Positive Illusions and the Need to Change

Before you can convince people to move in a new direction, they need to see themselves needing to change, they have to see that they need to improve.

That should be easy enough for leaders to do, except for one great big brain flaw: most people see themselves in a positive light. That would seem  to be a good thing, except our wonderful egos work overtime and create totally delusional positive illusions:

  • Only 2 percent of high school seniors believe their leadership skills are below average
  • A full 25 percent of people believe they’re in the top 1 percent in their ability to get along with others
  • 94 percent of college professors report doing above-average work
  • The majority of people think they’re at lower risk than their peers for heart attacks, cancer
  • Most people say they are more likely than their peers to provide accurate self-assessments
  • Ask a room full of physicians how many graduated in the top 10 percent of their class, and 90 percent will  raise their hands…

We are terrible self-evaluators. While a degree of self-confidence, even a dose of denial, can be productive and in that sense healthy, faulty self-assessment can lead to inertia and unwillingness to change.

Positive illusions pose an enormous problem with regard to change initiatives. To get a clear picture of where we are and how we’re doing, we have to be brutally honest with ourselves.

There are three types of positive illusions:

  1. The above-average effect
  2. The illusion of control
  3. Optimism bias

In the above-average effect, people regard themselves more positively than they regard others and less negatively than others regard them. Moreover, positive attributes are judged to be more descriptive of themselves than of an average person, whereas negative ones are judged to be less descriptive of themselves than of an average person.

This effect has been widely recognized across traits and abilities, including driving ability, parenting, leadership ability, teaching ability, ethics and health.

The illusion of control is an exaggerated assessment of the individual’s personal control over environmental circumstances such as the roll of dice or flip of coin.

Optimism bias is a tendency for people overestimate their likelihood of experiencing a wide variety of pleasant events, such as enjoying their first job or having a gifted child, and somewhat underestimate their risk of succumbing to negative events, such as getting divorced or falling victim to a chronic disease. This illusory nature of optimism is also evident in peoples’ under-estimation of the time taken for a variety of tasks.

How can we help dispel people’s positive illusions without raining down negativity on them?

Authors Dan and Chip Heath talk about this in their book Switch. (I know I keep writing about this book, but it’s so full of good stories that are valuable for anyone charged with bringing about change, so I hope you won’t mind.)

In fighting for change, we’ve got to find the feeling that motivates people to change. But which feeling? Anger, hope, dismay, enthusiasm, fear? Fear is a frequently used motivator for leaders.

But is it a wise emotion to use, and can it backfire when the fear is proven false? Just how much can you use a burning platform metaphor when people only see little bonfires?

According to David A. Garvin and Michael A. Roberto in a February 2005 Harvard Business Review article, “Change Through Persuasion,”  “In the absence of a dire threat, employees will keep doing what they’ve always done.”

These authors believe that “turnaround leaders must convince people that the organization is truly on its deathbed, or at the very least, that radical changes are required if the organization is to survive and thrive.”

Is it necessary, however, to create a crisis in order to convince people they’re facing a catastrophe and have no choice but to move?

Something to think about… What’s been your experience with positive illusions?

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