How Being ‘Good-ish’ Can Make You A Better Leader

How Being ‘Good-ish’ Can Make You A Better Leader

We all like to think we're good people. Why Our "I Am Good" Identity Means So Much Imagine an identity you feel is incredibly important to you -- maybe you value being an intelligent student, a powerful leader, or a helpful friend. And in our pursuit of that affirmation, we become less focused on being a good person, or any of our other identities that matter -- like being a good ally, or friend. Chugh and her colleagues have conducted research regarding people's morality in times of self-threat. Ultimately, Chugh and colleagues found that when participants felt faced with a threat, they were more likely to morally disengage, or turn off their conscience. To further emphasize how hard people work to protect their "good person" identities, Chugh mentions Taylor Phillips and colleagues' research on the 'hard-knock-life' effect. Unfortunately, the problem arises when you believe you're either inherently good or inherently bad, with no room for mistakes or growth. Perhaps someone at work called you privileged, so you felt judged for your lack of charity work. Chugh told me how important it is to "let go of being a good person and embrace being a good-ish person. Your comment makes you feel reassured that you're a good person, but ultimately, it doesn't help you grow, or recognize the blind spot you might've missed.

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We all like to think we’re good people.

We do our best at work. We donate to charity. We’re loyal to our friends. We’re kind to our parents. And, particularly in times of doubt, we pull these examples to the very forefront of our minds to remind ourselves we’re doing good.

Typically, our idea of “good” and “bad” is relatively black and white — in movies like The Lion King, for instance, you’re either evil like Scar, or good like Simba. You can’t be both.

But what if our desire to cling tightly to the idea of being “good” actually gets in the way of us being better? According to Dolly Chugh, when it comes to being a good person, our either/or mentality does just that.

Chugh — who is a psychologist, a management professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and the author of The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias says it’s critical we let go of our rigid view of what it means to be good. If we don’t, we risk being unable to own and grow from our mistakes.

I sat down with Chugh to learn how our narrow view of “good” versus “bad” can actually impede us — from becoming better leaders, employees, and people.

Why Our “I Am Good” Identity Means So Much

Imagine an identity you feel is incredibly important to you — maybe you value being an intelligent student, a powerful leader, or a helpful friend.

Let’s say you value being a strong leader, but you’re not sure if your colleagues would attribute this trait to you. As Chugh writes, “When we are unsure whether an important identity has been granted by others, our craving for affirmation becomes more intense and urgent … i.e., if I value being seen as a loving mom, then I feel self-threat when other mothers judge me for working full-time.”

If you value being a leader, but don’t feel properly acknowledged by others, you might feel self-threat when someone makes a comment like, “I’ve always thought you were too quiet to be a leader.” Someone else, who doesn’t care about being a good leader, might not feel such a threat.

But here’s the catch-22: When faced with self-threat (e.g., a threat to your identity), many of us become frenzied as we try to gain affirmation for that specific identity. And in our pursuit of that affirmation, we become less focused on being a good person, or any of our other identities that matter — like being a good ally, or friend.

As Chugh writes, “The affirmation [we desperately seek] relieves the self-threat, but ironically, we end up acting less like — not more like — the people we mean to be.”

Chugh and her colleagues have conducted research regarding people’s morality in times of self-threat. For instance, Chugh asked participants to do a word scramble task, and measured whether each participant saw the task as a challenge or a threat. Ultimately, Chugh and colleagues found that when participants felt faced with a threat, they were more likely to morally disengage, or turn off their conscience.

There have been other studies that have explored the correlation between self-threat and identity. One study asked 300 adults in England to indicate their intentions to change their travel behaviors. Half of the participants were shown short transport-related descriptions that were designed to threaten the participant’s target identity (being a parent); the other half were shown neutral descriptions.

As you might’ve guessed, participants who experienced self-threat were far more resistant to change than those who weren’t.

All of which is to say: If being “good” is an important identity to you (which, to most of us, it is), then you’re more likely to morally disengage, and resist change, when you’re experiencing self-threat — even…

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