You Made a Mistake and EVERYONE Knows It (5 min read)

Spotlight Effect | Be Do Have Coaching

Maria* requested leadership coaching. Having been recently promoted, she found herself struggling to meet her own and team responsibilities.

We talk about Maria’s role and she constructs a picture of her cobweb of bosses, peer executives and direct reports. Maria is clearly very busy, yet she hesitates to delegate – “what if they don’t do a good job, then it will be my fault – I’d rather be criticised for my own mistakes”. I ask Maria – how often do you make mistakes? She answers: “I try very hard to avoid mistakes, but sometimes they slip in. Please don’t judge me”.

Please don’t judge me. My coaching alarm bells start ringing. We continue:

Me: How often are you judged by others at work?

Maria: All the time. They notice every mistake. One major slip-up could mean the end of my career. No one else would employ me.

Me: How often are you openly criticised at work? “Openly” meaning “to your face”.

Maria: (Thinks for a while). Not that often, but I think that’s because I am quite senior. I think they all notice my mistakes and talk behind my back.

Me: How sizeable are the mistakes you are referring to?

Maria struggles to quantify her mistakes.

Me: On scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is insignificant and 10 is catastrophic. Say 1 is forgetting to double-tie your shoelaces, and 10 is accidentally switching off the life support machine.

Maria: Well, last week I forgot to insert the projected sales figures graph into the Monday morning presentation to the entire executive team. That’s about 8 on the scale.

Me: 8? How many people in the meeting commented on this?

Maria: No one. But they must have all noticed and must now think that I am an incompetent idiot.

What do you think is happening here?

Maria’s worst critic is herself. When she asked me not to judge her, she was in reality judging herself, feeding her self-doubt, performance anxiety and fear of being found out. She also believes that everyone notices her every mistake and judges her negatively on it. Even more so now that she has been promoted. Maria has a tendency to catastrophise – “No one else would employ me”. Her perfectionist streak, anxiety and fear of losing control is driving her into the ground with work overload and exhaustion. Maria has lost perspective on her new role and its responsibilities – she is trying to do two jobs at the same time, bringing the framework of her previous role to her new role. Understandably, looking after her wellbeing has dropped to the bottom of the priority pile.

Have you ever been in Maria’s shoes?

There are many themes for discussion here, to which I will return in later posts. In this post, I will focus on the Spotlight Effect.

Spotlight Effect is our tendency to overestimate the impact of our behaviour, appearance and performance on others. Back in 1999, scientists at the Cornell University (Gilovich et al., 2000) carried out a series of experiments on the Spotlight Effect, including one where they arranged for a candidate to arrive late to a meeting wearing an embarrassing t-shirt. They then asked the late candidate to estimate what percentage of people in the meeting had noticed the embarrassing t-shirt.

The candidate estimated 50%. In fact only around 25% noticed the t-shirt. Since we are the centre of our own world, we have a tendency to forget that we are not the centre of everyone else’s world. This tendency is especially prominent when we do something atypical.

Maria is acutely aware of every mistake that she makes and she gives disproportionate weigh to its impact. She also assumes that everyone else has the same perception and knowledge of her mistake (self-as-target bias) – she is using her own experiences, thoughts and beliefs to estimate (guess) what the others are thinking. Maria is mind reading. Feeling that she is constantly in the spotlight and a target for criticism puts Maria under an enormous pressure to perform. Ironically, this pressure increases her level of overwhelm and exhaustion, making it more likely that she will make more mistakes.

The first step is to become aware of this bias and to gain perspective. Next time you are caught in the spotlight, ask yourself for concrete evidence of what the others are thinking. Try to remain objective – if you expect a negative response your brain will instinctively look for negative evidence to support your (possibly erroneous) belief. So if no one commented on the absence of the projected sales figures graph, perhaps not everyone noticed. Perhaps no one noticed. Get out of your head and refrain from imposing your thoughts on others. What seems important or embarrassing to you may not be so to others.

Mistakes will happen. It’s how you deal with them that counts. Certain mistakes may benefit from timely disclosure to the relevant parties to minimise the negative consequences. Other mistakes require an apology or quick action on your behalf. Others may balloon in your head, but have no actual impact on others. If in doubt, effective and timely communication is crucial. Your integrity and reputation may be at stake. For a recent example, see the VW emissions scandal.

Analyse the actual impact of your mistake – what’s the worst that can happen? How important will it be in a month’s time? How important is it in the grand scheme of your work? Who else may be affected? When was the previous time you made a similar mistake – what where the consequences and how did you deal with them?

Consider what mitigating measures you can take to minimise the potential damage. What stakeholders do you need to communicate with? Make a concrete plan to resolve the issue. Identify what you can learn from your mistake and how you can adapt your working practices to minimise the chance of it happening again. However, refrain from ruminating on the mistake – churning it in your head will not resolve the matter; conversely, it may further entrench the problematic thought patterns, rather than give you the headspace to come up with a solution. (See The Art of Self-Sabotage)

Remember you have a choice as to how you respond, so take proactive decisions, rather than “head in the sand” or “let’s see what happens” approach. Victim-mentality disempowers you. (See Time for Change)

Challenge your generalisations. “No one will employ me”. No one? “They all noticed my mistake” All? What’s your evidence for that?

It is important to realise that the negative perception issue originates within you – not from outside. Being too critical of yourself or doubting your abilities will filter how you think other perceive you. It’s time for self-building work. And if you find below questions awkward, get a coach to help you.

– Write down three achievements that you are proud of?

– What skills, strengths and talents these demonstrate?

– Write down three challenges that you have overcome?

– Identify what resources and strengths you employed.

– Work out strategies to make more effective use of your skills, strengths and talents.

– What areas could you develop further?

– What work tasks do you shy away from because you lack confidence in your abilities?

– What would help to grow your abilities in this area?

– Come up with concrete strategies to develop your confidence and abilities. (See Teaching Old Dog New Tricks for more ideas)

Neglecting your physical and mental wellbeing is a form of self-sabotage. Set aside enough time and headspace to look after your wellbeing – fitness, nutrition, sleep, time for relaxation and holidays. Being on top form will enable you to perform better and feel more positive about yourself. In turn, this will help you to project the best version of yourself to others. (See The Art of Self-Sabotage)

The flip side of the Spotlight Effect is that your positive contributions may also be less noticeable to others than they are to you. So you may need to make more effort to bring them to their attention. Such as the excellent project you have just completed or the fact that your marketing initiative is responsible for the booming sales figures last week.

If you would like coaching on any of the issues discussed in this article please contact Natalia for a free consultation.

*name changed, my client gave me permission to write this article for the benefit of others in a similar position

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