Why highly regarded leaders don’t always do the best work – and why they should be critiqued like everybody else

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High performance on one project does not guarantee high performance on the next.

  • A leader’s high status among peers doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome for the projects they lead.
  • High-status people are prone to high highs and low lows, while moderate statuses have higher averages.
  • Executives must remember to critique their stars, too, and not let ego overshadow the actual work.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When it comes to leading a successful project, sometimes having too much status can be a bad thing.

Take, for example, video-game producer George Brussard, who in 1997 announced plans for a new game, “Duke Nukem Forever.” Expectations were high: Brussard’s previous title, “Duke Nukem 3D,” was one of the top-selling video games of all time, beloved by critics and players alike.

But instead of another smash hit, “Duke Nukem Forever became a legendary boondoggle, released more than a decade late to lackluster reviews and fan response. What went wrong?

It may seem shocking when an iconic leader like Brussard swings and misses, but it’s not uncommon, according to research from Brayden King, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School. In a new study of the video-game industry, King and his coauthors – Balazs Szatmari of the University of Amsterdam, and Dirk Deichmann and Jan van den Ende of Erasmus University – found that a leader’s high status among their peers doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome for the projects they lead. Indeed, it can often be a liability.

Leaders with high status, the research revealed, are prone to extremes – big successes or big flops – while moderate status is associated with the highest average level of project performance.

Why? With status comes everything a leader needs for a project to succeed: resources, support, the faith of executives, and team members. But there is peril, too: high-status project leaders are often overburdened. And precisely because of their status, the people around them may not offer honest feedback.

“We tend to be too deferential to people who we consider to be higher status. And where we give deference, what we should be doing is increasing our scrutiny – or at least, scrutinize them as much as we do people of lower status,” King said. “There is greater potential for them to let their egos take control and produce something that sounds good to them but that is in reality a terrible idea.”

Read more: I’m a first-time founder who raised $2.5 million despite the pandemic upending the fundraising process. I know why we were successful.

Game on: testing status and performance

The researchers focused their study on the video-game industry – a useful test-bed because of the large quantity of games released each year to an audience of vocal, engaged fans. But, King said, “I don’t think these findings are just characteristic or a dynamic specific to the video-game industry.” Any field where leaders can attain status is subject to the same set of forces.

To begin, the researchers assembled a database of 745 games produced by leading companies between 2008 and 2012, for which full information about the development team was publicly available. They winnowed that list down to games with a single producer who was not a first-time producer, leading to a final sample of 349 titles. Data on performance came from the popular MobyGames database, which aggregates critic and user reviews.

To assess producers’ status, the researchers used their “network positions” – a statistical measure based on patterns of who has collaborated with whom within an organization. The idea, Szatmari said, is that people who are well-connected tend to be the best-regarded.

“If you enter in a room and you see someone surrounded by many people, you think, ‘Oh, that person must know something.’ There’s a reason why people are around them,” he said. “If many people want to work with you or seek your advice, that’s a sign of competence.”

Then, the researchers analyzed the relationship between producer status and game performance – controlling for a variety of factors that might affect success, such as year of release, team size, and whether the game broke technological or conceptual ground and involved greater risk.

When too much status can be a bad thing

What they discovered was an inverted U-shaped relationship between producer status and average game performance. In other words, having status helped – until it didn’t. Middle-status producers had the best average performance, while high-status and low-status producers fared about the same.

However, while high-status and low-status producers had similar average performance scores, in the case of high-status producers, that stemmed from extreme variation in performance. Some had wild successes and others abject failures, resulting in an average comparable to low-status producers.

These patterns were reflected in observations from industry insiders, whose comments offered a qualitative complement to the researchers’ statistical analysis – and Szatmari said, “helped shed light on some of the causal explanations for what was going on.”

For instance, the researchers suspected that high-status producers’ tendency to flounder stemmed from being overwhelmed because, given their reputation, everyone wanted some of their time.

One producer put it this way: “I can certainly notice that as my status grows, my productivity goes down. When people are not absolutely clear, I start to miss the signals … until somebody says something like, ‘I need help!’ In the past, I had more time for processing the information, but now, if somebody doesn’t scream then I don’t see the problem.”

Another insider confirmed that executives’ faith in high-status producers can lead them to ignore serious problems in a project. Once, the insider said, a legendary producer sold company owners on a game that many employees questioned. It quickly spiraled out of control, but the owners didn’t see it, despite employees’ repeated attempts to raise concerns.

As for the high success rate of intermediate-status producers, King believes it’s partly attributable to career phase. People with moderate status are likely to be mid-career, a time when they are trusted but still hungry. They’ve attained “enough status and recognition that now people are willing to put resources behind them, but they’re also still striving to reach the top” – and aren’t yet surrounded by yes-men. This combination of ingredients, he believes, accounts for their success.

