The pressures of leadership are many – having responsibility for the success of the organization, and perhaps more importantly, the lives of the employees, customers and communities leaders serve can be a heavy burden. And at the same time, leaders are challenged to manage their own careers and reputations. While most leaders have good intentions, our natural tendency is to behave in ways that lead to positive perceptions of our performance. In other words, as Robert Hargrove describes in his book Masterful Coaching, we are focused on looking good rather than being good.
This need to protect ourselves leads us to behave in ways that shield us in the short-term, but is actually harmful to ourselves and the organization in the long-term. As John Kenneth Galbraith describes, “Faced with the alternatives between changing one’s mind and proving it unnecessary, just about everybody gets busy on the proof.” We seek to avoid situations that are embarrassing or potentially threating so we engage in defensive behaviors that keep us from learning, evolving, and enhancing performance over time. This shows up in a variety of dysfunctional behaviors:
Defending/protecting our mistakes
Avoiding the discussion of difficult topics or failing to speak up
Failing to admit when we do not know something
Focusing on work arounds instead of addressing the root issue
Wearing rose colored glasses that are out of touch with reality
Focusing on our department/division rather than the organization
The result of these behaviors is what Hargrove calls “skilled incompetence.” In other words, leaders become so adept at managing perceptions of their performance that it becomes automatic. Leaders resist admitting to mistakes because it exposes others… As a result, the organization fails to learn and evolve. This skilled incompetence quickly becomes engrained in the culture and the organization suffers.
It’s easy to see these dysfunctions in other leaders. We can all think of examples of leaders who lack courage, explain away failure, or avoid difficult conversations. Yet, the best leaders take the time to ask themselves how they may be feeding into this dysfunctional behavior. The challenge becomes recognizing these behaviors in yourself and building productive practices for learning and growing (even if that means admitting you are not perfect!). How can you create a culture where it is ok to discuss mistakes without risking damage to your reputation? How can you provide fellow leaders with the skills to openly deal with the problems they are facing?
Consider these strategies as you work with your fellow leaders (remembering that leadership is about modeling the way).
Start with assuming everyone has good intentions. Think through how your actions, despite your good intentions, contribute to poor outcomes.
Set the tone. Get a commitment from the team to learning from vs. covering up failures. Agree that it is ok to fail as long as we improve next time. Most failures are not fatal.
Make leadership about solving business problems. In other words, make the focus on how to improve a business situation and not about the people. This means setting aside the interests of your department/division and thinking more holistically about the organization.
Ask tough questions. If you feel you will not get honest answers consider an anonymous survey. Great leaders welcome feedback and act upon it.
What barriers within the team get in our way of being effective at solving a particular business issue?
What are people thinking that they aren’t saying?
What would you do differently next time?
How am I getting in the way?
Encourage disagreement. Openly welcome debate to get different perspectives and build organizational intelligence.
Reward learning. Recognize leaders for their authenticity, creativity and learning. The process of learning should be as valued as results.
Being able to let our guards down is a necessary condition for learning. Organizations cannot evolve, innovate, and stay relevant unless they learn. So the next time you step into a leadership meeting, observe if there are any signs of skilled incompetence, and most importantly, are you contributing to them?
Written by Dr. Leanne Buehler, VP Consulting Services, Newmeasures