The temptation of specialness is often unconscious, and it can cause leaders to fall short of being great in the workplace. Although leaders have to be special to be great, they fundamentally understand that everyone is the same. However, there is a dearth of great leaders at work, and many reasons contribute to this. When asked what they like to see in their leaders, people often talk about values or behaviours such as openness, transparency, fairness, decisiveness, innovation, and success.
In workshops, I invariably ask people to give me an example of a great leader. Quite often people quote some of the greats in history. Lincoln, Churchill, or perhaps Gandhi, Mandela or even Luther King Jr. Sometimes they will name one of their parents or even a great friend. Not many are able to easily bring examples of great leaders at work.
A dearth of great leaders at work
I expect there are many reasons why there is a dearth of great leaders at work, but one common thread I believe helps leaders fall short of being great in the workplace is that of falling into the temptation of specialness.
The temptation of specialness can come in many forms, and it’s always a way of saying that one person matters more than another or deserves more than another. This mistaken belief creates hierarchies of importance in the world, but in reality, we are all manifesting different experiences and acting in different ways with different outcomes.
Leaders don’t have to be monumentally poor to find themselves out of favour with their people. They just have to succumb to the temptation of specialness.
Everyone is equally valuable
Treating people differently based on their behaviours is not the same as treating them differently based on their value as a person. But what about the lazy worker who comes in and doesn’t do anything, compared to the worker who works 24/7 and gets great results? One may be acting in ways which are in the best interests of the organisation, and one might not be. But that doesn’t make one person more special than another. Not at their core and not as a person.
There may be a million reasons that a person doesn’t pull their weight as much as the other. There may also be a million reasons why the worker who works 24/7 is doing so. The trick is not to treat people differently but to respond to their behaviours differently. There is a subtle difference.
The Neuroscience of Specialness
The neuroscience at play in these scenarios involves the brain’s reward system. When leaders show favouritism or give special favours, they activate the brain’s reward centre, which reinforces the behaviour. This can create a feedback loop that leads to further favouritism and special treatment. Conversely, when leaders focus on commonalities, accept instead of judge, and have a systematic and inclusive approach to reward and recognition, they activate the brain’s social bonding system, which promotes collaboration, trust, and respect.
Ways Leaders Succumb To Specialness
To illustrate here are 5 common ways leaders give in to the insidious habit of specialism, and in so doing they diminish the “greatness” they can be.
We all like people who are like ourselves, especially when we can clearly see our best attributes in others. There are also people we don’t like so much or who make us uncomfortable. More often than not, we are most uncomfortable when we can see things in other people that we do not like about ourselves. In both cases, we are making judgements about other people and indeed ourselves. At work, we need to be aware of our prejudices no matter how mild they may seem. Leaders often fall into favouritism when they form attitudes about people based on how much they like them. They stop being kind, factual, open and transparent and their views can be biased and weighted towards people they like better.
2. Special favours
A friend of mine was talking about the CEO who had been in the job for a few months. I had listened to her commentary about him before. It had always been complimentary and enthusiastic. However, on this occasion, her tone was one of disappointment. Their company was involved in delivering specific services, the levels of which depended on certain criteria. It had become widely known that the CEO had decided to open up a level of service to someone who didn’t qualify, simply because they were viewed as an important person with clout. In one small but incredibly public decision, his reputation had become tainted.
3. Hidden Bonuses
Great leaders will always have a good solid recognition strategy in place. Some actions might be monetary and some may be non-financial rewards. What I have encountered over the years are monetary-based bonus systems which have no particular criteria and are conferred in secret.
A friend of mine told me gleefully about a hefty bonus she had received for navigating a particularly difficult downsizing strategy. She had however been told to keep it quiet. I asked her why, and she said that if it was known that she had been rewarded for making people redundant, employees would not be happy. Although there seemed to be some logic in this, to me it said a lot about the integrity of the leader and also demonstrated a lack of understanding about how to manage an effective reward strategy.
4. Creating a Valued Role Hierarchy
I worked with a lady who used to work in a major high-street store. She had happily worked there for many years. For her and some of her colleagues, the end came quite quickly as many of the team looked for and secured new jobs with different companies in response to a change in strategy by the company.
On the face of it, the change looked fairly sensible in that they decided to give bonuses to their salespeople. On the surface, it was one of the most divisive and disruptive moves they had made. What happened was they created a hierarchy of importance, with a disproportionate reward to certain people. The sales support people were not adequately rewarded for their part in the process, and distrust and discontent set in. This dynamic can also be seen where “professional” and “support” employees are given different statuses in an organisation.
5. Excluding people
I have seen people be excluded by senior leaders because they are particularly challenging, or simply have different views or beliefs. It can be unnecessarily difficult if you have such a person on your team, but if they are good at their job and are performing well, then their views should be welcomed with open arms. The act of exclusion is more of a statement about the fear of the one excluding. Exclusion can be about only inviting certain opinions; not inviting people to meetings; not giving credit for a job well done; blocking promotion; creating succession plans which exclude people with unnecessary criteria.
Develop Self Awareness
To counteract such temptations, leaders must develop their own self-awareness and listen to and invite feedback from others. The temptation of specialness challenges all of us, not just leaders, and can sometimes be difficult to recognise or pinpoint. The following values or behaviours can minimise the temptation and keep any great leader on the right track.
- Be open and transparent with everyone
- Be kind to all, even those who seem difficult
- Tackle poor performance or conduct, not personalities
- Focus on commonalities, not differences
- Accept instead of judge
- Be comfortable feeling uncomfortable
- Have a systematic and inclusive approach to reward and recognition
- Develop Self-awareness
- Understanding your own biases
In conclusion, the desire for specialness is often unconscious, and it can cause leaders to fall short of being great in the workplace. To counteract this temptation, higher self-leaders must develop self-awareness and focus on commonalities, not differences. By doing so, they can activate the brain’s social bonding system, which promotes collaboration, trust, and respect.
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I help leaders develop self- mastery, helping them to become confident in their own inner guidance.
I collaborate with leadership experts, managers and HR professionals to help them get their own message and unique services and products to a wide audience.