The Great Lie and How I Pulled It Off: A Cautionary Tale

Despite the fact that I have been exposed to a million and one assessments in my career, I get excited whenever a new one comes my way. I look forward to learning anything I can about myself that I didn’t previously know. Even when assessments confirm things I already know about myself, they serve as helpful reminders. Each time I sit down to receive feedback from a new assessment, the nervous butterflies materialize in my stomach. Until the assessment results are in, I feel slightly stalked by the thought of I wonder if I’m about to get blindsided by something I didn’t know about myself. Usually the blindsiding doesn't happen. This time, it did.

About two weeks ago I had the privilege of engaging with an assessment that evaluated my perspectives and lifestyle. The assessment is called the LSI (Life Styles Inventory by Human Synergistics). It has been taken by millions of people around the world and has deep connections to leadership effectiveness.  As with many assessment tools, the LSI gave me the opportunity to statistically see the differences between how I see myself and how those around me see me.

When I cracked open my assessment results, I saw a very low score in my self-perception of my need for the approval of others. This was expected. When I took the assessment I was all but dismissive of the questions that suggested I might be concerned about what others think of me. I had previously told myself many times in life that I don’t care that much what others think of me. I’m my own man.

My Very Own 2 x 4

After a lengthy conversation about my self-assessed LSI scores with the consultant walking me through my results, it was finally time to learn what others had said about me. This is the time in the assessment process when the butterflies in my stomach reach their fluttering peak.

As I saw the feedback from various groups, I was modestly encouraged. Nothing too horrible was present and there were even a few very positive ratings. But then, lurking in one section of LSI graphic, was the 2 x 4 that knocked me silly.

When it comes to seeking the approval of others, my self-assessment put me in the bottom 10% of people. But those around me experience me differently than that. Their answers rated me as more approval-seeking than 77% of people. Tim’s head, this is a 2 x 4. 2 x 4, this is Tim’s head.

As I walked away from the meeting I found myself thinking How could this be true? Could I really be that much of an approval seeker? I mentally started walking backwards in time. Surely I’d have to search the recesses of the space-time continuum to find moments where I operated as an approval seeker. As it turned out, I only ended up going back about 24 hours in time to see a clear example of my approval seeking in action. If I’d really been sharp, I would’ve realized that I only needed to go backwards about 2 hours to see the magnitude of the butterflies in my stomach when I was receiving my LSI scores. Those fluttering wings in my stomach indicated that I did very much care what others thought about me.

The jig was up. My bubble was burst. As I walked to my hotel, I thought Oh my goodness. It’s true. I care what others think about me far more than I ever thought possible. I now see myself in a whole new light, and I’m not excited about it.

A Standard Caricature

I work in an industry (leadership development) that is dependent on self-awareness. I’m constantly in discussions about self-awareness. Furthermore, I value feedback. Actually, I don’t just value it; I teach that we all need it in spades. As such, I often make myself the guinea pig. I live in a perpetual and intentional process of improving my self-awareness. So how could the gap between my view of myself and how others see me be so large? The answer to that question lives largely in the erroneous standard I had created solely for the purpose of evaluating how much I needed the approval of others. Let me explain...

Some people desperately need the approval of others and will do nearly anything to get it. They acquiesce to the opinions of others without so much as a discussion. They fret about not getting enough attention in social media. They incessantly and unnecessarily ask others to approve and applaud their work. Since none of these seemed to directly apply to me, I saw myself as an anti-approval seeker.

In truth, I had created an emotionally self-protective standard for what it means to seek others’ approval. Upon introspection, I realized that I had identified the worst aspects of approval seeking that I had observed in others and then combined those worst-ofs to create a single, fictional person who embodied under-development with regard to approval seeking. This caricature of approval seeking was the standard against which I evaluated my own need for approval. No wonder I didn’t see myself as an approval seeker. It was the equivalent of me determining myself to be an Olympic level sprinter because I’d just beaten a 6 month old baby in a 100 meter dash.

Save Yourself

Most of us have at least a few moments in life when we are surprised by revelations about ourselves. These surprises can be lessened – and our path toward becoming well-developed leaders quickened – if we are careful about how we create the standards by which we evaluate ourselves. I was comparing myself to a standard that epitomized the worst approval seeking characteristics of a whole host of people. No one person was actually as bad as the standard I had created. That standard led me to believe I was far better off than I was. Because of my inaccurate view of myself, I ended up in an infinite loop of confusion about some of the emotionally and relationally challenging experiences of my life and leadership. Until two weeks ago, my mind, heart, and soul had been guarded from seeing the inner development I needed to become the person and leader I’m capable of being.

The opposite story can unfold as well. We can combine the very best aspects of all the leaders we see to create a inordinately high standard to which we can compare ourselves. Such a standard can lead us to believe we’re less developed than we actually are. That inaccurate view of ourselves has the potential to bring us to leadership maladies such as a lack of confidence and personal insecurity. Just as my inaccurately high view of myself hurt my effectiveness and development as a leader, so too can an inaccurately low view of oneself hinder one's leadership effectiveness and development.

As for me and my recent revelation, I wish I’d had this information a decade ago. Those who I’ve influenced over the last decade would have benefited from me working on my need for approval during that time. Unfortunately, that time can’t be recouped. Fortunately, I can do something about it now.

Let my experience be both an encouragement and a warning. Take any aspect of leadership about which you see yourself as well-developed or under-developed – be it thinking strategically, communicating effectively, marshaling resources, motivating intentionally, executing consistently, cultivating talent, creating culture, being inwardly sound, or being others focused – and choose to become more conscious of the standards against which you are evaluating yourself. This will enable you to be careful of how you’re coming to the conclusions you are – both good and bad – about yourself and your effectiveness as a leader. In the long run, you’ll thank yourself for doing so…and so will the people you are leading.

photo credit: modified from pose via photopin(license)

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