e all like to think we're good at our jobs. When the planets align and we hit one out of the park, we tend to credit ourselves and our co-workers, despite the fact that luck might have played a bigger role than either. And when things go wrong, we point fingers and reassure ourselves that occasional failure is inevitable, and that we'll learn from the mistake (which was probably someone else's anyway).
This tendency toward confidence in our abilities is likely an evolutionary trait. No, I'm not suggesting that we developed this characteristic over millennia, but rather that the corporate ladder is a Darwinian microcosm of sorts. Survival of the fittest applies to boardrooms as well as natural ecosystems. Because those who constantly second guess themselves don't tend to last long, managers in general – and upper management, in particular – have evolved a healthy amount of arrogance via a process not so different from natural selection.
Generally speaking, self-confidence is a positive attribute for managers – especially exhibit managers. When one considers the number of decisions that go into a corporate exhibit program, it's not surprising face-to-face marketers are a confident bunch. After all, they need to interface with myriad internal and external stakeholders, make difficult decisions under the watchful eye of penny-pinching CFOs, differentiate between calculated risks and hairbrained ideas, and constantly be ready with a Plan B for anything and everything that might go wrong. With no time to hem and haw over every item on their extensive to-do lists, exhibitors confidently forge ahead if for no other reason than they have no choice but to do so.
But that confidence can inhibit incremental improvement. Even if exhibit managers are introspective enough to conduct a postmortem on their programs, or regularly engage in what one of my early mentors referred to as "after-action reviews," overconfidence can often blind them to their own culpability.
Recently, I experienced a personal wake-up call regarding overconfidence. Like many exhibit managers (45 percent of which manage other employees), I fancy myself a competent boss. I like to think I'm the kind of manager I'd want to work for, and in my most arrogant moments consider my employees lucky to work for someone like me who "gets it." So you can imagine the shock, shame, and dismay I experienced while reading a Forbes.com article titled, "The Top 8 Reasons Your Best People Are About to Quit" and realizing I'm guilty of at least six. I finished the article confident of only one thing: I'm not the manager I thought I was.
Finger pointing ensued, as I initially blamed the recession, the economy, my own bosses, and global warming (OK, maybe not global warming) for my shortcomings. But the reality is that if I want to improve, I have to eat a little humble pie and own my inadequacies. It would be arrogant and overconfident to think myself capable of correcting every bad behavior and fixing every flaw, but a little humility has made me mindful of my weaknesses – which will hopefully allow me to prevent them from becoming liabilities.
Similarly, a little introspection and self-evaluation from time to time could work wonders for most exhibit managers' programs. Because there are so many balls in the air and factors at play when it comes to an exhibit-marketing program, it's relatively easy to point all 10 fingers at external factors that contributed to a failed promotional campaign or less-than-successful show. But if you're too confident to objectively ask what you personally did to contribute to the problem, you're less likely to ever really resolve it – and the only thing you'll improve is your ability to deflect.