclusion, let us spare a thought for our hubristic leaders. Conformity is easy. Speaking up is hard. Listening is harder. We are wired to conform. We are not wired to speak up nor to listen. So, hubris has to be the default! Worse, we don’t even know if, on many occasions, the shoe is on the other foot!