Employees win and employees lose as a natural course of life events. At times, we notice exceptional employees who have all of the right skills but fail anyway. Pulling out our hair we wonder, “can’t they see what they are doing?” Unfortunately, they may not actually be able to see how their self-handicapping thoughts are influencing their outcomes. Such awareness may be a little too outside their conscious thought for critical evaluation. New research helps highlight why such phenomenon occurs and how to overcome it.
Many failures in life are caused by self-sabotage of one’s own abilities and skills. The concept of self-handicapping is a self-imposed strategy of avoiding evaluations of performance by developing strategies to implement barriers (Jones & Berglas, 1978). These barriers are created in order to protect short-term self-esteem but damages long-term proper evaluations of self. Who can blame themselves when there are millions of reasons to fail?
Employees may be self-handicapping when they are capable of completing projects but fail to do so because of poor choices. For example, an important project that does not get enough attention due to distracting work events may be self-imposed if this employee has chosen to engage and focus on these side projects. There are many legitimate excuses why some project was not completed effectively but self-handicapping may be the root when these excuses are within the employee’s control.
Self-handicapping often occurs when employees are unsure of their abilities to perform the tasks set in front of them (McCrea, et. al. 2008). This unsure perception leads this person to inadvertently develop strategies that offer readymade excuses when failures do occur in order to avoid criticalness. The whole strategy is designed to protect a person’s self-esteem from proper self-evaluation and correction.
The saddest part about self-handicapping is that employees may be completely capable of finishing satisfactory projects that benefit the organization or themselves. However, when such handicapping does occur the employee themselves are often unaware of what they are doing or why they are doing it. In order to change the way employees perform it is necessary to change the way they view themselves.
Who is most likely to self-handicap? Employees who are more likely to evaluate themselves negatively are also more likely to self-handicap (Spalding & Hardin, 1999). In most cases this is an automatic cognition process as part of quick heuristics learned over one’s lifetime. Counter information is either ignored or not forthcoming thereby limiting critical thinking.
Four studies conducted by Mccrea & Flamm (2012) evaluated college students for self-handicapping traits and behaviors. Each of the four studies had different criteria and focused on a particular aspect of self-handicapping between genders. Independent judges were used to help code thoughts as participates engaged in the process of self-evaluation. Participants were unaware that the tests focused on self-handicapping strategies and were told the research was on intelligence.
-Threatening tasks with public evaluation combined with individual personality traits led to downward thought projection (prefactuals).
-The downward prefactuals helped participants identify possible excuses.
-The identified excuses primed individual behavior.
-Cognitive load helped people not to think about negative prefactuals and therefore improved performance.
-The determining of possible reasons for failure may be a result of unconscious strategies that produce anxiety.
-Upward prefactuals (positive thoughts) may limit the impact of self-handicapping thinking on performance.
The study helps managers and business leaders understand that handicapping behavior may be unknown to their employees. Such behavior is often automatic and outside of the employees awareness. However, cognitive load and positive thinking may have some level of impact on the overall performance and minimizing the impact of self-handicapping behavior. Helping employees understand how their thoughts are leading to negative outcomes may help them gain greater awareness of their performance outcomes.
Jones, E. & Berglas, S. (1978). Control of attributions about the self through self-handicapping strategies: the appeal of alcohol and the role of underachievement. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 4, 200-206.
Mccrea, S. & Flamm, A. (2012). Dysfunctional anticipatory thoughts and the self-handicapping strategy. European Journal of Social Psychology, 42, 72-81.
McCrea, S., et. al. (2008). The worker scale: developing a measure to explain gender differences in behavioral self-handicapping. Journal of Research and Personality, 42.