Kevin Sharer: Self-Inflicted Wounds

Self Inflicated

Kevin Sharer
Kevin Sharer

Former Amgen CEO Professor Kevin Sharer discusses why high performing people succumb to self-inflicted wounds, and how they can avoid them, or at least minimize the damage they cause.

[stag_dropcap font_size=”50px” style=”normal”]P[/stag_dropcap]resident Clinton is reported to have said that in life all the biggest wounds are self-inflicted. The American news this week is overflowing with the story of a TV personality who I am sure would agree. Self-inflicted wounds are those decisions or actions we take, falsehoods we commit, or damage we inflict on others that are entirely avoidable but once they happen are impossible to fully take back.

Why do these things happen? Why do people who are certainly smart enough and accomplished enough to know better fall prey to this pattern? The reasons are complex and varied but many times are simple to diagnose in retrospect. Being insecure is part of being human and our tendency to want to seem more than we are is common. Shame is such a powerful and toxic emotion, that we will do and say things that can go way over the line to avoid the feeling in the moment. Self-confidence and the desire to win or be recognized are often strengths, but the shadow of those strengths can cause us to embellish, fabricate, attack without cause, or to take unreasonable risk. Human relationships are so complex and varied that there are no succinct, widely applicable reasons we hurt those we love, but sadly we do.

What can we make of all this? How would we unpack this all too common set of human failings in an HBS classroom?

[stag_dropcap font_size=”50px” style=”normal”]T[/stag_dropcap]he first truth to embrace is that we all will do things we regret and, even will do things we deeply regret. Hopefully our errors of behavior or judgment are misdemeanors and we avoid the truly unrecoverable. The things that are most damaging are illegal acts, ethical lapses, judgment errors that squander major assets or cause injury or worse, and damaging those we love in ways that forever fracture the relationship. Avoid these four. Period.  But also know that you are human and have deep seated imperfections that in the moment or with lack of considered reflection will cause you to say or do things that inflict damage to yourself and often others that you will sorely regret. It is part of life.

What do you do when it happens? Hopefully it is a very rare event, and not a repeat of a prior error. Own it very soon, authentically and intelligently. By trying to muddle this phase we only make things worse. Trying to escape or deflect is inevitably transparent to others. Given enough time, there are no secrets, so get it out now. This is particularly true in the social media age, and the more prominent you are the bigger the audience and quicker the response.Be authentic, too. People can detect insincerity easily. Finally, be smart in picking how, with what words and actions, where and when you fess up. Owning our errors soon and sincerely is a very difficult thing for humans to do, and it seems most difficult for high achieving, ambitious, and otherwise intelligent people.

[stag_dropcap font_size=”50px” style=”normal”]P[/stag_dropcap]art of owning the error is to sincerely make amends to the greatest extent possible. Events cannot be erased, but amends are always possible. Make what you do sincere and proportional. Going through the motions for credit will be found out and apparent to others. The underlying doom loop driver in the self-inflicted wound cycle is lack of authenticity.

Why do otherwise smart people think we cannot detect in them whether they are sincere? Proportional has elements of magnitude of response and duration. Some things will not be atoned without real time and effort. The tragic thing about self-inflicted wounds is that they can happen quickly but can take years or a lifetime to balance. There must be a Shakespearean quote.

Despite a certain inevitability to self-inflicted wounds, there are defenses. The first one is mindset that this phenomenon is universal. Moreover, knowing all is revealed in time can put a brake on damaging tendencies. As is the case in so many other phases of career and life, being self-aware helps. When we are deeply self-aware, we know our negative tendencies and so we can guard against them developing into things we regret. Having a trusted, empowered network to help you stay on the right path or talk with helps. Healthy, trusting, supportive relationships are more understanding than brittle, uncommunicative situations and so create a context where others will hear your apology. True self-reflection and in depth reviewing of what we have experienced, decided, and done to see patterns helps many.

[stag_dropcap font_size=”50px” style=”normal”]F[/stag_dropcap]inally, when we are making or leading a group that is making high stakes and complex decisions it is helpful to step back and get on the balcony. Do we have the right people involved, are we using facts and logic rather than primarily emotion, is the environment psychologically healthy so people are free to be truly honest, do we consider the context and history of our situation, have we taken enough time and considered alternatives? Do we fully understand the risks and consequences of being wrong and guarded against as much as we can their consequences? The big idea is to recognize that self-inflicted wounds happen, act effectively when they occur, build defenses to avoid transgressions in the first place, and to be sure our errors never result in consequences to others or ourselves that are profound.

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