How to fail as a leader

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It's often said that people join companies but leave their managers. And it is absolutely true. A raft of research has shown that the vast majority of employees who quit their jobs don't leave their company, they leave their boss.

Meanwhile, when leaders, managers and supervisors are fired, replaced or removed, it's not usually because they lack technical expertise or know-how. They fail because of their lack of effective interpersonal skills.

Every organization needs to invest in training, learning and development. But how many invest in learning and development that promotes self-discovery, healthy workplace relationships, commitment and accountability to each other?

It's not personal; it's interpersonal

Dysfunctional behaviours poison the workplace atmosphere, adversely affect performance and damage both productivity and profits. So it ought to be in an organization's own interests to eliminate them.

But equally, the individuals who exhibit such behaviour have to make a conscious choice that they want to eliminate them – and that demands self-reflection, personal change and an exploration of their personal beliefs, expectations and values around the nature and purpose of work. Policies, systems, manuals or programmes can never make up for the damage done by leaders, managers and supervisors who are deficient in personal awareness and interpersonal skills.

Successful, sustainable performance stems from people who know how to talk, listen and interrelate with to one another. Employees with a healthy sense of self-esteem, engagement and commitment will inevitably seek out and create conscious, healthy and successful relationships with those around them. They create a virtuous circle, sustaining an atmosphere and culture that in turn motivates and engages others.

What not to do and how not to be

If you are one of those leaders or managers who thinks that credentials, technical competency and expertise are enough to ensure your success in the workplace, perhaps it might be wise to think again. Technical expertise alone isn't enough to encourage, teach, guide, coach and facilitate others ¬ unhampered by the personal and interpersonal issues that create barriers to a harmonious and productive workplace.

But if you're still set on contributing to a toxic culture that is characterized by disengagement, low commitment, distrust, resentment, conflict, secrecy, a lack accountability, poor morale, high turnover and missed opportunities – all of which can be traced back to you – here are my guidelines for leaders, managers and supervisors who - consciously or unconsciously – want to fail.

  • Your responses to suggestions or ideas always begins with "no", "but" or "however".
  • You try to rationalize counter-productive procedures and nonsensical bureaucratic practices by saying: "this is just the way it is".
  • You judge others from an ego-driven, critical, subjective, perspective: "why can't you be more like me".
  • You get defensive or aggressive every time someone questions your thoughts or your decisions.
  • You justify actions that may be unethical, immoral, or lacking in integrity because "it's the way we do business in a competitive marketplace".
  • You admonish those who make mistakes or disagree with you – and to do it in public.
  • You're emotionally disconnected and distant from your colleagues and direct reports.
  • You're cold, calculating, emotionally unapproachable and unforgiving of others; you run the show from a "hey, this is a business!" perspective.
  • You shun creativity and innovation and encourage a "not invented here" attitude.
  • You shun truth, fairness and justice in favor of expediency, convenience, cutting corners and "making a buck as quickly as possible".
  • You compete rather than co-operate and take the "I'm always right" road rather than seeking mediation or a win-win outcome.
  • You allow your anger, frustration and anxiety to leak out when engaged in dialogues.
  • You're a source of weakness and confusion in the face of a stressful and uncertain environment.
  • You don't allow yourself or others the time for self-reflection and deeper thinking.
  • You don't search for meaning in what you do and communicate to others that purpose and meaning are "soft" or "new agey" and have no place at work.

Exploring whether any of these behaviors describes you is the first step towards developing the self-awareness that underpins personal and professional growth and fosters the critical skills that will keep your leadership, management or supervisory career on track.

Some questions for self-reflection

  • How do you feel about the idea that "soft skills" are equally - perhaps more - important to your career and should be included in training and development efforts?
  • Do you manifest any of these traits in your everyday interactions?
  • Has anyone ever tugged on your sleeve about your lack of people skills?
  • On a scale of 1-10, where does your boss lie when it comes to his/her people skills? If on the low end, how does this affect your relationship with him/her?
  • What story might you tell yourself that justifies your feeling that technical expertise and not people skills is all that matters in how you deal with people at work?
  • Do you feel that you use people-skills effectively? Would others agree with you?
  • Do you consider yourself a "people person?" Do others? How do you know?
  • Is having effective people-skills considered a core competency in your organization? Is it part of formal organizational, educational training?
  • Do you ever think about skills or habits you have that may cause your co-workers to disengage from you? Does that bother you?
  • If you are successful, do you believe your success is a justification for the way you behave or are you successful in spite of the way you behave?
  • Do money, status, power and popularity get in the way of your experiencing healthy, conscious relationships at work?
  • Do you ever ask others, formally or informally, for feedback? Are you comfortable asking for and receiving feedback?
  • Do you ever ask others' for their opinions or suggestions and then argue with them when their input is not what you want to hear?
  • Are you conscious of what's underneath the way people respond to you in your presence both verbally and non-verbally?
  • Are you curious of how people perceive you? Do you ever consider how you contribute to others' perceptions of you?
  • How happy are you at work?

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