Why companies should scrutinize their stars

It’s easy for companies to assume their most well-regarded leaders have things under control – after all, they got that positive reputation for a reason. But King said it’s essential for executives to pay extra attention to stars when they are leading important projects.

When people are put in charge, there’s “a double whammy,” King said: our egos can swell at the same time as those around us stop telling us the truth, “so they’re constantly giving us feedback that we’re always right.”

So he has a word of advice for anyone taking charge of a project: “Be aware of this potential in yourself.” Learning to accept negative feedback isn’t easy, but it can save you from a disaster.

“People only give us the feedback they perceive we’re comfortable taking,” King said. “And if we’re not open to being told ‘no,’ when we’re in a high-status position, people probably won’t tell us ‘no’ enough.”

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How to accept tough criticism at work without taking it personally

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Criticism can be difficult to hear, but applying it can help you advance your career.

  • Executive coach Melody Wilding helps people navigate their careers and find work-life balance.
  • For sensitive people, she says receiving criticism at work can be upsetting and feel like a personal attack.
  • To cope with criticism, Wilding suggests following these five steps to process the feedback.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

No one likes criticism about their work. But being hypersensitive to criticism can feel like a burden you constantly carry.

Whether you’re getting input about how a slide deck could be improved, hearing that leadership isn’t on board with your idea, or otherwise speaking up and putting yourself out there – it can be difficult to separate a person’s response from your own self-worth.

Throughout your career, you’ll always be given feedback in some form or another. Learning to cope with criticism is a key part of professional (and personal) growth, and when processed productively, can actually boost your confidence and be extremely valuable for advancing your career.

That’s not to say, though, that it can’t be extremely uncomfortable or even upsetting: You put your all into your work and take pride in your efforts, so when you’re criticized, it can really sting.

Negative feedback tends to hit Sensitive Strivers especially hard. Because we process everything more deeply, we end up taking people’s opinions personally – seeing it as a failure or indictment on our professional aptitude and capabilities. When we get negative feedback or someone throws a comment our way, we have an intense reaction to it.

Why you’re so sensitive to criticism

It’s important to understand that as a Sensitive Striver, you are wired differently.

According to research, about 15 to 20% of the population has a genetic trait that leads to a highly calibrated nervous system. This explains why things affect you more profoundly than they might someone else.

Research also shows that Sensitive Strivers have more active mirror neurons, which means you are naturally more perceptive and attuned to your surroundings.

But as a result, you might spend more time monitoring and analyzing other people’s behavior. This vigilance can render you overly preoccupied with external approval and others’ thoughts and opinions, or cause you to read into situations more easily – sending you down an intense emotional spiral.

Nevertheless, thinking deeply is a tremendous strength. That is, as long as you have tools to harness your superpowers effectively.

A simple exercise to deal with negative feedback at work

When on the receiving end of criticism, it’s essential that you separate criticism of the message from criticism of you as the messenger.

It’s important to avoid what authors Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone call “wrong spotting” – where we go on the defensive and fall down an anger spiral that can leave us distracted and depleted.

Besides, there can be a lot of value in criticism especially when it’s delivered constructively. You want to avoid your emotions getting the better of you, and blinding you from all that there is to learn from the person’s comments.

There’s one simple exercise I give my coaching clients that helps them parse helpful feedback from that which can be left behind. It also helps them slow down their own reaction so that they can think clearly and be in control of how they respond to the feedback instead.

Here’s how the exercise works:

1. Take a sheet of paper and split it into four columns

It’s best if you do this on hard copy versus a computer, as studies show handwriting is more cathartic. It forces your brain to be more deliberate and also serves a pattern interrupt (since you likely spend most of your day typing).

2. In the first column, write down the exact feedback

Transcribe what the person said, word for word. Use their exact phrasing and do not layer your interpretation on top of it. Remain as objective and fact-based as possible.

3. In the second column, list everything that’s wrong with the feedback

This is your chance to let it all out – your anger, frustration, insecurity. Mention inaccuracies, blindspots, and errors in the feedback. Don’t hold back.

4. In the third column, list what might be right about the feedback

This is where you start your mindset. Begin to broaden your perspective and consider where the other person might be coming from. Are there helpful improvements within the criticism they shared, for example? A new discovery or opportunity? What can you learn or take away from the information they’ve shared with you?

5. In the fourth column, commit to taking action

Note down your next steps. This may be having a follow-up conversation to clear the air, making a correction, or simply letting it go and moving on with your day.

This exercise provides structure so that you can process feedback in a more balanced way, get back to equilibrium faster, and take constructive steps forward.

Remember, receiving criticism is a fact of life and it can really bring you down if you let it. By having tools to process it you’ll be able to recover more quickly and shine like the competent professional you are.

Read the original article on Business Insider