Wanted: Plumber with experience who knows which way (fill in the blank) runs and who can communicate same to leaders who are absolutely convinced they are not the purveyors of (fill in the blank)!!
To a large degree, plumbers unclog pipes and drains, right! And while vitally important, particularly under certain circumstances, it’s not too terribly complex. If only leadership issues could be fixed as readily with a plunger! I would open a specialty store.
Like plumbing, the symptoms that appear in organizations are often caused elsewhere. Follow the trail and arrive at the source of the problem. And while it is too simplistic to say all problems start at the top, there are certainly enough to warrant taking a look at some of the most common toxic leadership habits that impact both people and processes down the line.
#1 Resisting Personal Growth
Examine the work history of many leaders and you’ll uncover hard-driving, responsible people who have always been adept at accomplishing tasks. This ability to get things done—and done correctly—triggers the higher ups to fix their radars on newly labeled Wonder Women/Supermen and target them for promotions. As these wonderkinds go higher up the ladder, they get increasingly busier simply because more stuff of a big picture nature comes across their desk requiring attention. But something is suddenly different now than it was when they were low on the totem pole. No longer is the individual capable of doing it all with her/his own two hands. Delegation is the order of the day. And along with delegation comes follow-up and the ability to hold others accountable. The world of the leader is no longer small in scope, but bigger in picture and possessing the ability to think in terms of possibilities and shaping the future is a necessary skill. This is where the trouble begins because what it took to help you get there is not what it will take to get you the rest of the way. The focused, driven, self-reliant employee—who resists the growth necessary for success at higher levels—is often viewed as an isolated, self-centered, dominating leader.
What should you do?
There are three things that can help you to grow and have success at the next level. First, uncover whether previous leaders were successfu. If not, why not? What mistakes did they make? What traits did they possess that turned people off. Perhaps they were too nice and tried to please everyone. Perhaps they failed to hold others accountable. Perhaps they were too aloof and saw no value in simple acts of encouragement and recognition.
Secondly, take a couple of personality or behavioral assessments to get an idea of what your strengths are and in which areas you may need to maintain vigilance.
Thirdly, get a good read on the personality characteristics of your team, department or organization. This will determine, more than anything else, what approach you should take. If your team is primarily composed of sensitive, risk-averse, accommodating type people, you will need to match that style in your leadership. If you have the opposite with bottom-line, assertive, demanding individuals, you will need to take on a much more assertive stance.
#2 Avoiding Tough Conversations
Being too nice and avoiding tough conversations is one of the most detrimental leadership qualities one can have. When leaders say “yes” to differing sides of an issue the invariable result is damaged trust and the diminished delivery of the product or service. Similarly, when leaders fail to instill a sense of accountability, the result is often chaos and a lack of productivity. Approximately four years ago I was fortunate enough to get a call from the owner of a manufacturing plant. A self-described inventor, the owner wanted to devote his time to future products instead of the day-to-day operations of the plant. For that purpose, he selected a loyal and disciplined individual and gave him the title of VP. Within a year, manufacturing quotas and on-time deliveries were circling the toilet drain and it didn’t take a master plumber to figure out why. While loyal and disciplined accurately described this individual, he was also one of the most conflict-averse individuals I’ve ever met. He told me he stayed awake most nights worrying about whether he had recently upset someone. When I asked him about setting goals and objectives toward his improvement, he asked if I would lobby the owner to simply give him his old job back. “I just can’t deal with knowing that no matter what I do, someone is always going to be angry with me,” he said as tears came to his eyes. He even shared that this was an issue between him and his wife and that he was now aware of just how debilitated he was. After six months of regular coaching meetings, he shared that he felt more confident and had more of a sense of being in control of his life.
While this example may be a bit extreme, conflict-averse people think the situation will magically resolve itself and that the pain of having a difficult conversation is greater than the pain of not having it. As a result, we employ denial, avoidance, resistance, rationalization or plain ole blame as a way to place responsibility on the other person. Suffice it to say that the end result is that the problem never diminishes and, in fact, gets worse—especially as it relates to relationships.
What should you do?
1. Seek coaching or counseling and begin tackling your fears. The fear of conflict can have some deep-seated roots sometimes that impact all areas of life.
2. Get the book “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High.” This is an excellent source with practical hints for how to say the tough stuff and do so in such a way that relationships with others are maintained.