Who’s the One With the Problem?

Early in my Ph.D. program at UCLA, I was one of 13 students in a class led by Bob Tannenbaum. Bob had come up with the term “sensitivity training,” had published the most widely distributed article to appear in Harvard Business Review and was a full-time professor. He was an important person in our department.

In Bob’s class, we were encouraged to discuss anything we wanted. I began by talking about people in Los Angeles. For three weeks, I talked about how “screwed up” people in Los Angeles were.

“They wear those $78 sequined blue jeans and drive gold Rolls Royces; they are plastic and materialistic; all they care about is impressing others; and they really do not understand what is deep and important in life.”

One day after listening to me, Bob looked at me and asked, “Marshall, who are you talking to?”

“I am speaking to the group,” I answered.

“Who in the group are you talking to?”

“Well, I am talking to everybody,” I replied.

“I don’t know if you realize this,” Bob said, “but each time you have spoken, you have looked at only one person. You have addressed your comments toward only one person. And you seem interested in the opinion of only one person. Who is that person?”

“Let me think about it,” I replied. Then, after careful consideration, I said, “You?”

He said, “That’s right, me. There are 12 other people in this room. Why don’t you seem interested in any of them?”

Now that I’d dug myself a hole, I decided to dig deeper. I said, “You know, Dr. Tannenbaum, I think you can understand the true significance of what I am saying. I think you can truly understand how screwed up it is to try to run around and impress people all the time. I believe you have a deep understanding of what is really important in life.”

Bob said, “Marshall, is there any chance that for the last three weeks all you have been trying to do is impress me?”

I was amazed at Bob’s obvious lack of insight. “Not at all!” I declared. “I don’t think you have understood one thing I have said. I have been explaining to you how screwed up it is to try to impress other people. I think you have totally missed my point, and I am a little disappointed in your lack of understanding.”

“No, I think I understand,” Bob said.

After six months, it finally dawned on me that the person with the issue wasn’t him. The person with the issue was me.

Two of the lessons I began to understand from this experience were that it’s much easier to see our problems in others than it is to see them in ourselves, and even though we may be able to deny our problems to ourselves, they may be very obvious to those observing us.

There’s almost always a discrepancy between the self we think we are and the self the rest of the world sees. The lesson I learned — and work to help others understand — is that the rest of the world has a more accurate perspective than we do.

If we can stop, listen and think about what others see in us, we have a great opportunity. We can compare the self that we want to be with the self we are presenting. We can then begin to make real changes.

I’ve told this story probably 300 times, and I’ve thought about it more frequently than I’ve told it. Often when I become self-righteous, preachy or angry about some perceived injustice, I realize that the issue is not with the other person or people. It’s usually me.

Today, I help executives develop a profile of leadership behavior. Then I provide them with feedback, which allows them to compare their behavior — as perceived by others — with their desired behavior.

I try to help them deal with this feedback in a positive way, and to become a good role model for the desired leadership behavior. Although I’m supposed to be a “coach,” very little of my coaching involves “sharing my wisdom.”

Other leaders should aim to do the same.

Marshall Goldsmith is an authority in helping leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. He is the author or co-editor of 32 books, including “Managers as Mentors,” with co-author Chip Bell. He can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.