Why Smart People Make Stupid Mistakes

In my post last week about executive wisdom, I mentioned that intelligent, well-educated people are particularly susceptible to five fallacies that stop them from making wise choices and actions.

You can read more about these fallacies in Robert J. Sternberg’s book Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid (2003), but I will summarize them here:

  1. The unrealistic-optimism fallacy: believing only good things will result from one’s ideas and actions.
  2. The egocentrism fallacy: believing that one’s opinions are the only ones that matter.
  3. The omniscience fallacy: believing one knows everything.
  4. The omnipotence fallacy: believing one can do what one wants.
  5. The invulnerability fallacy: believing one can get away with anything.

This list of faulty thinking habits is a recipe for disaster in leadership, but in small doses it’s also a recipe for confidence. Think about it: on days when we’re feeling really good about ourselves and our work, it’s a wonderful feeling to believe that good things are sure to come.

Optimism fuels success. And success augments our belief in ourselves, sometimes too much. Here’s a passage from Marshall Goldsmith’s What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There:

… All of us in the workplace delude ourselves about our achievements, our status, and our contributions. We:

  • Overestimate our contribution to a project
  • Take credit, partial or complete, for successes that truly belong to others
  • Have an elevated opinion of our professional skills and our standing among our peers
  • Conveniently ignore the costly failures and time-consuming dead-ends we have created
  • Exaggerate our projects’ impact on net profits because we discount the real and hidden costs built into them (the costs are someone else’s problems, the success is ours)

All of these delusions are a direct result of success, not failure. We get positive reinforcement from our past successes, and, in a mental leap that’s easy to justify, we think that our past success is predictive of great things in our future.

Confidence is necessary to leadership ability. Nothing wrong with that. If we were too realistic, we’d probably get depressed.

But when someone suggests we change, or when we’re not getting the results we imagined, then we’ve got a problem. The beliefs that carry us to success can work against us. Goldsmith calls this the paradox of success. Others call it resistance to change. Sternberg says it’s why smart people can be so stupid.

It’s one of the things I address with my clients in executive coaching. What’s been your experience with this?

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