Self-handicapping leadership

This is the first of twelve articles – about Self-Handicapping Leadership by Phillip Decker and Jordan Mitchell. All articles can be read individually and without knowledge of other articles in the series. You’ll find an overview of the series at the end of each article.

Self-Handicapping Leadership and Impression Management

People in organizations care about how they are seen by others. Appearing competent is important when interviewing, dealing with peers and superiors, and managing subordinates. It affects pay increases and how quickly one progresses along their career path.

Impression management is of concern to organizations because important workplace decisions are affected by it. Managers may be less willing to speak up, bias their decision making, or change how they deploy human resources within the organization. Leaders can help themselves and their organizations by increasing their awareness of impression management processes.

Impression management is behavior that employees use to shape how they are seen by others. This process may be conscious and strategic or unconscious and habitual. Jones & Pittman (1982) identified five tactics of impression management:

  1. Ingratiation (favors, agreeing)
  2. Self-promotion (boasting, taking credit)
  3. Exemplification (staying late at work, appearing busy)
  4. Intimidation (making threats)
  5. Supplication (playing dumb)

Very little research has focused on the use of defensive impression management behaviors (e.g., excuses, justifications, apologies). This realm of impression management is called self-handicapping (Decker & Mitchell, 2016). The majority of the hurtful consequences for organizations come from this realm of impression management.

Self-handicapping Leadership

Self-Handicapping: A Definition

Self-handicapping is an a priori strategy with two variants: claimed – using an excuse for potential failure, and behavioral – creating an obstacle or reducing effort. Both claimed and behavioral self-handicapping can be internal or external to the self-handicapper, and claimed self-handicaps typically lead to behavioral over time.

Examples of claimed self-handicapping in business include: claiming lack of time, task difficulty, lack of authority, or lack of resources. Behavioral self-handicapping examples in business include: setting unrealistic goals, avoiding accountability, and reducing effort.


READ ALSO: The Six Human Needs and How they Impact the Choices you Make


Self-handicapping influences impressions through two processes: (1) lowering expectations (before the task), and (2) changing attributions about the individual (after the task). Post-performance, it may discount and externalize the blame ordinarily associated with failure. Managers use many self-handicaps in impression management attempts.

Why Self-Handicapping is Hurtful to both Individuals and Organizations

Self-handicapping can be very useful to individuals in organizations, but it can also be hurtful to the individual in the long run and have devastating consequences for the organization.

For the individual, over time, the effectiveness of these tactics may wane, as peers grow tired of hearing the same reasons for a negative outcome. It eliminates learning and growth. Self-handicapping tactics may also be contagious to other employees.

Self-handicapping managers are like bad apples spoiling the bunch, often compelling subordinates to also be counterproductive. Having a better understanding of self-handicapping is valuable to organizations and managers, given that important workplace decisions are affected by these tactics

Employees witness self-sabotaging behavior from their leaders on a daily basis – not confronting wayward employees, inconsistent actions, poor hiring methods, being a control freak, or not accepting accountability for their own actions. This results in apathy, lack of motivation, and a lack of employee engagement.

Most leaders know what describes an effective leader, but Gallup research (Beck & Harter, 2014) shows that only one in ten consistently practices those behaviors. This poor leadership often is caused by leaders being uncertain and relying on impression management strategies.


READ ALSO: Henry Mintzberg about some Half-Truths of Management


After studying self-handicapping across several sciences, we have concluded that it is a slippery slope to poor leadership. Excuses used for impression management are the start of a vicious cycle leading to self-defeating behavior that seriously hinders attempts to positively influence employees and customers. A leader who continually self-handicaps does not typically improve the impressions of his boss or peers over time, make himself happier, engage his employees, or move the mission of the organization forward.

There are several points of intervention with the self-handicapping process: the leader, the situation, his excuses, his behavior, and dealing with any self-deception. Changing how individuals think about themselves and how individuals react to others’ impressions of them helps.

When a leader is taught to recognize uncertainty, know that it can trigger self-handicapping, and defer his/her reactions to it, he/she may have the power to overcome self-handicapping. Self-handicapping starts as a habit and habits are caused by triggers. When people try to recognize and acknowledge their self-handicapping, they must first analyze these triggers.

Self-handicapping Leadership

How to Stop being a Self-Handicapping Leader?

We can all begin to eliminate self-handicapping today by trying a system explained by John Miller in his book, QBQ: The Question Behind the Question (Miller, 2004). Instead of asking “Why me?” or “Why don’t other people do their jobs right?” and using the answers for excuses, one should only ask “What can I do?” and “How can I solve that?”.

These questions cannot be used as excuses and are the keys to a mastery goal-orientation (always seeking to be better and get things done) in leadership. Notice that these questions do not include “Why,” “When,” or “Who.”

“Why” questions are about being the victim and avoiding accountability. “Who” questions are about finding a scapegoat. “When” questions are about waiting and procrastination.

“What” and “How” questions lead to solutions, add value for the customer, and produce action. They are the questions of a person seeking to reverse self-handicapping and be an exceptional leader. Of course, those words must be coupled with “I”, not “you”, or “we.”

