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Justin Locke

People Skills 202: Success Thermostats

How low is your setting and what can you do about it?

November 7, 2011
by Justin Locke

If you have ever read any management books, you’re probably familiar with “The Peter Principle” (in which everyone rises to their level of incompetence) and maybe you have heard of “The Impostor Syndrome,” in which people are unable to appreciate their own abilities. I have my own variation on inconsistencies between ability and performance. I call it “The Success Thermostat.”

I spent many years in the artistic world as an impresario, where I produced concerts, theatrical productions, musical recordings and videos. I had to hire a lot of people, including performers, technical workers and administrative staff.

On numerous occasions, I came across somebody who was remarkably bright and talented. It would be clear to me that their abilities were severely underutilized. They usually felt the same way. So I would hire them and give them their big opportunity. They would do excellent work. Very often, their work bordered on or even consisted of, genius. But then …

Just when the project was 99 percent completed, these people would inexplicably do something that would completely ruin the project. It wasn’t a case of pushing them too hard; they always did fine on the hard parts. The screw-up always was on something incredibly easy and simple. Even though it was minor by itself, it always had the effect of making the whole project fall apart, often in full view of the client. We would then be forced to back up, start over and scramble to slap something together at the last minute that was barely adequate.

When this sort of thing happened, it was very difficult to comprehend it. How could someone so brilliant consistently manage to screw up something so simple?

The Success Thermostat

I encountered this phenomenon so often that I developed a “The Success Thermostat.”

Most people have a success setting and if their professional life falls below that mark, they work like crazy to get it back up to the level where they think it should be. You would think — and the American dream generally promulgates — that we are all universally trying to climb the ladder as high as our merits will take us. Unfortunately, this runs counter to my experience.

Thermostats work in two directions. Similar to those who work extra hard to get themselves up to their minimum success setting, there are those who actually work like crazy to bring themselves back down, if they start to succeed above their success setting.

Due to space limitations, I can’t delve into all the complex psychological elements that cause this phenomenon. Suffice it to say, it is based on that emotional issue that translates to a feeling of “unworthiness.” Even when people have talent and opportunity, they feel that they are “unworthy” of success beyond a certain point and their subconscious mind will drive them to commit seemingly nonsensical sabotage.

The typical protocol is to list a common problem and then offer a concise list of simple tips and tricks with which to address it. I’m afraid I must disappoint. The common mistake made in addressing this kind of problem is to ignore the depth of the underlying psychological issues. We often try to treat it as a purely superficial mechanical issue, one that can be fixed unilaterally with the institution of a few compliance policies and checklists.

In this situation, standard mechanical approaches don’t work. It doesn’t matter how carefully you explain the procedure or how many redundancies you put into the process. If you are taking someone above their success thermostat setting, you are taking them into a zone of extreme psychological discomfort and this will manifest itself in seemingly inexplicable, yet repeated, simple and crucial errors.

Of course, dealing with other people’s success thermostat settings is one thing. Dealing with your own success thermostat setting is another. Your success-thermostat setting — or one might say, your own sense of “worthiness” — is not a given. Some people have it set far higher than they should, while others have it set far lower.

If things aren’t going well, it’s easy to think that the world doesn’t appreciate you and while that is often the case, sometimes the world is simply giving you what you believe you deserve. Granted, lots of people are constantly trying to tell you to turn it up or down, but in the end, it’s your thermostat and you have the power to change the setting if you so desire. It’s one of those things that is difficult to do, not because of any particular complexity, but because you must do it alone.

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Justin Locke is an author and speaker. He spent 18 seasons playing the bass with the Boston Pops, and he is the author of Principles of Applied Stupidity, an amusing look at how to be more successful by going against the conventional wisdom. You can find out more about his presentations on overcoming cultural inertia by visiting his website.