Briefings Magazine

Deflect or Reflect?

The start of summer when I was growing up meant endless time playing baseball in an empty lot. 

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By: Gary Burnison, Chief Executive Officer

Yet I still remember that day—and the crack of the bat when one of my friends pulverized the ball with a towering shot in the air.

Then suddenly there was a reverberating crash of a window being shattered.

Some scattered, not wanting to get caught—others were just too scared to move! But when the adults asked us what happened, that’s when the fingers started to point. It wasn’t me…

For most of us, these are some of our earliest life experiences—when we were totally dependent on everyone and accountable to no one, David Dotlich, a senior leader in Korn Ferry’s Consulting business, told me. “Back then, it was so easy to blame others when things went wrong—because our world was all about us.”

The fact is, we all want love, approval, and acceptance. “And that’s why we are hardwired early on to blame others and deflect our own faults,” Dotlich added. Consequently, we spend the rest of our lives trying our best to overcome that instinct.

“We are hardwired early on to blame others and deflect our own faults.”

It’s quite the paradox—knowing we’re naturally one thing and fighting to be another. 

Today, it’s so easy to point the finger at others for disappointing outcomes while overlooking our own faults. “It’s not me … it’s everybody else.” Sometimes the moment clouds context.

Our firm’s nearly 100 million assessments bear this out. No one is infallible. Nearly 80 percent of leaders have blind spots about their own skills—and that carries a cost to those around us and our organizations. Our research also reveals that people who greatly overstate their abilities are 6.2 times more likely to derail than those who are self-aware.

We are all works in progress. So, instead of deflecting—we need to be reflecting. Here are some thoughts:

Moving self-interest and selfishness to shared interest and selflessness. Rather than trying to hide our self-interest, we need to recognize it for what it is. Then it becomes the leader’s job to transform self-interest into shared interest.

When our personalities meet performance. Our firm’s research reveals five key factors for achieving superior organizational outcomes. Three are intuitive: purpose, leadership, and strategy. The other two probably don’t come to mind automatically: accountability and capability—but together, they contribute about 50 percent of performance. The same holds true for individuals and our personalities—accountability is the all-important foundation.

Accountability is a good look in the mirror. When most people think about accountability, they immediately look through the lens of how accountable others are to them. But first, we need to look in the mirror and see how accountable we are to ourselves—for who we are and how we act. A person’s word is only as good as the last promise kept. And, if we want to know how we’re doing, we only need to count the number of times we say, “I’m sorry”—in all its forms, including “That’s on me,” “That was the wrong call,” and “You were right.”

Responsibility is in the present, accountability is forever. 

It’s not “what’s in it for me”—it’s about shifting our focus to what we can create for others. This is the maturation process of becoming a leader … not to deflect, but to reflect.


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