AMP Faculty Director Pino Audia Discusses the Leadership Trap of Self-Enhancement

By Betsy Vereckey

05 April 2024

Professor Pino Audia, faculty director of the Tuck Advanced Management Program (AMP), is an expert on self-enhancement, the tendency to focus only on the positive during times of ambiguity or adversity. His research on the topic is key to the work he does in his sessions during Tuck Executive Education programs — he also teaches in Leadership and Strategic Impact, Next Step, and our custom programs — because leaders at every stage of their careers benefit from its findings on the importance of learning from failure and communicating clearly. 

We all know that failure should encourage companies to learn from their missteps and welcome new approaches. So why isn’t that always the case?

“Self-enhancement is one explanation,” says professor Pino Audia. “Self enhancement is often known as looking at things through rose-colored glasses. When things are unclear, what do we focus our attention on? What kind of story do we construct? Self-enhancement research says that people tend to focus on the positive. This is a good thing for the most part because it has allowed humans to deal with adversity and show resilience. The effect of self enhancement I’ve studied is that, when we fail and the failure is not 100% clear cut, we don’t see it as a failure. So, because people at the top are using their ability to integrate events in ways that are biased, they don’t see their actions as a failure and they won’t make a change.”

The nature of failure and its application to decision-making has intrigued Audia from the start of his career. A native of southern Italy, Audia was inspired by professors he met along the way who became his mentors, including Ed Locke, the father of goal setting. “My experience is that the people you end up meeting in your journey can have a big influence on you,” he says. Audia doesn’t go back to visit southern Italy as much as he’d like, but he stays in touch with his roots on an almost daily basis through regional ingredients he uses when he cooks.

“When things are unclear, what do we focus our attention on? What kind of story do we construct? Self-enhancement research says that people tend to focus on the positive. This is a good thing for the most part because it has allowed humans to deal with adversity and show resilience.”

Throughout his career, Audia has penned numerous award-winning articles on self-enhancement and the psychology of decision-making as well as a book on the topic. His research finds that people usually give a self-enhanced assessment of their performance when performance metrics are unclear. “Clarity is what removes ambiguity,” he says. “This is a topic that comes up in my Tuck Executive Education classes quite often. What I’ve learned is that sometimes executives refrain from being clear because they think that by being clear, they’re taking away autonomy from people, but providing clear instructions is very important.”

Interestingly, Audia finds that self-enhancement disappears when a situation is dire. This happens in sports all the time. “When a team is doing poorly on all dimensions, if the results don't get better, it’s very hard to put a positive spin on it,” he says.

Research Snapshot

Audia’s research has spanned topics that include how we learn from success and failure, how our routines and daily behavior are related to performance, and how decisions are made under ambiguity. “Right now I’m interested in connecting the topic of self-enhancement in decision making to research on diversity,” he says. “My latest research paper asks the question of whether people who belong to different social categories (e.g., gender, social class) respond differently to low performance under conditions of ambiguity.” In pursuing this work, Audia was guided by the realization that much of what is known about how decisions are made in organizations does not consider the different social groups to which the people who make decisions belong.

In addition to teaching leadership in several Tuck Executive Education programs, Audia also teaches two MBA elective courses — Power and Influence and Leadership Development — and the Personal Leadership course in Dartmouth's interdisciplinary Masters in Healthcare Delivery Science program.

Key Takeaway: How to Minimize Ambiguity

In business, clarity is the key to success. Be clear about what you expect. “Ambiguity sometimes is inevitable, but sometimes it is something that leaders can actually control,” Audia says. Lack of clarity happens for a variety of reasons, but Audia says the main one is a lack of time invested in preparing the appropriate message. “When we don’t prepare the message, we improvise, and the result could be a lack of clarity that may leave room for the person who’s reporting to the leader to form interpretations that are not conducive to good decisions and learning. Investing in preparing and giving specific expectations is a very important way to prevent self enhancement. Boards too would benefit from investing in setting clear expectations for chief executive officers.”

Want to learn more about how other Tuck faculty think about leadership? Read our recent Tuck Today article, "Managing Change in the Workplace."

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