Avoid Organizational Empty Suits at All Costs

Empty suits share three things in common. First, they are blind to the limits of their own knowledge. Second, they oversimplify the problem. Finally, they never utter the phrase “I don't know.” Empty suits are toxic and should be avoided at all costs. 

I attempted to describe an Empty Suit before when I explained The Fragilista.

Vergil Den, however, does a much better job. In The Simple Man's Burden he explains the concept of Empty Suits.

My boss Leonard is an Empty Suit of the highest order (herein, Empty Suit will be referred to simply as ES – pronounced “ass,” plural “ass-iz”). He is most recognizable by his case of split personality. I often do not know who I am talking to. Perhaps he has a twin. The discussions with him in the morning are forgotten by afternoon. Not so much forgotten, just the order of events has changed and some of the facts are distorted – often in his favor. When I question him on his memory of things, he is so strong in his conviction that I think perhaps I was mistaken. I usually do not take these matters lightly, but when someone projects such confidence, it is hard to believe otherwise. But also, I think intrinsically, humans have a natural apprehension towards standing firm against the sociopath. Someone who is so disconnected is something we fear. This disconnection is hard to articulate and even harder to reconcile. Leonard often believes that the information I had provided him earlier in a day – information that he confirmed at the time to be new to him – can now, later in the day, be his discovery. He asserts with such confidence and conviction that this information was in fact not new to him but rather new to me, and that he had first informed me of this information instead of my informing him! A very curious distortion indeed and perhaps another symptom of the ES.

I stand outside Leonard’s office. His door is closed, but through a pane of glass adjacent to the door, I peer in. He gestures me. I hesitate, knowing that I am about to walk into a deep place where the sun is silent (and conversely a place that is also extremely shallow and loud).

I walk into Leonard’s office. He is wearing a headset and with a wave of his hands gestures me to sit down. I spend some time just sitting and listening to him on the phone. I wonder why he immediately summoned me to his office if he was not ready to see me. Perhaps he received this call in the time it took me to walk here.

Leonard’s office and my office do not resemble one another in any way. His office has windows, for one. It also is about three hundred square feet and includes a couch. He has a whiteboard on one of the walls. It is interesting how everyone seems to have a whiteboard nowadays when in the past they were only in the domain of engineers and computer programmers. Leonard’s whiteboard is covered with chevrons – undoubtedly the most complex shape he knows of.

Leonard is a tall man who is in his mid-forties but appears much older. His cheeks are permanently red and his body has a certain softness about it that can probably be only fully appreciated with his shirt off. There is a looseness of skin under his chin somewhat resembling the jowls of the late Ted Kennedy – perhaps not as severe, but well on its way. His bookshelves are neatly ordered with business management books – the kind that lay out a number of simple steps needed to reach greatness that were derived by studying the attributes of successful managers and leaders. On his desk are a number of happy family pictures and photos with friends (most at golf outings). Perhaps this is to remind him why he works so hard. More likely, however, it is just a façade – a sort of wishful thinking strategy that is often recommended in self-help books. If he is surrounded by enough happy photos of his family and friends, it will elicit positive thoughts, then it will surely become reality.

I cannot help but notice the roast beef wrap with cheese and shards of lettuce sitting in a plastic takeout container on this desk. It oozes some cream sauce – perhaps Thousand Island or ranch. The smell is not appetizing and fills the room – a mix of raw garlic and onion. As he talks on the phone, I take the moment of respite to ponder on what sits before me – the platonic ideal form of an ES.

ESs are nothing new. They have existed all throughout history mainly in the political and religious arena. It is not until recently, however, that they invaded the corporate and science worlds. I have come across many ESs in my life. If you have ever worked for a large corporation, whether you know it or not you have come across an ES. They are ubiquitous at large corporations. They exist in smaller numbers in smaller institutions. ESs are overarchingly male but that may be a symptom of the glass ceiling rather than some esteemed quality present only in women. ESs are empty because they lack something. They may be intrinsically lacking, they may choose intentionally to lack, or they may simply be absentmindedly lacking. They are not invisible – ESs will let you know that they exist.

The rather curious thing is that, although they will let you know they exist, they will never acknowledge that they are ESs. They will always point to the other chap. I suspect that they cannot see their own situation. It is the exact opposite phenomenon of middle class unawareness where both the millionaires and the working poor believe they are part of the middle class.

