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Quo Vadis Hubris? A personal view of the Guildford Hubris Workshop, 18 May 2016.

Another in an occasional series of contributions from friends of the Daedalus Trust.

Marc Atherton MSc, CPsychol, CSci, AFBPsS, FRSA, MRAeS, EuroPsy

The ‘Anti-Hubris Toolkit’ Workshop hosted by Eugene Sadler-Smith at the University of Surrey Business School on 18 May gave itself the task of outlining a way forward in creating a practical solution to detecting and mitigating Hubris in organisations.

This note is a personal view of the proceedings and takes into consideration of two key issues:

  • What form should a hubris assessment take?
  • What form of intervention might be most viable in response to an assessment?

For the organiser’s report on the event, and a summary of outputs, see Anti-hubris toolkit taking shape

The consensus was that a solution should recognise that Hubris is best seen as a State which an individual is in, rather than a Trait that is inherent in that individual. This is a fundamental distinction is psychology in creating an assessment and mitigation approach to any situation where some form of person-centred measurement and change are necessary.

The Workshop consensus was that an annual ‘MOT’ was an essential step in dealing with hubris and that it should reflect extant behaviours assessed from multiple perspectives.

Chris Wiscarson, (CEO, Equitable Life) provided a personal view on what might be appropriate which I can (based on the content of my previous Guest Blog: Hubris Syndrome – Metrics and meaning) only concur with. Chris suggested that a ‘360’ type appraisal which included three sources of insight would be appropriate. The three sources would be:

  • The Board itself as a self monitoring process against some defined behavioural criteria
  • The organisation staff using a customised survey approach
  • Key external stakeholder groups (shareholders and associated organisations) providing insight based on observable corporate and Board behaviour.

The intent would be to create a detection and early warning system that would allow the Board to take appropriate corrective action at the Board level.

This is analogous to the Lane Departure Alerting Systems fitted in modern cars. Rather than the punitive model of points and fines, or in the worst case an accident, the approach would prompt a review and corrective action response. If the output of the detection assessment were made transparent to key internal and external stakeholder groups, and the Chair and NED had a remit to acknowledge and act on the assessment, then a way forward might be found.

Graham Robinson brought up the concept of the value of stories in illuminating the reasons behind any numerical survey data in gaining insight and I suggested that the SenseMaker™ tool from Cognitive Edge could provide this and may be worth consideration as a means of sourcing the kind of data that would be needed to meet the goals Chris Wiscarson identified. Add this to representative public domain behavioural and linguistic markers for hubris in specific individuals that could be gathered and tracked over time (with any inherent accuracy limitations recognised) and we may well have a viable Hubris Lane Departure Alerting System!

The concept then of Hubris as a ‘clinical’ condition that is unique to an individual and therefore ‘their’ fault seems to be both unjustifiable and unhelpful under this set of assumptions. Simply reviewing the work of Asch, Milgram and Zimbardo makes it difficult to support the concept that anomalous behaviour is necessarily a Trait within an individual. It may well be that hubris is an individual response to situational stimuli that, in the extremes, warrants a clinical intervention. If this is so, then the trigger boundaries for that intervention would need to be clearly defined. In mental health assessments depression can range from mild to severe, from endogenous to Bi-Polar. Only in the most severe forms is a prescriptive, constraining intervention warranted and legal. For the less serious forms an early detection and intervention, aimed at mitigation and support, is the preferred way forward for the individual and their society.

Graham Robinson in a blog after the Guilford workshop ( ) highlights some of the issues that arose. For me his use of the aerospace sector as an example provides an interesting perspective into the possible form of solution to the individual impact of hubris if it is seen as a State induced by circumstances and culture. Civil Aircrew are currently being provided with mental health awareness training and the deployment of Peer Support programmes as an initial preventative response to the 2015 Germanwings tragedy. Also civil aircrew who are diagnosed with a mental health issue such as depression can continue to fly if under medical supervision and taking appropriate medication.

Having Chaired a Royal Aeronautical Society International conference on Mental Health in Civil Aircrew on 9 May 2016 ( many of the issues in dealing with hubris are very similar. In the civil aviation case the best solution is seen to be an alerting system supported by awareness training and a supportive, corrective policy and culture rather than a punitive approach for people who have a problem which may be situational in nature.

Is this perhaps where a solution to hubris in organisational and corporate contexts may lie: awareness training for Boards in terms of observable individual and organisational behaviours, an annual or continuous Hubris MOT relying on multi-point stakeholder alerting data, and a commitment by the Board to acknowledge and act on the information through an internal development and change policy monitored by the Chair and NED where needed?

An extreme example of the challenges facing any prescriptive approach may well be that of Donald Trump. His aggressive language, self-belief, self-reference and dismissive attitude to many sections of the population could well be the basis of a reasoned argument that he is suffering from Hubris Syndrome as defined by Owen et al. If this were to be the case then the question posed is ‘so what?’ The Republican electorate have essentially given him their Presidential nomination and currently the assessment of HS would have no mechanism to sanction him and prevent him from possibly occupying the Oval Office in the White House.

Even if HS were classified as a DSM 5 condition it begs the question of who would be able to bar Donald Trump from office if he were democratically elected? Essentially it would require that a conclusion that he is suffering from HS were a classifiable mental illness that was recognised as barring him from holding public office which would be difficult to achieve for political reasons.

In an organisational and corporate scenario this extreme example might point they way to a more early detection and prevention approach being more viable. This may be the best solution as it allows boards to see and act on hubristic tendencies as they develop and acknowledges that Board Members tend to be good people doing a difficult job to the best of their abilities. There may well be a few individuals who are essentially Bond villains out to ruin their companies for their own nefarious purposes but I believe that the vast majority of board members are good people and as such any approach to dealing with hubris should be part of what in the civil aviation sector we call a Just Culture.

As a Behavioural Scientist my approach is always based on ‘if you have a theory how can it be tested to see if it is correct? For hubris maybe it is time we built and tested a tool and actually gathered some data on whether it might work. If we fail with our first attempt at least we learn what doesn’t work which can give us a clue as to what might! Evidence based decision making should be more than a mantra; it should be a central part of our approach. If hubris exists and is a real problem then seeking what works can only be done in some form of real world trial. Hopefully the workshop at the University of Surrey will act as a key step in achieving this.

Marc Atherton MSc, CPsychol, CSci, AFBPsS, FRSA, MRAeS, EuroPsy

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