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This is the second in a series of twelve articles about Self-Handicapping Leadership by Phillip Decker and Jordan Mitchell. All articles can be read without knowledge of the previous ones. You’ll find an overview of articles at the end of this article.

Success by avoidance of Self-Handicapping Leadership

Scholars suggest that leaders’ ability to both recognize and learn from setbacks and short-term failures, is a critical element of leadership (Manz et al. 2015). It pays off in learning, personal growth, skill development, persistence, and a host of other desirable outcomes. They moreover suggest that habitually explaining away short-term failures by making excuses and covering one’s tracks to create an illusion of success can hinder leadership success. The latter is what we refer to as self-handicapping leadership.

Most leaders know what is required to be an effective leader, but Gallup research (Beck & Harter 2014; Adkins 2015) shows that only one in ten consistently practice those behaviors. Instead, leaders often make up for this deficit by using impression management techniques to manage how others view lapses in their leadership. Still these leaders let the excuses that are used to manage how others view them, lead to reduced effort and learning (Higgins & Berglas 1990; Snyder 1990).

Because excuses work therein they at least have short-term benefits, leaders feel this as ‘rewarding’ and more so as a reason to continue making excuses. Hence, leaders make excuses time and time again – while neglecting their own skill development as well as their consideration for how this affects others such as their employees. This reduced effort ultimately leads to negative employee and corporate outcomes.

Self-Handicapping and Impression Management

One of the least discussed and potentially harmful impression management techniques is self-handicapping (see previous article). Self-handicapping is the process in where “people withdraw effort, create obstacles to success, or make excuses so they can maintain a public or self-image of competence” (Decker & Mitchell, 2016). Self-handicapping is an extension of attribution theory into leadership – attribution theory concerning peoples’ attempt to understand others by attributing feelings, beliefs, and intentions to them. It is in essence a slippery slope to poor leadership, because leaders who self-handicap are uncertain and rely on “face-saving” strategies rather than on innovative solutions (Hoffman, 2007).

Self-handicapping influences impressions of others through two processes:

  1. Lowering expectations before the task
  2. Changing attributions about the individual after the task such as discounting or externalizing the blame ordinarily associated with failure.

Examples of claimed self-handicapping in business include: claiming anxiety, lack of time, task difficulty, lack of authority, and lack of resources.

Examples of behavioral self-handicapping in businesses include: setting unrealistic goals, avoiding accountability, and reducing effort – avoiding necessary confrontations with employees or not calling out team members on improper or wasteful behavior.

There are both positive (short-term) effects and negative (long-term) consequences of self-handicapping. A leader who continually self-handicaps does not typically improve the impressions of his boss or peers over time, make himself happier, engage his employees, or move a team forward in the mission of the organization. We believe that the reason leaders can get stuck in this vicious cycle is because:

1) it is difficult to admit one’s self-defeating behavior

2) it is a habit that is reinforced, and or

3) the individual may have suppressed knowledge of their own behavior and is in denial.

A leader who self-handicaps, is by modeling reinforcing the use of this strategy and may lead others also to self-handicap – such as a team not confronting peers or bosses. We believe self-handicapping can also contribute to failure concerning organizational change initiatives.

How to Avoid the Pitfall of becoming a Self-Handicapping Leader?

Much is known about the reasons and consequences of self-handicapping; less is known about what inhibits self-handicapping. Several personality traits are shown as associated with self-handicapping such as being narcissistic, extraverted, and pessimistic. Gender does not seem to be a significant moderator of self-handicapping. Self-esteem, on the other hand, is strongly associated with self-handicapping.

A rather simple method to prevent people from using self-handicapping strategies would be to “turn off” all the negative attitudes and self-perceptions that create uncertainty and threat. Such an undertaking in a workforce would be difficult and frowned upon by most CEOs reluctant to fund such activities (though they may be doing it now through executive counseling).

Given these difficulties, it might make much more sense to search for a factor that helps to reduce self-handicapping even when self-esteem risk-factors are still present. We believe that the most promising approach thus seems to be fostering mastery-approach goals in leaders and teams.

Self-handicapping

Goal Orientation

Those with mastery goals do not interpret failure as feedback concerning their self-esteem. Rather, they view negative experiences as opportunities for personal growth. They are more likely to attribute failure to adjustable and controllable factors such as low effort. Goal orientation refers to whether individuals primarily strive to enhance their knowledge, skills, and competences, or generally just attempt to demonstrate their abilities and expertise. The latter is referred to as a performance orientation.

