The other night, I was in line at a favorite restaurant waiting to order and watched a young lady (probably high school age) take at least 10 ‘selfies’ in a matter of 5 minutes as she waited to order her food. She was relentless, taking a variety of photos at different angles and different directions, going from a straight face to an amazing, yet obviously fake smile. She was with a young man, probably a date, but would stop her conversation with him to pose for the camera on regular, and somewhat awkward moments.
The process was the same each time. She would raise her phone up, check her hair and surroundings, and suddenly turn on a perfect smile before she clicked the button. As soon as the picture was taken, her face went deadpan, and she was back to her normal affect. It was actually quite interesting to watch how quickly she could set up the perfect picture and face, and then return to her ‘normal’ self.
Now, in case you think this is just a rant about the self-obsessed, narcissistic younger generation, let me assure you it’s not. In fact, watching the young lady that day made me think of some of the issues we face as leaders. Faced with an organization that is constantly watching every move we make, ever word we utter, and every decision that goes wrong, we can become obsessed in making sure we control what people see and feel. We spend as much time as possible making sure that we give the right impression to the organization. Just like that young lady, we grow more deeply focused on our ‘leader selfie’ than we do actually leading and moving the organization ahead. In some ways, we’ve developed our own version of Body Dysmorphic Disorder, which you could call ‘Leadership Dysmorphic Disorder’ (LDD).
LDD could be characterized by an overarching concern with how you come across to your organization. Whether it’s making sure you say the ‘right’ things, get to know the ‘right’ people or even making sure that your office projects the right image as a leader, you may have developed LDD. This can go so far as to make sure that your chair is always sitting higher than the people you meet with in your office, or displaying all the correct credentials on your wall to ensure that people know you have the necessary skills and education to hold the position. Of course, none of this is wrong on its face, but when it becomes more important than the relationships you develop, you might have crossed over into LDD. When you cross that line, you will find yourself emotionally isolated and extremely distrustful to those around you. And the slightest perceived injustice will likely cause you to get angry quickly.
How do you know if you have LDD? Here are a few things to look for:
- You sense your team doesn’t tell you everything. Now, don’t get me wrong. Team members aren’t likely to tell you everything that goes on in the organization, but they should feel comfortable enough with you to tell you things that you need to hear, or things that might affect your success and the success of the organization. If you ask questions about how things are going and always seem to get an ‘everything’s fine’ response, that’s a sign there are things you aren’t hearing. People don’t trust someone who is self-focused, and will likely avoid telling bad news for fear of retribution or anger.
- You worry that you might say the ‘wrong thing.’It’s always a good idea to think through the impact of your words as a leader. However, if you feel the need to think through every interaction and find yourself agonizing over just the right word in more mundane discussions, you are hiding your real self. People can see right through a leader who is over measured in their words, and will immediately become suspicious and less likely to respond positively.
- You have a sense of entitlement. You have worked hard to get where you are in the organization, so don’t you deserve some special treatment? On some accounts, I would say you are right. As a leader, you know things that others don’t, and are actually held to a higher standard in many ways. But when you start to see others as not as deserving as you, you’re quickly approaching LDD. You have ‘dysmorphed’ yourself from a team member to someone who is above those you lead.
- Your decisions are usually based on your needs and not those of the organization. It’s easy to justify this one, isn’t it? After all, you are the leader of an organization, and the expectation is that you will do what is right for the organization above all else. However, when those decisions start to come easy for you and the needs of the individuals on your team take second seat at every turn — or your desires drive your decision to the exclusion of others — you have crossed over.
If you’ve found yourself with your own version of LDD, it’s time to start being yourself again. In fact, just being yourself as a leader has a number of benefits that will ultimately make you better at what you do, improve the morale of the team, and even improve employee engagement. Here are just a few of the benefits of being your genuine self:
- Employee engagement rises. If you suffer from LDD, you are likely more focused on yourself than your team. That’s just a fact. However, the more narcissistic you become, the more disengaged the team becomes. In fact, a 2009 study by Florida State University found a high correlation between narcissistic leaders and the toxicity of the organizations they lead. In this study, 31 percent indicated they felt their leader exaggerated accomplishments to look good in front of others, and 25 percent said their boss had an inflated view of himself (or herself). In addition, those with narcissistic leaders reported lower levels of job satisfaction and engagement, and higher levels of stress on the job. LDD definitely lowers employee engagement.
- Self-confidence increases. According to Sigmund Freud, narcissistic personality disorder is a pervasive disorder characterized by self-centeredness, lack of empathy, and an exaggerated sense of self-importance. However, the more narcissistic you become, the less confidence you actually gain in your daily dealings, leading you to be even more self-centered. When you rid yourself of self-centeredness, you’ll find that your confidence in your abilities will rise.
- Relationships improve.Both personally and professionally, the more focused you are on yourself, the less focused you can be on others. Studies have shown that people in relationships with narcissists are more likely to engage in manipulative and game-playing behaviors as a way of protecting themselves. They are also perceived to be much less committed to the relationship. What this means in the work environment is that you are likely getting less than the full story from your team, and they are certainly much less committed to you, and thus, the organization. When you get over your LDD, you will actually find the quality of your relationships getting better, and commitment getting stronger.
- Performance improves. According to research by San Diego State University, those who tend toward narcissistic, overconfident behaviors are more likely to do poorly in their studies and more likely to drop out. This is because they had an over-inflated view of themselves and their abilities, and thus didn’t feel the need to study or work hard to attain their goals. In the same way, leaders who tend to be overly confident in their abilities (ironically due to their lack of confidence in their abilities) are more likely to put less effort into their work and blame others when things don’t go well. As a leader, if you can move away from your LDD, you will likely need to put more effort into your work, and can use the improved relationships to get work done across the team.
If you find yourself taking virtual ‘selfies’ in front of your organization, its important you find out why, and then work to make changes. No one, especially your team, is served by you putting on your best face at all times. People want to work for leaders who are genuine in their behaviors, honest in their relationships, and focused on the good of everyone. Ultimately, being yourself is what you owe your team and your organization. No one is well served when the real you isn’t present.