I was going to title this article "Why do so many delusional people become leaders?" in hommage to the book "Why do so many incompetent men become leaders?" but it didn't feel right.
While incompetent and delusional people can be successful, meaning they earn large sums of money, hold senior positions and manage large teams. They are not effective leaders. Leadership is the small things that you do that make a difference and make life at work better, not worse.
As an independent, strategic partner, I have been coaching leaders for many years, and the topic of delusional executives consistently arises, so I want to share ways of managing delusional personalities. Because if you don't confront them, their behaviour will significantly hinder the performance and morale of your teams.
Here are some examples of delusional people that my clients have had to interact with. In each of these cases, I have worked with my clients on the different ways to manage the impact the delusional personalities had on their teams, their own emotional well-being, and the best ways to engage and try to persuade these at times toxic personalities.
Jean the Treasurer. Jean was a senior new hire brought in to help solve a problem that, if not resolved, could lead to significant regulatory penalties. Jean transitioned into a new firm with a culture and way of doing things different from her previous experience. Her belligerent, coercive leadership style may have achieved short-term wins, but it damaged budding relationships. Jean refused to accept alternatives and potentially better ways to solve the issues leading to unnecessary conflict and less strategic solutions. She was aware of the impact her actions were having on those around her, but while aware, she didn't care. She perceived that her approach was the driver of high performance, whereas anything positive was happening despite Jean's behaviour.
Sam the Commercial Director - In Sam's mind, he couldn't do any wrong. It was his talent and skills that drove the team's results. Any question for clarification or suggestion to do something different was taken as a personal attack. Sam would have an emotional response to the perceived threat to his beliefs. His status and personal identity being attacked would generate erratic and highly emotional outbursts that were directed at his team and peers. People like Sam draw the wrong lessons from good outcomes. They think their abrasive, erratic, egotistical approach is what drives high performance from those around them. Whereas their success often will be despite those behaviours. If asked, they wouldn't need to change. Everyone else is the problem. The result being even Sam's boss tiptoed around him and tried to appease him. Yet, the strategy of appeasement just kept making things worse for Sam's peers and the team as he was completely unaware and refused to accept that his behaviour was the source of the demotivated, distracted and increasingly dysfunctional team.
Rich the Salesperson. Rich was excellent in his job, consistently one of the top producers in his division. Yet Rich was not inclusive. He was a loner, viewing that his success was down to his knowledge and skills. Rich would not proactively share information or keep his boss informed on discussions with important clients or the status of deals. He operated as a team of one within the business. However, Rich could be made more aware of how his actions were detrimental to his longer-term career success - that the reason he didn't make Managing Director was due to his selfish actions - so he could and should change his behaviour.
To consider an alternative view, you must be willing to consider an alternative version of yourself.
Often the focus for my coaching with clients who have to manage or engage with people like Sam, Jean and Rich is to provide the support necessary to help talk them "away from the edge". As well as helping them to alter their perspective to cut adversity down to size and build their resilience and hence their capacity to face, overcome, recover quickly, and be strengthened by adversity. My clients often beat themselves up because this type of person can be the first obstacle they haven't successfully overcome in their careers. Rational arguments and respectful negotiation won't work with delusional people. They play to different rules:
While you try to discuss interests, they state their position in unequivocal terms.
You may be concerned with developing possible agreements to maximise the gains of both parties - they attack your proposals, only concerned with maximising their own gains.
You may attack the problem on its merits - they attack you.
Why you should care
In the workplace, delusional people aren't just annoying and frustrating. They can significantly hinder our performance. Unaware bosses or peers can have a detrimental impact on their employee's job satisfaction, performance, and well-being. The negative impact leads to a lack of trust, and a lack of trust is a hidden tax that magnifies conflict and reduces the opportunities that lead to successful win-win outcomes.
And don't forget the example you set for those around you by not dealing with this type of behaviour, especially the more impressionable, less experienced members of your team. They may be forgiven for thinking that the behaviour they observe is perfectly acceptable within your organisation. Emotional contagion is the phenomenon of having a person's emotions and behaviours influenced by another. Emotional contagion within the workplace embodies the idea that we synchronise our emotions and behaviours with what we are exposed to. Therefore, there is a risk that we catch the delusions of others and perpetuate the bad behaviour.
In the seminal book "GOOD TO GREAT", Jim Collins refers to the moment when you feel you need to tightly manage someone as when you know you need to make a people change and act. As the boss, we've probably all experienced or observed the following scenario. We delay, try alternatives, give third and fourth chances, hope (never a good strategy) the situation will improve, and build systems to compensate for the delusional person's shortcomings. When not in the office, we find our energy diverted by thinking and talking to friends about that person. All of that time and energy is siphoned away from developing and working on opportunities and top priorities.
In GOOD TO GREAT, there is the concept of having "the right people on the bus." Letting the wrong people hang around is unfair to all the right people in your team, and as already mentioned, it can drive away the best people. In the scenario where you are the boss of the delusional person, two key questions can help you know when you need to act:
Would you hire the person again?