Eliminating Self-Handicapping Leadership Starts with YOU

Eliminating self-handicapping does not start with changing others; it starts by changing you and posing questions is a place to start. “What?” and “How?” questions are the effective solution to starting to reverse self-handicapping.

Even so, leaders must find new ways of operating, practice them, and keep from falling back into old habits and excuses. This requires understanding what triggers one’s self-handicapping, acknowledging and admitting to what you do, and asking “What?” and “How?” It may sound elementary, but try it for a day or two and see how hard it is to get out of your habitual impression management behaviors.


READ ALSO: How Taking Ownership of your Life will make you a Better Leader and Manager


Increasing self-esteem (Martin, Marsh, Williamson, & Debus, 2003), addressing goal orientation, reducing fear of failure, cognitive behavioral therapy, positive self-talk, decreasing hyper-competitive environments, group support, and group cohesion have been associated with reducing self-handicapping. However, these interventions may not be realistic in practice because leaders typically will not want to invest in these types of strategies. We will unfold this topic in our next article.

Leaders’ Types of Self-Handicapping Behaviour

There are many behavioral self-handicaps leaders practice themselves. Each leads to obstacles for leading employees or creating change in organizations. We intend to discuss these in further articles:

  1. Avoiding Accountability – avoiding conflict and confrontation, making excuses or blaming others, constantly playing “Devil’s Advocate”, poor presentation of self in public or social media, and not holding others accountable.
  2. Tunnel Vision – focusing on the small picture (i.e., continuously developing “tools” to solve problems in order to avoid big-picture thinking), attending to people only until you get your way, being linear – tackling only one problem at a time, and not effectively prioritizing or juggling projects.
  3. Lack of Awareness – little or no self-assessment of one’s traits, strengths, or leader behaviors; little or no consistent direction or vision for oneself or others; or not understanding one’s personal impact – what is left in your wake, and not burning bridges.
  4. Poor Analysis and Decision Making – not asking the right questions, frame blindness in decision making, not knowing what you don’t know, and not questioning yourself or your organization. Making decisions for instant gratification, impulse, selfishness, or to please others.
  5. Poor Communication Culture – an inability to create transparency and trust, not being consistent and open, lacking listening skills, being defensive or unable to take constructive feedback, not allowing vulnerability or expression of doubt in meetings, and ignoring the wisdom of the crowd.
  6. Poor Engagement – viewing everything as a transaction, rather than as a partnership, not adding value to relationships, poor networking, talking about others behind their back, and aligning with only a few individuals (pack mentality).
  7. Poor Talent Development – hiring the wrong people, not being on the lookout for talent that can be grown in your organization, avoiding coaching, mentoring, and sponsoring deserving employees, not paying attention to the fit of people in the team, and allowing coaching and mentoring from bad leaders.
  8. Micro-managingleading through fear, coercion, and intimidation, constantly looking for fault and who to punish, being unable to cope with uncertainty or the unexpected, choosing situations where no unexpected challenge or event will take place, and not understanding interpersonal boundaries.
  9. Not Driving for Results – anything that keeps one from focusing on outcomes – confusing effort with results or confusing internal results for customer outcomes, avoiding challenge and risk, spending time thinking about how things should be instead of taking action, and not using baby steps.

Total Cost of Self-Handicapping Leadership

Robert Sutton suggested leaders should estimate the total cost of these kinds of behavior. So, from his example, we suggest an informal estimate of one’s TCSH – Total Cost of Self-Handicapping.

Calculating exactly how many hours are lost, nerves shattered, dollars spent, health problems started, employees disengaged, or customers/friends forced away by self-handicapping is probably impossible; however, even with crude measurement, going through a quick exercise to calculate your TCSH Score (looking at you AND your employees) is illustrative of what this problem is costing. Build a spreadsheet and try it.

Self-handicapping is almost always hidden, subtle, and hard to nail down – often denied by the individual and undiscussable by the crowd. Think about your situation at work. Deep down, the employees know something is not going right. They know what exceptional leadership is supposed to look like, but they don’t see it or feel it.

The Power of Eliminating the Bad Habits of Self-Handicapping Leadership

With a little exposure to what self-handicapping is all about, managers and employees can start to see the layer of excuses and the impression management behavior going on. Saying something like:

“I didn’t get a good night’s sleep last night”

just seems to roll off the tongue in an unconscious effort when you are uncertain about your ability to get something done or do it well. Leaders doing this may not “see” themselves doing it or be able to admit to the impact they have. That is because the behaviors have become “natural tendencies” over time – habits.

Simply put, there is little conversation about self-handicapping in business. When this conversation is started, leaders can begin to reverse their own self-handicapping, find more time to master their jobs, remove the obstacles they place on the workers and themselves, and see significant improvement in their areas of responsibility. That is the road to exceptional leadership.


Beck, R., & Harter, J. (2014, March 13). Why Good Managers Are So Rare. Retrieved October 10, 2016.

Decker, P., & Mitchell, J. (2016). Self-Handicapping Leadership: The Nine Behaviors Holding Back Employees, Managers, and Companies, and How to Overcome Them. Pearson FT Press.

