Are You Guilty of the God Complex?

When Patti Johnson researched the behaviors and actions of “wave makers” (individuals who successfully influenced big positive change in their organizations and communities) for her book Make Waves, she found wave makers consistently exhibited voracious curiosity, a hunger for learning and a belief he/she did not have all the answers.

Successful change influencers aren’t afraid to go down the wrong path.

Economist Tim Harford, author of Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure and TedTalk presenter of  Trial and Error and the God Complex, believes our mindset and reaction to failure determines whether we learn from failure and ultimately improve, or let it drag us down where we become:

  1. So afraid of failing that we never take risks, or
  2. Unable to admit failure and therefore continue making mistakes, never learning or adapting

The God Complex

Once we grasp onto the rigid mindset that we are infallible and not capable of being wrong, we have succumbed to what Harford calls the “God Complex”.

Most leaders unknowingly make decisions guided only by the God Complex.

But what happens if we assume our smarts, skills and experience are enough to solve complex problems? What happens when we are unable to see missteps or admit failure when there never really was a clear “right answer”?

We risk losing the rigor and experimentation that ultimately leads to the best solutions, decisions and answers.

Systematic Trial and Error

Harford argues the way around the God complex is systematic trial and error to determine what works and what doesn’t.

  • Create procedures and processes that force experimentation and exploration of many options and solutions
  • Measure and document the results
  • Determine the “solution” only when many options have been tried and rejected

Trial and error sounds simplistically obvious but is rarely put into practice.

A leader who rejects the God Complex might sound like this:

“I want us to fix [problem ABC] . I’m not sure how we’ll do it. I don’t have the answer. I have a few ideas, and I’m sure you have a few ideas. We’re going to test these ideas and see what works. But it’s  likely they’ll all fail. That’s ok. We’ll put those aside, try some other ideas and find what works. We’ll test not by gut or instinct, but through systematic and rigorous trial and error.”

It’s not easy to admit we don’t have all the answers, or that we made a mistake. But unless we apply discipline to our problem solving, the God Complex will continue to guide us toward mediocre or misinformed solutions.

Marta Steele is a Partner at PeopleResults . Connect with her on Twitter @MartaSteele.

Marta Steele