Performance Orientation

Performance orientation can be subdivided into:

  • performance approach – demonstrating superiority in relation to others, and
  • performance-avoidance – avoiding to look less able than others; avoiding mistakes

Those with performance orientation compare their performance to others and tend to flourish primarily when they undertake tasks they have practiced or rehearsed extensively. When they feel an audience might evaluate them, they feel anxious and begin to self-handicap. Additionally, they often perceive other individuals as rivals instead of allies and are, therefore, less willing to exchange resources or support other people. Those with a performance orientation have a reluctance to formulate strategic plans, which tend to obstruct performance.

Mastery Goal Orientation

Mastery goal orientation, on the other hand, prevents self-handicapping (Schwinger & Stiensmeier-Pelster 2011). Those with mastery goal orientation focus on learning and developing competencies and a challenge does not compromise job satisfaction or create anxiety.

Goal orientation increases the capacity of individuals to withstand obstacles and adjust to change; it fosters resilience to an increased workload. Mastery goals facilitate learning when tasks are confusing or when failures are prevalent. Those with a mastery orientation are furthermore better at conflict management, because they try to integrate conflicting opinions to form a unified understanding. They set more challenging and effective goals such as for example ‘steeper sales goals’, which ultimately enhance performance. They are also more inclined to direct all their attention to the activity they are undertaking.

All of the processes behind the effects of having mastery goals are not yet known, but this seems to be a promising avenue by which to reduce self-handicapping. Developing a goal orientation in the individual employee or team can easily be extended to standardized business programs that are designed to prevent or minimize self-handicapping (Chadwick & Raver, 2015).

Developing a goal orientation in the individual employee or team can easily be extended to standardized business programs that are designed to prevent or minimize self-handicapping

Goal Orientation in Teams

Goal orientation can be the norm of a group as well as an individual. Group norms are standards for appropriate behavior that develop through interactions among team members. They are informally agreed upon, shared among members and thus become a core part of the group’s identity. Group norms are also known to reduce ambiguity and allow members to predict each other’s behavior.

We suggest that mastery norms would encourage members to approach problems as opportunities for increasing the team and organization’s competencies in satisfying customers or increasing productivity. A team’s goal orientation promotes high levels of creativity and task-related discussions, experimentation with possible solutions, and a high tolerance for immediate setbacks so long as they lead to long-term improvements. This orientation creates an environment where members more frequently and actively seek feedback. So, how to create such a team norm?

Teams quickly establish norms at the initial group formation. It would be best to measure individual mastery goal orientation and expect these individuals to come together and create a team mastery goal orientation rather than a performance orientation. We know that education can affect goal orientation, so this should also be done initially as mastery goal orientation training’ is shown to be very effective and successful (Gera Noordzij et al. 2013).

If you give a man a fish, he eats; if you teach him how to fish, he takes care of himself and his family

Finally, performance expectations should always be expressed in a mastery goal orientation rather than a performance one. We argue that group members’ shared exposure to a continuous mastery goal environment can create a new group reality that is distinct from their individual tendencies. Over time, this new goal oriented team culture will help group members to learn how they can approach and interpret their work experiences with a focus on learning and increased competence over performance. If you give a man a fish, he eats; if you teach him how to fish, he takes care of himself and his family.

Mastery Goal Orientation as a Recruitment Strategy

Obvious at this point is that an organization should make an attempt to find workers, who already possess a mastery goal orientation. Individuals with a mastery orientation link success with effort and persistence; they perceive challenging settings as opportunities to gain knowledge and expertise, and maintain their effort throughout frustrating times.

Most who has held a job recognizes that employees are motivated by a number of different factors. Understanding employees’ underlying goal and achievement motives can help explain the different patterns of impression management and self-handicapping behaviors displayed at work (Read more about what motivates Knowledge Worker HERE or what motivates different generations HERE). There are methods to measure mastery goal orientation in school and at work (Baranik et al. 2007).Self-handicapping leadership

We believe that a marker of mastery goal orientation may be humility – having a modest view of self-importance. This may be a sign of reduced impression management and therefore little self-handicapping. Unemployed individuals, who exhibit a mastery orientation, seek jobs more intensely (Creed et al. 2009). This is enhanced when employment counselors help job seekers to view their job search as a learning situation that requires improving their competencies rather than viewing a job search as a results-oriented situation. The latter being common practice.

Consequently, organizations can pursue those applicants that signal to have learning goals rather than performance goals. They can find clues to this by the degree to which job seekers frame their job-search process as a learning situation.

