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How to Prevent Hubris From Destroying Your Company

Hubris is like a disease that can infect your top employees. Find out how to identify and treat it before it harms your business.
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If one of your top performers is given to arrogance and showboating, you may have a disease on the loose that you need to contain. As the leader of your company, you need to take responsibility and bring him back down to earth.

Steven Berglas, who was a faculty member at Harvard Medical School's Department of Psychiatry for 25 years and now is an executive coach and corporate consultant, says hubris can topple organizations. "Hubris, the sin of overweening pride or arrogance, may be the most misunderstood disorder an executive will ever be confronted with. It's not just narcissism; it's much more dangerous than that," Berglas writes in the Harvard Business Review.

Berglas says that unlike narcissism, which is a character disorder, hubris is a reactive disorder that can take hold after people have experienced continued success, had a major accomplishment, or read too many laudatory articles about themselves. Either way, it is an "unfortunate consequence" that leads the sufferer to "supreme overconfidence" or "the transient delusion that he is bulletproof," he writes. "Many good people will, under bad circumstances, suffer from hubris--but they tend to recover after toppling from their pedestals shrinks their egos back down to size."

As the moral of Aesop's fable "The Tortoise and the Hare" taught, at the end of all bouts of unchecked hubris lies failure. So when you're running a company, you need to root out all hubris that pops up, Berglas says. Below, read his suggestions for how to do so effectively through tough love, humility, and reminders of your company's principles.

Humility Is a Virtue

Your top performers are the most likely employees to fall victim to hubris, so make sure you're paying attention to their actions. Once you realize one or more people are letting their accomplishments go to their head, remind them of the most important company virtue. "Chief among the aspects of your corporate culture that you must imbue in all employees--but particularly the stars who are most vulnerable to hubris--is the virtue of humility," he writes.

No Showboating Allowed

If an employee starts making public displays of his success, you have to reel him in. "This is the time for tough love: Let him know in stern terms that his celebratory antics are not becoming. Remind him that most people enjoy rooting for underdogs, dark horses, and long shots--especially when they're competing against top dogs," Berglas writes. "It's human nature to enjoy the sight of an idol falling off a pedestal."

Don't Add Fuel to the Fire

There is no need for celebrations of your top performers' success. Doing well at work shouldn't be blown up into a knighting ceremony. "This is why humble pie should be the only dessert served in the corporate cafeteria: If an employee earns a reputation for being arrogant (exhibiting hubris), everyone, even colleagues, will want to see him fail," Berglas writes. "Since it is well known that 'heavy rests the head that wears the crown,' never hold coronation ceremonies at your business, and if a star insists on self-anointment, let him know that he is not engendering admiration in others but, rather, making himself a target."

Bring Him Back Down

Berglas says to help a hubristic employee before the bubble bursts, you can elicit help from psychoanalyst Carl Jung. "Through pride we are ever deceiving ourselves. But deep down below the surface… a still, small voice says to us, something is out of tune," Jung said. Berglas advises using that small voice in the employee's head to "nudge him off his high horse." 

Reinstate Your Love

To bring these employees back down to earth safely, Berglas says to not forget about compassion. It may be hard for you to show them love, but a man drunk with pride will start swinging to defend his ego. "Remember that you--like all of us--are naturally repulsed when super-talented people swagger, regardless of how well they perform for you. Thus, when delivering 'tough love,' be sure to overemphasize the love--the 'tough' will take care of itself," he writes.

IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons
Last updated: Apr 15, 2014

WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com

Will Yakowicz is a staff writer for Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and local politics for The Brooklyn Paper and was the editor of Park Slope Patch. He has also reported in the West Bank and Moscow for Tablet Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.




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