Back in January I wrote kind of a tongue-in-cheek post on leadership flaws in the X-Files TV show. Out of the five points I touched upon, the first one talked about how people kept underestimating the two main characters throughout the entire series, even though both of them had doctorate degrees (one of them was even a medical doctor).


Underestimating others, the effect you can have on them via your words and actions, and what they're capable of is probably the biggest mistake I see not only among leaders but people in general.

They tend to underestimate the intellect of others, the talent of others, the dedication and passion of others. They tend to underestimate how much people want to learn, how much they want to be motivated, and how driven they are in wanting to be more than they are... even better than themselves.

The reason I call it "conceit" is because the way I see things, when you underestimate others you're actually saying you believe you're better than someone else. In most of life and especially in leadership, that's a catalyst for bad things to occur.

There are only two reasons to ever believe you're better than someone and not use it as underestimating someone else, and even then they're dicey positions to have.

The first is when you're competing in sports and you're trying to build yourself up. If you underestimate your opponent with the belief that you're so good that you don't have to try, you'll lose more often than you'd expect.

The second is when you see a consistent pattern of failure from someone you've been evaluating for a long time and realize that they're probably never going to be more than what they already are or maybe not what you're looking for in an employee.

Even if these two things end up being correct, they each have their flaws. When you underestimate others while trying to build your own confidence up, it's problematic because you're trying to use a negative for a positive result; positivity is always a stronger starting point. When you underestimate someone you've been tracking and know what their limits are, you might start treating them differently, or not follow the rules if you're thinking about letting them go, and end up with bigger problems than you were prepared to deal with.


As strange as it sounds, I always go into every situation where I'm interacting with others trying to overestimate what they might be capable of and what they might need from me. It's one reason why I'm big on constantly training and writing procedures and trying to find ways to always improve things, even when they're going well. It's why I try to be more prepared than the other person, spend a lot of time thinking about multiple potential outcomes, and have as many answers ready as possible if needed.

I like to think it's why I used to win a lot at individual sports, but was also a good teammate in team sports where I didn't do quite as well when it came to being on winning teams. I never wanted to embarrass a teammate by thinking I could play a position better than they did, which means I let people make mistakes without ever getting on them for doing so.

The only problem with overestimating people is when you might be good at something and assume everyone should be as good as you are. If life has shown us anything, it's that we all have talents that we're good at that others aren't, just like they have talents that we don't have. Trying to fit everyone into the same image is like wishing we all had the same fingerprints; it's just not going to happen, and it's painful to try to achieve.

Something I've never done is underestimate the power of motivation. There's something in seeing people's demeanor change in a positive way because you've been able to touch them emotionally so that they feel better and want to do better. As a leader, you might decide that employees should motivate themselves, but that could be interpreted as you underestimating your influence or your own strength in connecting with others.

These days I hear a lot of people around my age complaining about millennials and how little they want to work and how hard they are to control. It's easy and lazy and an underestimation of an entire group of young people who probably have talents most of us could never dream of having.

Although I don't have a lot of experience in working with them, I've always been under the impression that people are people when everything's been considered. I bet if they're treated right and you show them how much you care about the job and about their being able to do the best they can at it that they'll show they're just as passionate about work as anyone else.

Leaders need to check their priorities when it comes to employees and verify with themselves that they don't see their employees as less than they are. Only when we see the value in everyone will things work out the way one hopes they will.

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