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by JARED SANDBERG | March 31, 2009

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Don't knock colleagues who fail upward. They may be exasperating, bad for business and prove that a company rewards something other than hard work and skill. But they can be great for the ego.

When Peter Brockman worked for a high-tech company, he witnessed a peer get a promotion to a job Mr. Brockman thought was well over his head. Holy cow, he thought to himself, how did that happen?

At first it was a blow to his confidence, he says. "But then it helps it. I was emboldened." His colleague's success prompted him to start discussions with his boss that led to a promotion, 30% raise and options just three months later. Had that colleague not been promoted, he says, "I wouldn't have felt it, or thought about it."

We build self-esteem not just through the acquisition of skill and pride in our work. We also derive it from the conviction that the guy in the next desk who just got a killer promotion is a bigger schlep than we are.

It's all part of what's called social-comparison theory: We compare ourselves with others because it can feel great. Sometimes, we engage in "upward social comparison" to higher status individuals to improve our self-image by pointing out similarities. (Hey, I'm a Mets fan, too, ergo, EVP material).

We also make "downward social comparisons" to thank our lucky stars that our troubles aren't so bad. At the office, even the mousiest employees can feel emboldened simply by witnessing relatively more clueless recruits joining the company every year.

Accountant Joe Pizzileo, cocky coming out of school, was less so when he showed up for work at a big accounting firm. "I felt like the little kid in the Wheaties commercial that was wearing his dad's suit," he says. Among the things that rebuilt his confidence: "As a fresh group of peons came in every year you became that guy that they were looking up to," he says.

The tendency for upward social comparison begins when one realizes company leaders aren't the wizards you thought -- mild letdowns that are real picker-uppers. Over time, several instances led software engineer John Traylor to conclude that: A) a boss has "intellectual limitations just like we all do," and B) "I'm as good a mortal," he says.

When he once rushed past a secretary to speak to an executive, she tried to stop him, implying the boss was busy with important work. "He was playing Solitaire," he says.

In a study conducted by Lee D. Ross, professor of psychology at Stanford University, Ph.D. students taking oral examinations believed they didn't know as much as their questioners. But the questioner didn't feel he knew more than the answerer. Put another way, just because someone knows the answer to his own question doesn't mean he knows much more than that, even though he seems to.

"Confidence can come from learning to have more realistic standards of what competence looks like -- learning to distinguish the real fakes from the fake fakes," he says.

The danger of such self-medicating with social comparison is an overdose of confidence. There are injured egos and distractions for managers who have to engage in coddle-fests for people whose ambition laps their talents.

But if, as the Peter Principle notes, colleagues around you will advance to the level of their incompetence, can you blame someone for trying to make sense of it?

"One guy didn't know crap about marketing," recalls Jennifer Rook of a former colleague who was promoted. "We came to the conclusion [his promotion] was because he was tall."

Ann Garcia, who has witnessed ineffective vice presidents prosper despite the fact they "carved this trail of tears through the organization," doesn't allow people who might sound smart clip her self-image just because they can talk about, say, "organizational silos."

She went through phases of admiration, then scorn and now simply tries to find out what companies value.

Adds Stanford's Prof. Ross: "There sometimes also comes a point when you realize what makes the people you thought were mediocre, good. FDR, for example: second-class intellect, but first-class temperament."

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