If the person resigned, would you feel disappointed or secretly relieved?
"The dish will never be better than the produce. This is the difference between good and fantastic."
- Magnus Nilsson (Swedish chef)
The different types of delusional people
In her book Insight (How to Succeed by Seeing Yourself Cleary), Dr Tasha Eurich identifies three categories of delusional people.
1 - The lost cause will never accept feedback as correct because of a complete lack of insight and self-awareness. They see themselves as pretty close to perfect, and the lost cause is rarely willing to entertain the notion that they might have room to improve. It can be pointless to challenge their self-views. Sam, the Commercial Director, fits this category of a delusional person.
2 - Aware but doesn't care - they are aware of the negative impact they have on others but will carry on regardless because they believe their approach and their behaviour will help them get what they want. And therein lies their delusion because they draw the wrong lessons from good outcomes. Often their success to date has been despite their delusional behaviour. Jean, the treasurer, was aware but didn't care - their win-lose mindset was a constant source of tension and conflict because it wasn't being addressed.
3 - Nudgable - these people can be helped. What sets the Nudgable apart from their counterparts is that they want to be better. They just don't know that they need to change their approach. Rich, the high performing salesperson, was in this category - he was "unconsciously incompetent", but it is often possible to increase people like Rich's self-awareness, so they become "consciously incompetent". Then the task is to help them develop the skills or change their interpersonal behaviours to become "consciously competent" and hence no longer suffer from delusions.
To make matters worse, the Dunning-Kruger Effect often kicks in - the least competent (the most delusional) people tend to be the most confident in their abilities. This is a cognitive bias in which people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability. It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from the inability of people to recognise their lack of ability.
I am confident that you will come across people sitting at the top of "Mount Stupid" during your careers. While I wouldn't use that label, I have certainly come across many know-it-alls, delusional about their abilities or impact on those around them.
"The fundamental cause of the trouble in the modern world today is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt."
- Bertrand Russell.
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Why don't people deal with it?
In her book "Wilful Blindness", Margaret Heffernan refers to the Ostrich instruction and being deliberately ignorant. Paraphrasing the author:
"Scientifically accurate or not, we all recognise the human desire at times to prefer ignorance to knowledge and to deal with conflict and change by imagining it out of existence. Ignore it, and it will go away - that's what we think and hope. We also try hard to avoid conflict: if the threat's not there, I don't have to fight it. A preference for the status quo, combined with an aversion to conflict, compels us to turn a blind eye to problems and conflicts we just don't want to deal with."
In business, it is common to embrace the status quo. The gravitational pull is strong - it feels more manageable and lower risk. Often we don't like change because the status quo feels safer; it's familiar, we're used to it. Change is hard. As the author says, "Every change carries with it the possibility of conflict, uncertainty, danger. The business environment is dynamic and difficult enough without looking for trouble."
People will often stay silent at work because they don't want to provoke conflict.
Often executives don't want to raise the issue because they don't know how to solve it.
But as long as the issue is not raised and discussed, it is guaranteed to remain unsolved. That is the cost of the ostrich behaviour. You cannot fix a problem that everyone refuses to acknowledge.
Bringing someone around who doesn't want to change
Delusional people can be a constant source of tension and conflict in the office if not dealt with. But the truth is that challenging a delusional person can be risky at best and disastrous at worst. Almost everyone thinks they're above average, and the most delusional can be the least receptive to hearing otherwise.
Successfully dealing with delusional people is perhaps one of the most challenging problems facing leaders. As previously mentioned, my clients often beat themselves up because this type of person can be the first obstacle they haven't successfully overcome.
Accept what we cannot change and change what we can.
If you are the boss of a delusional person.
It is the boss's job to ensure delusional people don't disrupt the company. This group of people has to learn to work with others and work in an environment where they collaborate.
At times, it can be a constant balancing act.
If you are the boss, keep a debits and credits list if the delusional person doesn't change. If the negatives, i.e., the debits, are consistently greater than the positives (credits), get rid of the person and don't wait to do so.
Never put up with people who cross ethical lines: dishonesty, lapses of integrity or ethics or mistreating colleagues. The more complex cases are the ones where the person doesn't cross these lines.
If you are not the boss or ethical lines are not being crossed.
To help any delusional person, you need to ask several questions before jumping in:
Do the benefits of having this conversation outweigh the potential risks?
Is their behaviour counter to the firm's best interests?
Which of the three categories do they fall into?
1 - The Lost Cause
As Dr Tasha Eurich, author of Insight, says, "it is easy to feel hopeless when dealing with this type of person. While we can't impose Insight on lost causes, we can minimise their impact on our success and happiness. Recognise they are on a different journey to you and don't constantly get bent out of shape." The reality is that sometimes this person may not be your problem to fix - it can be theirs and theirs alone.
Look for and focus on their positives. What is it that they do really well, even if outside of your interactions together?
