Part six of Nick Humphrey’s seven-part series explores the deadly leadership sin, Pride.
What is pride?
Being overtly pleased or proud about one’s own achievements or skills.
Pride often involves someone being focused on themselves, rather than the team. There is also a risk that when you have excessively proud people on the team, they’ll take all the credit, at the expense of the quiet achievers. The proud person is potentially spending their time trumpeting their achievements rather than just getting on with the job at hand. The proud person becomes “too good” to do menial work, as it is below their pay grade.
Why is pride a problem?
Conventional wisdom is that we should hire and retain all-stars and that the success of our firms are guaranteed if we build out teams using only A players and not B players. Some recent research is that teams of all-stars may have problems.
Super-chickens: In a study by professor Muir in the 1990s, researchers looked at the productivity of chickens over six generations. They selectively bred “super-chickens”, picking the most productive hen (i.e, laid most eggs) from each cage. The simple hypothesis was that by selectively breeding from the best producers, generation after generation, they’d produce a more productive chicken. This was easy to measure because all they had to do was count the eggs.
The results of the study were unexpected. They found that after six generations the group of super-chickens were not the most productive. In fact, the super-chickens were hyper-aggressive and literally pecked the others to death. There were only a few survivors in the cage and egg-laying plummeted. The individually most productive chickens were the biggest bullies, took the most food and pecked the others to dominate. The control cage of chickens was more productive.
Muir repeated the experiment but this time selecting for collaboration (as measured by group productivity) and civility (with kinder gentler birds). He found that the cage bred for civility and collaboration out-produced the control group by a staggering 160%.
Margaret Heffernan in her TED talk about Muir’s study, argues that companies seem to continue to give the most influential people all the power and resources, just to find the same result as in Muir’s experiment: misuse, aggression and dysfunction. She says:
“If the only way the most productive can be successful is by suppressing the productivity of the rest, then we badly need to find a better way to work. And a richer way to live.”
All-star players: Adam Grant in a recent Work Life podcast, “The Problem with All-Stars,” explores the problems with hiring all-stars and the need for humility. There is evidence across a range of different industries showing that having an entire team of mega-stars just doesn’t work. Teams of stock analysts with a mix of stars and average analysts make better investment recommendations that teams with more rated analysts. In soccer, teams with too many top players are actually less likely to win a qualifying match for the World Cup. A study of NBA basketball tracked teams for over a decade and found that those with only 3 all-star players won more games than those that had four or five:
“The star-studded teams had fewer assists, missed more of their shots and grabbed fewer rebounds. The players struggled to coordinate. They all wanted to be the alpha dog.”
Grant gives the example of Miami Heat, who wanted to build a team of all-stars. They already had all-star Dwyane Wade but recruited LeBron James and Chris Bosh to build a dream team. In their first press conference LeBron proudly predicted they would be winning championships for more than 7 years. But they failed to win even close games in the regular seasons because they now had three star players who were all expecting to take the lead and make the game-winning shots.
Stars get all the glory but the role players are usually underrated. All the hard work of chasing lost balls, taking charges and running back on defence, may, according to Michael Lewis, be beneath the “dignity of a star to perform and you need other kinds of people to do those things.”
Some strategies for hiring teams of all-stars
Managing egos: Adam Grant argues:
“Lots of stars means lots of egos - and lots of egos means infighting. To overcome that problem, you need humility. Humility is having the self-awareness to know what you're good at and what you're not good at. Studies show that when you have humility in a team, people are more likely to play to their strengths. Instead of going for the spotlight, they take on the roles where they can help the team win.”
Defining all-star: As a leader we also need to consider how we define all-star. Perhaps the best hire is not the person who has won the most awards or has the biggest sales record. Instead, look for those that are enthusiastic, hard-working, humble, and give credit where it is due.
Power of humility: Ashley Merryman provides a useful snapshot of some recent studies that show the benefits of humility:
Arrogant leaders tend to overreact during conflicts and double-down. They are also more likely to strike out when angry, and refuse to apologize or accept responsibility.
Those with intellectually humility have a desire to continuously learn and improve. They are more likely to embrace the unknown and enjoy new information. Those who are intellectually arrogant are threatened by ambiguity or new information, and of course are convinced they always have the right answers.
Another study found humble leaders dispersed their power, hired more diverse management teams, gave staff more chance to lead and innovate. In turn, firms with humble leaders have stronger employee engagement, lower staff turnover, and they better overall performance.
Other studies show that humble leaders are driven to improve and constantly test their progress, as they acknowledge success is anything but inevitable. In turn, they revises and updates strategic plans, to respond to changing situations and information. Moreover they solicit feedback and push subordinates to take initiative.
Merryman concludes: “Another lesson learned from the research: both arrogance and humility are contagious. Both can be taught and caught.”
About the author
Nick Humphrey is the managing partner of Hamilton Locke. He is the Chairman of the Australian Growth Company Awards and author of a number of best-selling books on business and leadership. His latest book is Maverick Executive: strategies for Driving Clarity, Effectiveness and Focus, published by Wolters Kluwer.
1. Mark Palmer, “Super Chickens: A Lesson in Competition”, 14 June 2017, 2 Civility, https://www.2civility.org/super-chickens-lesson-competition/
2. Palmer, ibid
3. David Sloan Wilson, William M. Muir, “When the Strong Outbreed the Weak: an Interview with William Muir”, 11 July 2016, The Evolution Institute, https://evolution-institute.org/when-the-strong-outbreed-the-weak-an-interview-with-william-muir/
4. Palmer, ibid
5. Margaret Heffernan, “Is The Professional Pecking Order Doing More Harm Than Good?”, 20 April 2018, TED Talk, http://news.wsiu.org/post/professional-pecking-order-doing-more-harm-good#stream/0
6. Adam Grant, “The Problem with All-Stars”, 1 May 2018, WorkLife, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/problem-all-stars-adam-grant/
7. Grant, WorkLife
8. Grant, WorkLife
9. Michael Lewis, author of MoneyBall: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/problem-all-stars-adam-grant/
10. Michael Lewis, author of MoneyBall: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/problem-all-stars-adam-grant/
11. Ashley Merryman, “Leaders are more powerful when they’re humble, new research shows”, The Washington Post, 8 December 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2016/12/08/leaders-are-more-powerful-when-theyre-humble-new-research-shows/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.c0416dd36061