What is Delusion?
The Oxforddictionary defines delusion as a false belief or opinion. Wikipedia clarifies this further to say that a delusion is a ‘belief held with strong conviction despite evidence to the contrary’. It therefore needs to be differentiated from a belief based on incomplete information or perception. While delusion may sometimes be linked to a pathological issue, it also carries the other significance of Avidya in Sanskrit which means ‘unlearned’ or ‘unwise.
How does Delusion manifest?
Now let us review some situations to understand how delusion may work.
My daughter has this linkage to success. She needs to wear an old watch with a jaded pink band whenever she is writing examinations. Over the years, she has developed this superstitious behaviour based on a reinforced belief that wearing this watch has something to do with her succeeding. The thinking is, “I wore this watch. I succeeded. My success is because I wore the watch.” The watch creates a delusion in my daughter of self confidence and purpose; its absence leads to nervousness and lack of focus.
My work colleague has this high belief in his own capability. Every time he jumps into a fresh project, he deludes himself to over-estimate his own contribution and gives no credence to the positive role of other people or circumstances. So while he gets accoladed as an achiever, I notice him getting increasingly delusional about his own power and ability to control events. I also see him getting disconnected from the requirements of balanced planning, resource allocation and inter-personnel skills.
When a business associate was proposing a new customer relationship management process, I noticed an instinctive resistance building up within me. My reaction was to maintain the status quo. I countered, “Our prevailing processes have worked fine in the past so why change?” Later when I thought about my reaction which seemed to be a refusal to move with change, I realised that I was reacting that way since I had become trapped in my own success delusion.
Dr. Marshall Goldsmith, one of today’s leadership thinkers, first brought in the concept of “Success Delusion” and showed how it can be so hard for successful people to change. ‘I behave this way. I am successful. Therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way’. In a separate study titled “Delusions of Success: “How Optimism undermines Executives’ decisions”, two distinguished scholars, Dan Lovallo of the University of New South Wales and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University, showed that all too frequently, corporate executives suffer from delusion due to a combination of cognitive biases and over optimism regarding success of projects without paying much heed to environmental aspects. These lead to major business initiatives failing.
Coaching aspect of Delusion
Thus contrary to popular perception, delusions can and do play an important role in the client’s success. Here delusion may be perceived as empowering. What needs to be determined here is how sustainable the client’s forward movement is based on the empowered delusion. But as seen above, delusion about success can make the client superstitious or over-optimistic or both, a disempowering state. In all cases, delusion stems from the client’s unrealistic beliefs which are divorced from his true competences, resources and circumstances. The client tries to hold onto these beliefs even when there is evidence to the contrary. Clearly the sustainability of delusion supported initial success would be limited and the client would perforce stall.
As coaches, it is necessary to determine whether the client is being visionary or delusional. Or is he carrying a mix of vision and delusion? This determination would become important as we develop a plan to support him and ensure sustainable success.
Differentiating between clients with Vision and Delusion
A client with vision holds the ability to take an honest look at his vision and be willing to discuss whether it is realistic in terms of competences and opportunities available. The client remains open to have this validated by the coach as he discusses options. He could be supported to develop goals and action plan for his vision path. In the organisational context, a visionary leader possesses a sense of proportion, knowledge of resources available, and willingness to evaluate success.
A client with delusion may be equally knowledgeable, dedicated and positive minded. But his beliefs might get in the way of his ability to dispassionately judge a situation. At the initial stage, he may seem an individual, full of enthusiasm and positivity. But as we continue with coaching, we might discover that he possesses an elevated opinion of himself and his skills, overestimates his own contribution and seems to be stuck with his own success agenda. In an organisational context, he might exaggerate his project’s contribution by discounting real and hidden costs.
Dealing with Delusion: Coaching process and client questions
We need to be conscious that clients may be carrying aspects of delusion relating to their own success and movement agenda. This could be a result of their life experiences and underlying beliefs. Since delusion might support heightened optimism and productivity for initial periods, our coaching challenge remains to explore how the client may take advantage of this as we support him to shift to a more sustainable and empowering vision. This support becomes particularly critical whenever we see the client moving on a path of over-commitment or that which is not sustainable. As coaches, we need to ask the client to review the available competences, resources and other support structure and analyse whether these are sufficient to achieve the goal. We also encourage the client to review options available. Aspects of delusion would surface if we notice the client becoming overly defensive about his plan and not willing to discuss details.
- How does this behaviour help you to achieve results? What else could you do if that does not happen?
- How do you associate your path with your success in the past? Could there have been other contributors?
- What could be various beliefs that have been controlling your life and work in the past? What makes you come to that conclusion?
- Just imagine that in a team meeting, some of your colleagues voice opposition to your method? What could be the possible reasons for them to oppose? How could you accept such opposing views?
- What could be the possibility of your over-committing in your plan? On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your chance of success? In case your estimate goes wrong, how would you go forward?
- If some of the goals were to change, how would you handle that?
It appears that both delusion and vision might play a role in our client’s success. If delusion panders to his emotions, makes him feel optimistic and helps him to aim higher in the short term, vision allows the client to dream the future and inspires action on a more concrete and sustainable basis. As coaches, we need to be aware that success movement might commence as a product of both sides of the Vision- Delusion polarity. However the extent of success our client ultimately achieves depends on the mix of vision and delusion he is carrying as well as his ability to shift to a more empowered space anchored to ground realities. We need to remain conscious of this as we guide the process and support the client to make the shift.
1) Success Delusion: Marshall Goldsmith library. www.marshallgoldsmithlibrary.com
2) Delusions of Success: How Optimism Undermines Executives’ Decisions By Dan Lovallo & Daniel Kahneman, Harvard Business Review, Jul 01, 2003.