From Performance Management to Mastery Management

When performance management tools place emphasis on performance goals, then employees worry about: meeting standards, outperforming one another, or not looking incompetent. These are all triggers of self-handicapping. Conversely, by emphasizing mastery goals in performance management, employees are essentially invited to focus on learning and growing, rather than protecting and preserving. The start to this process is to change the content measured – from performance to mastery. By conveying an activity’s meaning in terms of the customer, the process shifts focus away from department standards or “pleasing the boss.”

Mastery-oriented employees will, over time, get accountability for their own competence and should therefore be involved in decision-making processes. Success should be defined in terms of improvement and learning, rather than ‘not making mistakes’ and being “better than someone else.”

Mastery-approach goal orientation predicts motivational processes and ultimate success (Radosevich et al. 2007). Individuals, who master the goal orientation approach, have a desire to learn and increase competence as well as set their personal performance goals at higher levels. Both of these phenomena can be incorporated into performance management systems. Performance standards should be about learning and growth, not about performance achievement.

let’s start by changing the name from “Performance Management” to “Mastery Management”

Workers with a performance orientation strive to demonstrate, not necessarily increase, their expertise and competence, and to accumulate achievements. They are motivated to attract favorable evaluations, fostering a dislike to risk and curiosity, as well as bringing performance to a halt when not observed or when their goals are reached. Changing from performance to a mastery goal orientation will thus move employees to higher self-set goals and a continual desire to be better. This search for “mastery” will ultimately drive production and customer satisfaction more than any performance orientation. So, let’s start by changing the name from “Performance Management” to “Mastery Management.”

Goal Orientation as a Major Block to Self-Handicapping Leadership

A long time ago in the late 1800s, an Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, found that 20% of the pea pods in his garden held 80% of the peas and went on to show that 20% of the Italians at the time owned 80% of the land. Thus was born Pareto’s 80/20 principle. At work, you have 20% engaged self-starters and 80% that come to work and function as required.

The 80% wait for orders, keep their heads down, do what is required, and stay out of trouble. All leaders hope to find more of the 20% using some magic talent management system; but, usually don’t. We suggest what is needed is a company-wide conversation about the negative outcomes of self-handicapping and the use of goal orientation as the major block to self-handicapping.

All employees want to have fun, do a good job, and work toward something useful – at least, in the beginning. By not reducing self-handicapping, we are imposing on our employees a huge burden of leaders modeling and continuing self-defeating behaviors. Just think about moving half of those 80% folks over to the 20% column. How would that affect your workday? Eliminating self-handicapping can do this and building a goal orientation is one place to start.

References

Adkins, A. (2015). Majority of U.S. Employees Not Engaged Despite Gains in 2014. Retrieved December 9, 2015

Burns, D. J. (2005). Performance on the Final Exam in the Principles of Marketing Course: Relationships with Self-Handicapping. Journal for Advancement of Marketing Education, 6, 10–27.

Chadwick, I. C., & Raver, J. L. (2015). Motivating Organizations to Learn Goal Orientation and Its Influence on Organizational Learning. Journal of Management, 41(3), 957–986.

Crant, J. M., & Bateman, T. S. (1993). Assignment of Credit and Blame for Performance Outcomes. Academy of Management Journal, 36(1), 7–27.

Creed, P. A., King, V., Hood, M., & McKenzie, R. (2009). Goal orientation, self-regulation strategies, and job-seeking intensity in unemployed adults. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(3), 806–813.

Decker, P., & Mitchell, J. (2016). Self-Handicapping Leadership: The Nine Behaviors Holding Back Employees, Managers, and Companies, and How to Overcome Them. Pearson FT Press.

Higgins, R. L., & Berglas, S. (1990). The maintenance and treatment of self-handicapping: From risk-taking to face-saving—and back. In R. L. Higgins & R. L. (Ed) Higgins (Eds.), Self-handicapping: The paradox that isn’t. (pp. 187–238). New York, NY, US: Plenum Press.

Hoffman, D. A. (2007). Self-handicapping and Managers’ Duty of Care. Wake Forest Law Review, 42(3), 803–829.

Luginbuhl, J., & Palmer, R. (1991). Impression management aspects of self-handicapping: Positive and negative effects. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17(6), 655–662.

Manz, C. C., Skaggs, B. C., Pearce, C. L., & Wassenaar, C. L. (2015). Serving one another: Are shared and self-leadership the keys to service sustainability? Journal of Organizational Behavior, 36(4), 607–612.

Noordzij, G., van Hooft, E. A. J., van Mierlo, H., van Dam, A., & Born, M. P. (2013). The Effects of a Learning-Goal Orientation Training on Self-Regulation: A Field Experiment Among Unemployed Job Seekers. Personnel Psychology, 66(3), 723–755.

