The Risk of Not Knowing How Good You Are
Updated: Aug 26
We can get quite upset about the things we are best at - especially when we don't know how good we are.
There is a surprising pattern I've noticed in some executives. The better they are at something, the more frustrated it can make them feel at work. In fact, non-intuitive as it is, I've found this pattern is even more pronounced when people are really, really good at something - like superpower, industry-leading levels of good. What?! That doesn't seem to make any sense, does it? Why would you get upset over the things you are good at? And how could someone who is one of the best people in their field ever get upset about their superpowers?
Well, first off, almost no one in this situation was aware that being good at something was causing their upset. Clients weren't walking in the door and saying "I'm extremely good at something and, boy, does it make me mad!"
In fact, it took me a few such cases and a good amount of digging to see what was actually going on. What was really happening was these superstars often didn't realize how bad other people were at the thing they were great at. There seemed to be two mediating causes driving these situations. The first was, whatever their super talent was, these folks didn't know they were superlatively good at it. They just thought they were "pretty good." The second was, they expected other people to be exactly as good as them and got really surprised and bent out of shape when they were not.
How is it possible that someone doesn't know that they are great at something? Well, by the time we have gotten really good at something, it often just comes naturally to us. Whether or not we have developed these skills through great effort and training or developed them to survive some difficulty in our past, by the time we are really, really good at something, we find it effortless and often don't notice the ease with which we perform. In other words, we tend to take the skill for granted.
This is what directly leads into the second challenge - which is being surprised, astonished, or outraged when others are not good at it. How does this happen? Well, we assume that others can see what we see, notice what we notice, or have the same intuitions we do. In other words, we take our skills for granted in other people. In the moment, however, the problem does not show up in this straightforward of a way. Instead, it seems like people don't seem to be listening to us, can't see the obvious, or are willfully choosing to ignore an issue that is screaming to be fixed.
This is when we get frustrated and at times angry. Our flow can get interrupted. Consumed by frustration, we can't be as creative and productive as we would like to be. Above all, our communication and relationships suffer. And this is typically where the real complications start at work - either as problem with a boss or a subordinate. When a superstar has this problem with their boss, they often show up outraged and flabbergasted. Their boss just doesn't seem to get it. At times, it can even feel like a cosmic injustice. "Why are they treating me this way? How could they do that?! Don't they see what's going on?" Well, actually , no they really don't. They aren't as good at seeing the problem as you are.
It can often take a full session to get these clients to the point of realizing that they are simply much better than their boss at this particular skill. In fact, I often have to tell them at the start of the session, "It sounds like you are much better than your boss at (fill in the blank here) EQ / analytics / CEO-level thinking."
Executives typically won't hear this message the first five or six times I say it. They often just continue to rant about how crazy it is to run a business in the way their boss is doing it. Finally, after about the fifth or sixth time, they may actually hear it when I say, "You seem much better than your boss at this." At these moments, the anger seems to melt away. There is usually a small silence, followed by a "Yeah, maybe."
Once we get to that point, typically, brainstorming improves. When executives can own how good they are at something, then they can start to be creative. This is when I hear things like "Well, you know what, I can just tell my boss that we need to do A, B, or C and show why it's better." In accepting their skill superiority, they go from being outraged that their boss "doesn't get it," to seeing an opportunity to use their skills to benefit the situation.
The other place I see this problem is when an executives comes in, but their problem is with their subordinates. The executive may have shot to the top of their industry by being one of the best at what they do. But at some point, they need to hand off their duties to others. And sometimes the difference between being top 5 in your industry and working with someone who is top 500 - although that difference that may be virtually unnoticeable to others - presents as a major gap. These executives are frustrated and perplexed beyond belief as to why their subordinates just "don't seem to get it." They may have episodes where they have lost their temper or have been harsh or dismissive.
In these situations, the superstars often don't realize that they need to teach their skill to others - and perhaps even more importantly, teach their passion for their skill to others. In other words, sometimes the subtle differences and nuances that their subordinates are missing are only discoverable when taught by someone who is not just a supreme craftsperson, but also a deep lover of the art of conversation... or analytics... or interior design. This is when I have to tell executives, "teach them what you love about doing it right."
And sometimes the skill gap is simply too big and the superstar executive needs to find a lieutenant to come in the middle. In other words, a lieutenant who is good enough to understand what they want, but who has more time and patience to teach it to the rest of the organization.
Finally, modest, humble people can get caught in this trap more than others, since they really don't want to be walking around saying, "I'm so great!" I've especially noticed this quality in people who had a lot of hardship growing up, including trauma. Many times, they show up to the workforce with really deep sources of talent, resiliency, EQ, and problem solving skills that others around them don't have. However, since many of these skills come from the crucible of trauma, they are also not aware they have them. This was particularly evident in the early stages of the covid-19 crisis, where I saw many people with "Trauma Mind" significantly outperform their peers in crisis management (to the extent that I almost titled this article "Formerly Traumatized People May be Some of the Best Crisis Leaders Ever").
Either way, if you are faced with an outstanding executive who seems to be losing their cool or you yourself are one, it can really help to: (1) examine what your work-related superpowers are, and (2) see if some of your frustration comes from your mistaken expectation that those around you will have these same skills. It may be that you just first need to recognize how good you are and adjust your strategies accordingly!