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The case for being an arrogant jerk?

Ok, this title was a hook for a far more nuanced reflection here, although the radio show that I am about to mention did include the statement about “being an arrogant jerk”.

Last year, I listened to this short segment on US National Public Radio (NPR) Why Are Women Less Likely To Become Entrepreneurs Than Men?: NPR (4 minute segment)

The NPR program discussed a Wharton Business School research (working paper here). The research finds that women are less likely to be arrogant about mistakes and more likely to be humble about their achievements. Men are more likely to disregard market signals that their ideas are flawed. The conclusion of the research paper is that “crowdfunding alleviates some of geographic and gender biases associated with the way that VCs look for signals of quality”.

Is this possible? Unrealistic overconfidence, the kind you would want to avoid because it adds unnecessary risk, yields better outcomes for the overconfident individual? It seems that way in an entrepreneurial setting from the study done on crowdfunded projects*.

A couple of days ago, I also read a blog post eloquently summarizing research around a related topic of stereotype threat.

I am often reflecting on ways to make better decisions and get better results. (reference: Knowing is half the battle: teaching stereotype threat as a means of improving women’s math performance). My hypothesis is that creating an awareness of the stereotype threat would improve not only math performance but also performance at work, including work that requires much more than great math skills.

Here are some my personal takeaways from the Wharton research and the blog post about stereotype threat:

Performance is not an absolute. Performance is relative to my self-assessment and to the assessment of my performance by my stakeholders. This statement has significant implications as we are reviewed for our performance and as managers, we review the performance of others. Understanding that performance is relative and that managers play a key role in the performance of their directs should frame our performance conversations. At the same time, I need to be accountable and dim the impact of negative messages that are not constructive feedback and that undermine my ability to perform.

Be self-aware. Practicing self-awareness empowers me to recognize situations where I may feel less confident and to make adjustments to feel more confident because my performance will improve. It is a tall order. I know how much I get impacted by different styles of management. The managers and colleagues who believe in me and push me to take on stretch goals get the best of me. I ask myself what can I do to perform better when managers are not seeing my abilities as I see them. Instead of letting a fight or flight response take over me, I need to recognize what is happening and change the way I feel about the situation. As a manager, I need to be self-aware of my choices and my management style, and to encourage my team to perform at their best. I am accountable for the performance of my team. I am very deliberate about my approach to leadership for innovation teams composed of creatives, strategic thinkers, digital tinkerers, scientists and engineers. I bring forward the values that matter the most to me: trust and transparency. I now will be paying more attention to creating an environment that reduces the stereotype threat and hence increases performance.

Build diverse teams to build high performance teams. This is easy to say, it is really hard to execute well in the data science and more broadly tech field, even by a woman in tech like me. Listen to the different voices, encourage dissent, encourage debates. Get the version of the truth from different stakeholders and avoid the echo chamber effect (the same people I know well, from the same background, from the same office): reach out to customers, vendors and colleagues from different countries, different background, etc.

So here is the punch line I am definitely not making the case for becoming an arrogant jerk. Instead, I am making the case for a better work environment that does not reinforce the factors that lead arrogant jerks to success. Let’s change the rules of the game together and create the social/work conditions from which we can all benefit include and more importantly, the bottom line.

*Since my team is composed of smart data scientists, clearly concerned about research method integrity, this is where I must insert a caveat informed by the news about the reproducibility challenge faced by psychology studies. We can argue that this study was done in the business school and may require further analysis rooted in the field of psychology.

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