Park, S. W., & Brown, C. M. (2014). Different perceptions of self‐handicapping across college and work contexts. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 44(2), 124–132.

Radosevich, D. J., Allyn, M. R., & Yun, S. (2007). Goal orientation and goal setting: Predicting performance by integrating four-factor goal orientation theory with goal setting processes. Seoul Journal of Business, 13(1).

Schwinger, M., & Stiensmeier-Pelster, J. (2011). Prevention of Self-Handicapping–The Protective Function of Mastery Goals. Learning and Individual Differences, 21(6), 699–709.

Schwinger, M., Wirthwein, L., Lemmer, G., & Steinmayr, R. (2014). Academic self-handicapping and achievement: A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(3), 744–761.

Snyder, C. R. (1990). Self-handicapping processes and sequelae: On the taking of a psychological dive. In R. L. Higgins & R. L. (Ed) Higgins (Eds.), Self-handicapping: The paradox that isn’t. (pp. 107–150). New York, NY, US: Plenum Press.

Baranik, L. E., Barron, K. E., & Finney, S. J. (2007). Measuring Goal Orientation in a Work Domain: Construct Validity Evidence for the 2×2 Framework. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 67(4), 697–718.

Beck, R., & Harter, J. (2014, March 13). Why Good Managers Are So Rare. Retrieved October 10, 2016.

Chadwick, I. C., & Raver, J. L. (2015). Motivating Organizations to Learn Goal Orientation and Its Influence on Organizational Learning. Journal of Management, 41(3), 957–986.

Creed, P. A., King, V., Hood, M., & McKenzie, R. (2009). Goal orientation, self-regulation strategies, and job-seeking intensity in unemployed adults. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(3), 806–813.

Decker, P., & Mitchell, J. (2016). Self-Handicapping Leadership: The Nine Behaviors Holding Back Employees, Managers, and Companies, and How to Overcome Them. Pearson FT Press.

Higgins, R. L., & Berglas, S. (1990). The maintenance and treatment of self-handicapping: From risk-taking to face-saving—and back. In R. L. Higgins & R. L. (Ed) Higgins (Eds.), Self-handicapping: The paradox that isn’t. (pp. 187–238). New York, NY, US: Plenum Press.

Hoffman, D. A. (2007). Self-handicapping and Managers’ Duty of Care. Wake Forest Law Review, 42(3), 803–829.

Manz, C. C., Skaggs, B. C., Pearce, C. L., & Wassenaar, C. L. (2015). Serving one another: Are shared and self-leadership the keys to service sustainability? Journal of Organizational Behavior, 36(4), 607–612.

Noordzij, G., van Hooft, E. A. J., van Mierlo, H., van Dam, A., & Born, M. P. (2013). The Effects of a Learning-Goal Orientation Training on Self-Regulation: A Field Experiment Among Unemployed Job Seekers. Personnel Psychology, 66(3), 723–755.

Park, S. W., & Brown, C. M. (2014). Different perceptions of self‐handicapping across college and work contexts. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 44(2), 124–132.

Radosevich, D. J., Allyn, M. R., & Yun, S. (2007). Goal orientation and goal setting: Predicting performance by integrating four-factor goal orientation theory with goal setting processes. Seoul Journal of Business, 13(1).

Schwinger, M., & Stiensmeier-Pelster, J. (2011). Prevention of Self-Handicapping–The Protective Function of Mastery Goals. Learning and Individual Differences, 21(6), 699–709.

Snyder, C. R. (1990). Self-handicapping processes and sequelae: On the taking of a psychological dive. In R. L. Higgins & R. L. (Ed) Higgins (Eds.), Self-handicapping: The paradox that isn’t. (pp. 107–150). New York, NY, US: Plenum Press.

List of Articles in Self-Handicapping Leadership Series

#1: Why Self-Handicapping Leadership can be a Hurtful Strategy

#2: From Self-Handicapping Leadership to Mastery Management

#3: Overcoming Self-Handicapping Leadership and the Problem of Accountability

#4: Self-Awareness and Self-Handicapping Leadership

#5: Tunnel Vision – Its Drawbacks and How to Stay Clear of it

#6: How to Skyrocket Employee Motivation and Engagement

#7: Be Best at the Managerial Decision Making Process

#8: Importance of Communication for Leadership and Management

#9 Talent Development Planning and How to Get it Right?

#10 Are you Micromanaging? STOP IT. See Why

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