How Do We Perceive Ourselves?

While professor at IMD in Switzerland, I was the co-director of the Program for Executive Development which targeted senior managers in their 40s and 50s who had been successful in their careers in a functional role. Overwhelmingly, they did not have an MBA. You must remember that the MBA was not a common degree in continental Europe in 1970s and 1980s. They were sent to this program because their company now desired them to take a general management role. This was one of the best teaching experiences of my career as it taught me a lot about business and general management. It was a 10-week full time program, and by the time I let it go, ran 4 times a year with 75 participants from about 30 different countries.

During the program, one of the most impactful interventions was on the Friday afternoon of the first week of the program. By then, the program had run 5 days and 75 successful managers, 80%+ male, had behaved as they usually do. The intervention was simple, go to your small (6-7 people) study groups with whom you have been working for over the past week. I want the participants to take turns and tell each of the other participants what is the one thing they wished the other participant did more of, and one thing that they did less of. Focus on behaviours only, not attitude. The person receiving the feedback is not allowed to interrupt, but may request for a clarifying example in case they have not fully understood the feedback. For most of the participants, this was the first honest feedback they had received in their careers. Those providing the feedback were successful peers with no axe to grind.  If you chose, you could avoid interacting with these people again as the study groups changed each week.

When they returned after an hour, I would put up the Johari window that describes the public, private, blind, and unknown self. The point was that each manager has a blind self which they need to be aware of as they go about their careers. And, of course, the size of this blind self depends on one’s self-awareness.


Almost all of us believe we are smarter, better looking, and more charming than we are. The psychological literature has demonstrated that these “positive illusions” can be powerful and functional. The problem becomes when the gap between our beliefs of ourselves and what others think gets too large. Then we can become delusional, and it can make us feel we are not valued enough by the world at large.

In fact, this blog in its earlier avatar was triggered by a conversation in the Tata executive lunch room. An executive, on whom the consensus was that he was the most “political”, proclaimed that the only kind of managers he finds difficult to work with are those who are political. This led to silence in the room as the other 6-7 colleagues looked at each other, flummoxed as to what to say next. Finally, after a pause and unable to resist, I said well there is a difference between how we perceive ourselves and how the world perceives us. Now, it may be that he was not delusional, but just attempting some good old fashioned impression management. Regardless, the Johari window is a powerful psychological concept and helpful in seeking as well as interpreting feedback. Each of us can benefit from reflecting and applying it to ourselves.

Application to Nations

The Johari window concept was applied to countries by JWT to examine if there are some countries that have a larger “blind self” than others. The results were interesting and I include a direct quote from the report:

“What is worrying of course is that the same JWT study also shows that we think much better of ourselves than the world thinks of us.  The large gap in self-perception and world perception is that we may not be very amenable to feedback about ourselves.  If a man thinks highly of himself and others do not think highly of him, there is conflict and a mismatch in the egogram and the difference needs to be bridged. Columbia and India seem to have the highest opinion of themselves.”


For more on this study, please examine:



Magic Dust

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