Positive self-regard helps us feel good about who we are, but it can get in the way of learning and improving. Why is that?
Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck has done some interesting research on this. She had middle school students take a test and then gave them feedback on the results. Some were told that they were “smart,” while others were praised for how hard they worked. The ones who were praised for their intelligence were less likely to want to take on a next set of challenges; the ones who were praised for their effort were excited to exert more effort. So, Dweck says, “praise the process,” rather than intelligence or natural ability.
There are several things going on here. First, students who are told they are smart can only lose in the next challenge: if they get it right, it’s because they’re smart; if they fail, the original smart label is exposed as wrong. In an effort to avoid being exposed, many students will simply call it quits. Second, the label ‘smart’ carries an underlying assumption about the nature of talent: that it’s fixed. You’re born with it -- you either have it or you don’t. This creates a disincentive for trying hard -- since it won’t matter -- as well as a lifelong fear of finding out one is not smart. Dweck calls this the ‘fixed mindset’. The contrasting mindset is called a ‘growth mindset’. The assumption here is that, while we may be endowed with a certain degree of talent from the outset, we can improve through effort. A score tells us how we are now, but says nothing about how we’ll do next time.
When we talk about positive self-regard, we have to be clear about what we mean. It’s good to see yourself as a striver, someone who likes challenges. It can be dangerous to see yourself as having fixed characteristics -- even if they are positive -- because it dampens effort and creates fear of failure.
We’ve all heard of literal blind spots; but what is a ‘behavioural blind spot’?
These are things that we can’t see about ourselves, but which others do see. When someone tries to give us feedback in a blind spot, we usually reject it as simply wrong -- not because we’re being irrationally defensive, but because, to us, it actually seems wrong. It leaves us feeling confused, because we wonder what would cause others to give us feedback that is so off target? Are they jealous, petty, naïve, or political? As we sort through what would motivate the other person to give us such feedback, we move further and further from considering how the feedback might be useful to us.
What causes blind spots?
There are two key causes. The first is that we can’t see ourselves. We spend a lot of time with ourselves, so in one sense, we know more about ourselves than anyone else could ever know; but there are things about ourselves that we literally can’t see, such as our facial expressions and our body language. Even our tone of voice is hard to judge. So the very data that is most obvious and present to others is what is missing for us. We communicate a tremendous amount through expressions and tone, especially regarding our emotional state. The merest squint can communicate, “I doubt that,” even as we’re saying, “that sounds right.”
For example, John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington who studies relationships, found that eye-rolling correlates with a higher divorce rate. Think about it: when you roll your eyes, you are aware that you’re frustrated or disgusted, but you are unaware that you are rolling your eyes. You are unaware, then, that you are communicating your emotions to your spouse, but your spouse is quite aware.
A second kind of blind spot is our impact on others, which again, we cannot see, because these impacts occur inside the minds and hearts of the other person. We have indirect evidence of it, but it’s easy to misinterpret. “Surely, she knew I was joking,” we think; or, “I can’t imagine what I said upset him; it wouldn’t have upset me.” Sometimes we’re right, but often we’re wrong.
Would you say that most of the people reading this have a blind spot that negatively impacts their colleagues? If so, what can they do about it?
We all have blind spots. The open question is whether they are causing trouble in our lives. If life is good and relationships are nourishing and productive, then blind spots are probably not a big factor. But once tension creeps into your life, blind spots are a likely culprit.
The only way to figure it out is to ask. Don’t ask general questions like, “how are things?” or “let me know if there’s a problem.” You should actually use the words blind spots: “I wonder if there are behaviours that I have that are blind spots of mine that have impacts on you or others that I’m not aware of. I’m working on my blind spots, so it would be really useful for me to have this conversation.” Be open to the response, because you’re likely to think, “Wait, that’s not a blind spot! What you said about me is not true.” Exactly: that’s why it’s a blind spot.
In other work, you have found that high performers can also be ‘bad apples’. Please explain.
[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]