The Problem With a Self-Congratulatory Mindset

As advertising specialists, the very strength that we pride ourselves on can also be our biggest weakness: the ability to craft and promote an effective message.

Many of us have the tendency to overly self-congratulate and project to others the perception of an unblemished history. We’re quick to state successes—yet slow to admit, reflect or act on ways to improve. Let’s call this “perfection perception.” Perfection perception doesn’t just afflict the advertising industry; it’s indicative of our individualist society at large.

Think about the last situation that didn’t go as planned: a pitch, campaign, meeting, job interview, an individual conversation. What were your thoughts and actions immediately following? Did you reflect upon what could have improved? Or did you say “I/we did amazing; it was the fault of (insert circumstance).”

Remember that the other person is actually providing you a gift by allowing you the chance to improve.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting we don’t celebrate when celebration is due. It’s when our own factory default setting is set to “faultless” that issues arise. The problem with a self-congratulatory mindset is that we close ourselves to feedback. We deliberately shut down what could be an insightful learning opportunity. As a result, we fail to spot root issues that will continually appear. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. We don’t learn. We rarely improve. We fail to innovate. Instead, we need to adopt two key principles of an innovation culture: vulnerability and kaizen.


It’s important that you be vulnerable with yourself and your team. Think of vulnerability as a thing of beauty. It is unfortunately viewed as a weakness in American culture.

Humility in leadership is considered one of the key traits in successful companies, and the tone from the top will set the culture and expectations of your team. “[The most effective] leaders are a study in duality: modest and willful, humble and fearless,” said Jim Collins in his classic leadership book Good to Great. If you continually attempt to project a faultless record, your team will too. They’ll be less willing to admit mistakes and develop a path to improvement.

A recommendation for achieving vulnerability is to consider starting team meetings with a roses and thorns exercise. Commencing with the leader, each person shares something that is going well and has been a success (a rose), and something difficult, challenging that didn’t go so well (a thorn). This doesn’t and shouldn’t be all work-related. By making yourself vulnerable, your team will respond in kind, creating an environment of psychological safety.


The Japanese business concept of kaizen encourages “continuous incremental improvement.” Kaizen is based on the notion that even with a seemingly perfect pitch, perfect campaign, or perfect job interview, there is always something that can be done to improve.

Remember that the other person is actually providing you a gift by allowing you the chance to improve.

One way to bring kaizen to life is to facilitate a team discussion asking everyone one thing that could have been done better. As an individual, ask others for feedback on your performance regularly. If you suffer from perfection perception, this will hurt as you likely consider your success is due in part to your faultless image. However, remember that the other person is actually providing you a gift by allowing you the chance to improve. Treat it respectfully. Cherish it and don’t toss it away because of ego.

As individuals and teams, let’s move away from the fallacy of perfection perception. This is especially important during this transformative period in our industry when learning and adapting is paramount. Unless we reprogram our default setting from “faultless” to “vulnerable and ready for incremental improvements,” we’ll only be hurting ourselves and our ability to deliver for our clients in the long run.

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