leadership incorporated blog

August 14, 2011

Inspired to Succeed: Leading superstars (and others) behaving like idiots.

Ridiculously common leadership challenge:

That rising star you promoted into a management role, what a mistake! He’s throwing his weight around. She’s behaving unprofessionally. He’s demoralizing the staff. She’s creating conflict. He’s just not getting the job done.

So what do you do?

Traditionally, if we don’t ignore the situation or promote the person (which happens more often than you might think), we confront. We yell. We threaten. We paper the file. We discipline. We demote. We fire. We have that difficult conversation. That’s what accountability is, right?

Not necessarily.

Accountability is us taking responsibility. Us, being accountable.

Every day companies take people who are excellent at what they do and promote them into roles that require they do something more. They assume that people will naturally be as good at the new role as they were at the old one, without recognizing that the new job requires completely different skills and perspectives.

Bad management behavior is a sign of someone who’s drowning — and may not even know that swimming is required, much less how to do it.

As their supervision, their failure belongs to us. It is our job to lead even our leaders.

Should they know better? Maybe. But if they don’t, you are just fighting reality.

Is it understandable and even justified, to discipline these rogue managers? Maybe. It’s just not effective.

Let’s look at how traditional discipline works. We’ve all been there. How do you respond when you are slapped down? Do you push back? Become defensive? Resentful? Do you go underground? Does your confidence take the hit?

Even when people are open to feedback and want to do better, traditional discipline creates an extra layer of fear, defensiveness, and judgment that ultimately gets in the way of performance.

As leaders, what we had better want, even though we may lose touch with it in the moment, is for our people to truly succeed so that our organizations will succeed along with them.

Business is a team sport. If we want to grow, we need to develop and support our players.

Here’s a more effective approach to creating true and sustainable accountability in managers (and others) who disappoint:

1. Take responsibility. Don’t just push people into the deep end of the pool to sink or swim. Supervise and fine tune and guide and coach. Let them struggle — that’s how they learn — but don’t let them go under and certainly don’t let them drown anyone else to save themselves.

2. Align with the person you’re disappointed in. It’s counter-intuitive. We believe we need to confront. Yet, frontal attacks are always met with resistance. So instead of initiating a losing battle, create alignment.

This does not mean making unacceptable behavior okay. It simply means playing on the same team. Instead of standing in front of an employee and pushing them backwards; metaphorically, come around behind them and support their forward movement.

3. Direct their vision to the future. Speak to what is needed. Speak to what’s possible for this person in this role. Speak to their ability and your commitment their success. Be clear about what success looks like in this position in this organization, so they know what’s expected.

4. Build on what’s working. Focusing on what’s wrong keeps you stuck in what’s wrong. Cutting people down doesn’t build them up. Start from what is going well and focus on adding what’s needed. Ask them what support they need.

5. Do not do the work for them. If the support they request removes their responsibility or opportunity for learning, firmly decline and refocus. Empowering and facilitating is the shortest path to growing a stronger company.

6. Have them evaluate their own progress. You evaluate their evaluation. True accountability is helping a person hold him or herself accountable.

7. If you can’t do this, one of you needs to go. That’s right. If they can’t achieve the clear expectations with this kind of support, more often than not, they’ll leave on their own.

On the other hand if you can’t be this kind of leader, what hope is there for your organization?

Make the time. It’s worth it.


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