So it should not come as any surprise that the ES lacks self-awareness and the awareness that he or she does not know everything that there is to know. They are a physical manifestation of illusory superiority from the Dunning Kruger effect. Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger set out to test Charles Darwin’s assertion that “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” They tested this hypothesis on human subjects consisting of Cornell undergraduates who were registered in various psychology courses. In a series of studies, they examined self-assessment of logical reasoning skills, grammatical skills, and humor. After being shown their test scores, the subjects were again asked to estimate their own rank, whereupon the competent group accurately estimated their rank, while the incompetent group still overestimated their own rank.

As Dunning and Kruger noted across four studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Meanwhile, people with true knowledge tended to underestimate their relative competence. Roughly, participants who found tasks to be relatively easy erroneously assumed, to some extent, that the tasks must also be easy for others. The Dunner Kruger effect demonstrated that there is a cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the ability to realize their mistakes.

This alone makes ESs dangerous. But even more so when coupled with power – either directly by their position or indirectly from the relationship and bond with other ESs.

Empty suits can be toxic. “Avoiding them should be a priority.” But to avoid them you must first recognize them. There are three things to know.

First, ESs are not stupid individuals (incompetent and ignorant in certain matters but not wholly stupid). They can be in fact exceedingly intelligent. This can be book smart and/or people smart. But it is this very intelligence that is the facade. The paradox is that intelligent people can be exceedingly blind to their own limits of knowledge. So in other words, we are all biased in what we think we know and what we think we do not know. ESs raise the bar – they significantly overestimate what they think they know and significantly underestimate what they think they do not know.

Second, ESs are able to verbally articulate their thoughts well. That is not to say the thoughts themselves are logical or harmonious. Rather, they have an uncanny ability to convey their thoughts verbally in a convincing manner – usually by story telling. These narrative fallacies are convincing because the true complexities are hidden, and the message is delivered in a way to connect to the individual. Some may argue that this is the sign of a skilled presenter; however, I think it is the mark of a snake oil salesman. By oversimplifying the problem and the solution, a false premise is created. This is the angst of many project teams who need to deliver on a salesman’s promise. I suspect this is the cause of many project failures.

Finally, ESs always have an answer, even when they do not know the correct one. They will never answer that they do not know and will construct elaborate responses to guise this fact. Depending on the situation and the audience, they will either overgeneralize (typically when talking with clients or bosses) or verbally attack with insults (typically when talking with peers and subordinates).

To spot an empty suit, look for the person who oversimplifies things, talks a lot, lacks logic, and whose ides are spoken in stories or anecdotes.

When you spot one, if you want to have a little fun, challenge them with a well-reasoned argument aimed at the weakness of his charismatic narrative. As you remain level and calm, see how he reacts. Does he raise his voice? Does he get angry? Does he take your question as a personal attack? One word of warning, if you're in a room of empty suits, the only person your point will resonate with already knows the point.

How do you become an empty suit?

It is relatively easy to become an ES. You do not need great smarts (although many ESs are very intelligent according to the common measure utilized in most schools and universities). Mostly, you just need to subscribe to a life where family, true friends, erudition, and health are not important. An ES knowingly enters and accepts that this is the path. You must also learn how to golf, but do not confuse the logic – not all golfers are ESs, but all ESs are golfers. You cannot become an ES by accident.

There are a number of notions put forth that attempt to explain how ESs actually ascend in an institution. The Peter Principle proposes that in business people will get promoted to one level higher than their competency level. If they were still competent at that level, they would get promoted up again. So they stop one level above where they naturally belong. The Dilbert Principle proposes that people get promoted because they will do less damage to the business at the new promoted level than at the current level. This would hold true less in the business realm and more in the field of engineering. God forbid an ES is charged with quality control of an airplane.

I think the Peter’s Principle and the Dilbert Principle have some efficacy. But the ES Principle that I propose is something far simpler. ESs get promoted because those in power are usually ESs as well. ESs protect their own (at least for a time). Moreover, ESs, given their illusory superiority, see no risk in promoting a subordinate ES – when in fact this is risky. The same traits that make one ES desirable for promotion make another ES equally desirable. So in a way one can choose to become an ES – in other words, just choose to exhibit the traits of an ES. Therefore, unlike with the Peter Principle and Dilbert Principle, one can choose to be promoted. This could be wrong of course, but I shudder at the thought that the ES trait is not a matter of choice, but instead, reflexive (that is to say, it unconsciously favors close genetic relatives such that those who look like me, talk like me, act like me, are naturally attracted to one another).

You can avoid becoming an empty suit. This is a choice. A realization that there are greater pursuits than the hollow life of “the educated ignorant.”

The Simple Man's Burden is a treat throughout and it comes highly recommended from this reader.