Reframe their impact on you, such as what can they teach me?
Don't fight them, nor counterattack or defend, but like a negotiator, when one party is unwilling to negotiate in good faith, break the vicious cycle by refusing to react. Instead of pushing back, sidestep their remarks and deflect them back against the problem.
2 - Aware, Don't Care
We have to learn to manage our reactions and emotions when dealing with people like this. The approaches used to deal with the Lost Cause also work with the Aware Don't Care. Another is to imagine their behaviour, and nasty comments are said in a cartoon or clown-like voice, which is a powerful technique that helps people to live with a critical inner voice - having the ability to discriminate when the inner critic isn't useful, and just noise is a valuable skill to develop. A skill that also helps when interacting with the Aware Don't Care. By robbing the words of their meaning and power (derealisation), we can learn to discriminate when dialogue is just noise and hence better manage our reactions. By managing our own reactions, we often have more control than we think.
However, sometimes it isn't enough, especially if the delusion intensifies over time. If we've exhausted all our options, we may decide to cut ties and distance ourselves as much as possible and then move forward.
3 - Nudgable
As Dr Eurich says, "These people can be helped". What sets the Nudgable apart from their counterparts is that they want to be better. They just don't know that they need to change their approach. To help them, you need to ask several questions before jumping in:
Do the benefits of having this conversation outweigh the potential risks?
Do they know there is a problem?
Is their behaviour counter to their best interests?
Do I think they will listen to me?
It is often possible to help others increase their insight, and it's never too late to begin.
In the HBR article Persuading the Unpersuadable, Dr Adam Grant shares four approaches that can help encourage even the most overconfident, stubborn, narcissistic, and disagreeable people to open their minds. Even the most rigid people flex at times, so we should pay attention to instances when they change their minds. These four strategies can be helpful managing across the three categories of The Lost Cause, Aware Don't Care, and Nudgable, although more likely to find success with nudgable people:
1 - Arrogance
Often the barrier of arrogance is preventing someone from changing their mind or seeing the viable alternatives. We will have all encountered people who are overconfident (the Dunning-Kruger effect from before). But if you call out their ignorance directly, they will most probably get defensive and counterattack. A better approach is to let them recognise the gaps in their understanding, and one way to do that is to ask them questions, or another is to let them explain their logic and thinking until they realise they don't fully understand the topic at hand.
2 - Stubbornness
Another obstacle to changing people's opinions is stubbornness. Intractable people see consistency and certainty as virtues. Once made up, their minds seem to be set in stone. But they are more likely to change their minds if you plant ideas, the seeds of a new concept. Asking questions instead of giving answers can overcome people's defensiveness. "What if we try this....?" and "Could we do that....?"
The stubborn are unlikely to change their minds overnight. But the planted seeds of a new idea will often have hit upon fertile ground. Don't be surprised if your idea becomes their idea that seamlessly replaces their old thinking.
3 - Narcissism
Narcissistic leaders are delusional because they believe they are superior and special, and they don't take kindly to being told they're wrong. But with careful framing, you may be able to coax them toward acknowledging that they are fallible.
Dr Grant states, "That bullies and narcissists have high but unstable self-esteem. They crave status and approval and become hostile when their fragile egos are threatened—when they're insulted, rejected, or shamed. By appealing to their desire to be admired, you can counteract their knee-jerk tendency to reject a difference of opinion as criticism."
A dash of acclaim can be a powerful antidote to a narcissist's insecurity. The key is to praise people in an area different from how you hope to change their minds. We all have multiple identities, and when we feel secure about one of our strengths, we become more open to accepting our shortcomings elsewhere.
4 - Disagreeableness
Disagreeable people are determined to crush the competition, and when you urge them to re-evaluate their strategy, that's what you become - the competition. They are often Aware But Don't Care about their impact as their win-lose mindset drives their behaviour. However, if you're willing to stand up to them rather than back down, you can sometimes gain the upper hand.
Because disagreeable people are energised by conflict, they don't always want you to bend to their will right away; they are keen to debate and argue. By showing them how much you care, being well briefed, and fully understanding the subject and issue at hand, you could find that the disagreeable will flex and change their minds. The disagreeable may be testing how much you want something or whether you care enough. The 7-foot hurdle may actually turn out to be only 7-inches high.
Why don't we get ahead of the problems, proactively confront the conflict, and challenge the status quo?
Because it is often much easier to ignore the issue.
I hope that this article helps normalise the challenges you may be facing with a delusional boss, team member, peer, or colleague. And by providing you with practical ideas to overcome these obstacles and reframe the problems to help you build your resilience in the face of irrational adversity.
My work with clients means I have experience turning around dysfunctional teams and implementing strategies to manage relationships with strong personalities and the delusional. Feel free to get in touch to discover how my coaching may help.
"Perspective is everything. The right perspective has a strange way of cutting obstacles and adversity - down to size."
- Ryan Holiday
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