Jones, E. E., & Pittman, T. S. (1982). Toward a general theory of strategic self-presentation. Psychological Perspectives of the Self, 1, 231–262.

Martin, A. J., Marsh, H. W., Williamson, A., & Debus, R. L. (2003). Self-handicapping, defensive pessimism, and goal orientation: A qualitative study of university students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(3), 617–628.

Miller, J. G. (2004). QBQ! The Question Behind the Question: Practicing Personal Accountability at Work and in Life (1 edition). New York: TarcherPerigee.

List of Articles in our Series about Self-Handicapping Leadership

#1: Why Self-Handicapping Leadership can be a Hurtful Strategy

#2: From Self-Handicapping Leadership to Mastery Management

#3: Overcoming Self-Handicapping Leadership and the Problem of Accountability

#4: Self-Awareness and Self-Handicapping Leadership

#5: Tunnel Vision – Its Drawbacks and How to Stay Clear of it

#6: How to Skyrocket Employee Motivation and Engagement

#7: Be Best at the Managerial Decision Making Process

#8: Importance of Communication for Leadership and Management

#9 Talent Development Planning and How to Get it Right?

#10 Are you Micromanaging? STOP IT. See Why

#11 Driving for Outstanding Business Results

#12 Exemplary Leadership Practices – one Step at the Time





  1. I left the UK many years ago because I felt the culture was one of the glass being half empty rather than half full. In my very limited experience of the UK business world in those days, they suffered from self-handicapping in both aspects of your definition. The Americans are completely opposite (yes a generalization), where they are go getting and everything is possible. However, this cultural trait also has its own risks as I have experienced over the years. Today, with the risk of losing jobs if someone says something or is not fitting into the accepted organizational norm (which may or may not be not conducive for success), taking a self-handicapping leadership or even a peer approach may help one to survive longer although totally detrimental to the organizations long term success. I remember at a large Swiss Insurance company a senior executive told me that with the change of CEO his peers were taking off the names off all documents so they were not associated with any decisions. So self handicapping seems to be a protection mechanism in certain situations. We have an English expression.. ” see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil”, so apply it to the corporate world, where one hinds and does not, does not rock the boat and says nothing (sorry for the metaphors). These people for some reason often get promoted whereas the people that do a lot are often blamed and don’t get promoted. A topic for further discussion…

    • Hi Robert,
      Phil Decker here. You are so right in this comment. Not rocking the boat and being loyal to the elite certainly gets one ahead in most organizational cultures. Regardless of nationality, we think that dysfunctional (controlling) culture may prevail in most organizations. And were it does, so does performance goal orientation and self-handicapping.

      Most of us were born, raised, educated, and found our first jobs in command and control environments. We are where we are because we excelled at the “old” rules of command and control and were graduated and promoted because of it. Ask yourself, “What are the first things you learned in school?” (Don’t talk when the teacher talks, be a good little citizen, and do what you are told.)

      In this kind of culture the world is viewed in a hierarchical order where employees are asked to focus upon future reward and to attend more to the boss than customers. Leaders in this culture will either eliminate or muzzle all employees who do not agree with the limiting culture and behavior in the organization. Leaders in a dysfunctional culture like this learn to define into non-existence those ideas and experience that the system cannot control – this is disloyalty! This leads to issues that no one will bring up or confront at meetings but are the main topic of discussion behind closed doors (“undiscussables”). An example is a controlling VP who stifles all innovation by saying, “It won’t work,” constantly and consistently. No subordinate will confront the VP with the truth; but, you can bet that everyone is back in their departments blaming all the lack of progress on the VP’s controlling behavior, becoming cynical and pessimistic, and doing nothing. If someone does speak up, they are ignored or eliminated. Everyone is managing impressions in dysfunctional rather than customer-oriented ways.

      These are all behaviors or thought patterns that create an organizational culture that limits the professional success of all employees. No wonder people keep their heads down and use self-handicapping (and other techniques) to create good impressions. They cannot take the risk of trying innovative ideas because of their leaders need to control and desire to kill anything new. Employees are forced into performance avoidance goals (see the second article on goal orientation) or they are forced out. Once one succumbs to this type of goal orientation, one’s only avenues are to stay hidden or to self-handicap in various ways to continue to be seen as a loyal, organization-supportive employee.

      So, where does that lead us. In truth, it leads to the last chapter of our book where we discuss how to change this type of culture one employee, one level at a time. The quick answer is that changing impression management in an organization unleashes vast energy toward innovation, customer focus, and increased productivity where employee own their own competence and customer focus. But, the only way to do it is to take on a major change initiative around culture. This is probably the most difficult endeavor any organization or leader can take on, as you know. It is impossible if the CEO is personally embedded in control and self-handicapping. A leader cannot change anything without changing him/herself first. Hence. these articles and book. The next book is about organizational change of SHL. They means changing many organizational systems such as performance management. (It isn’t written yet). Start with yourself and work out – you will see change because dysfunctional people do not like to hang out with mastery people.


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