Inaccurate Estimation of Abilities Negatively Impacts Performance

A self-aware, strategic leader has a good sense of their strengths and weaknesses or is at least aware that they exist. They are comfortable with the notion that they are not perfect and will work to improve their leadership capabilities. A self-deceptive leader, on the other hand, is either not aware of their strengths and weaknesses or tries to hide them from themselves. Either way, they will do little to nothing to work on their leadership capabilities.

If a leader does not strive to improve in their role, they, the organization, and their followers will suffer due to the stagnation of that leader’s growth. Therefore, it is important that people in power work to achieve greater self-awareness by having the courage to accurately assess their abilities. Self-deception and secrecy do little to help a strategic leader accurately understand their aptitudes.

Self-Deception Negatively Impacting Performance

Self-deception costs a leader in a number of ways. Self-deception involves distorting, hiding, or conjuring up information based on truths or fictions. This effort has a mental expense. If they have to maintain multiple perspectives, both true and false, in their working memory, then their cognitive abilities will decline. In working to maintain these conflicting versions of information, they will show a detriment in their ability to engage in other tasks and go after other opportunities.[1]

Distorting information to satisfy one’s ego has only short-term benefits. Distorted information has lost its integrity. If a leader then has to make a decision using information that they rendered unrecognizable, it’s easy to see how their resulting actions may be inappropriate.[2] Their self-altered memory will make it more difficult for them to link personal and professional goals to their actual capabilities. They will have a more difficult time diagnosing their contributions to the workplace and may end up taking on tasks they are over- or under-qualified for.[3] The organization and its people will suffer from wasted productivity and poor inter-organizational relationships.

The ’Expert Snare’

A self-deceptive leader may be more likely to fall prey to deception themselves due to overconfidence in their abilities. In an interview I conducted with Anthony Pratkanis, he told me about a term from his field of social influence called the ‘expert snare.’ In this situation, the fraud criminal, confidence criminal, or deceiver wants their target to think they know more than they know, to feel like they have some expert knowledge that most people don’t. Their target becomes overconfident and self-deceives, thinking they have knowledge that they don’t.[4]

Pratkanis gave a couple of examples. One was the street con game called three-card Monte. In this common street con, the practitioner has three cards in front of them, one is the winning card that the practitioner points out before the game begins. They ask the target to pick the winning card after the con criminal move the cards around. The deceiver might bend a corner of the winning card, pretending he doesn’t see that it’s bent, and making sure the target knows it’s bent. The target thinks they have knowledge that they don’t, that the winning card is bent. All they have to do is follow that card as the practitioner moves them around and they win. Of course, the con criminal either takes the bend out of the winning card or bends another card, and the target loses by picking the wrong card. Financial fraud works similarly. In fact, he said that from his research he found that people with financial knowledge were more likely to fall prey to financial fraud than people who focus more on human relations. Knowledge of finance gave leaders more confidence than they deserved, and they fell prey to other-deception through their own self-deception.[5]

Secrecy Debilitates Judgment

A leader’s judgment is paramount in importance, as they are relied upon to make sound decisions based on the information at hand. Self-deception debilitates one’s character, judgment, and creativity. Such a decision-maker will suffer from a lower resistance to irrational thought when it comes to potential dangers they face. If a leader shuns criticism and feedback and chooses to believe what they want to believe regardless of the accuracy of the information, they may become mired down in erroneous beliefs.[6]

With judgment impaired, leaders present themselves as vulnerable to the dangers of the modern operating environment and the multitude of adversaries and competitors. Self-deception and secrecy prevent leaders from seeing alternatives clearly and from assessing the down-stream consequences of their actions. They are less capable of facing threats. By occupying their time, energy, and thought with deceptive schemes, the leader’s attention is averted away from danger, and their sense of acting in a timely manner is reduced.[7]

Self and Rater Disagreement

Modern organizations are embracing multi-rater feedback processes for their workers, leadership included. With this variation in opinions based on different positions and experiences, the receiver of the critique benefits from perspectives they may not have seen. If the person being rated agrees with the critiques of others, then there is congruence in opinion representing a more accurate picture of that person’s skills and abilities. If there is incongruence, then the receiver of the critique may rely more on their own opinion, inflating their self-rating and discounting the opinions of outside witnesses.[8]

A self-deceptive leader who shields themselves from the feedback of others may be creating a more comfortable reality for themselves in their mind. Their bias to place greater value on their opinion over others’ opinions may negatively impact their performance,[9] as they are less aware of the realities they face. Creating an alternate, internal reality that is different from the reality others are experiencing leads a leader to make poor judgments and hastens them to their eventual derailment.[10]

Inaccurate Estimation of Abilities

A leader can inaccurately estimate their leadership abilities, either up or down. They can overestimate their abilities, seeing themselves as more capable than they really are, or underestimate them, missing their strengths. Leaders who are low in self-awareness or tend to alienate themselves from peers and subordinates can lead to an inaccurate estimation of the abilities and challenges to their performance management.[11]

In a 1997 article in Organizational Dynamics, researchers Francis Yammarino and Leanne Atwater explained in detail the characteristics of over-estimators and under-estimators. These two authors studied upward feedback and superior-subordinate relationships in organizations extensively. Yammarino focused on how these relationships affect employee outcomes, and Atwater concentrated on leadership self-awareness. Together, they laid out the characteristics present in each type of leader regarding their estimation of their abilities to lead.[12]


· rate themselves significantly higher than others rate them

· think they are good performers, but whom others see as poor

· tend to misdiagnose their strengths and weaknesses

· are less effective at decision-making

· can be hostile, resentful, and negative

· belittle the need for their own training and development

· have low commitment to the organization and high turnover

· tend to have frequent conflicts with superiors and co-workers[13]


· either don’t recognize their strengths or are being overly modest

· think they are poor performers when they actually perform favorably

· are more successful and effective than over-estimators

· tend to misdiagnose their strengths and weaknesses

· are less effective at decision-making

· have low aspirations

· exhibit emotional highs and lows

· display low self-worth

· are pleasant to be around

· raise their self-evaluations when provided with feedback from others[14]

Strategic leaders that don’t recognize their weaknesses can do little to improve upon them. Overconfidence is one way that leaders strip themselves of an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and make strengths from weaknesses. Self-deception distracts a leader from their duty to provide sound judgment.


  • self-deception negatively impacts a leader’s performance

  • self-deceptive leaders are more likely to fall prey to someone else’s efforts to deceive them

  • over-estimating one’s abilities (seeing oneself as more capable than they are) and under-estimating one’s abilities (missing their strengths) both have deleterious effects

[1] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [2] Von Hippel and Trivers (2011) [3] Fleenor et al. (2010) [4] Pratkanis, A., in discussion with the author (February 2021) [5] Pratkanis, A., in discussion with the author (February 2021) [6] Bok (1989) [7] Bok (1989) [8] Yammarino and Atwater (1997) [9] Yammarino and Atwater (1997) [10] Finkelstein (2003) [11] Kuntz and Abbott (2017) [12] Yammarino and Atwater (1997) [13] Yammarino and Atwater (1997) [14] Yammarino and Atwater (1997)

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