May 21 2019| Leadership
by Phil Eyre Founder
During a week of recreation and recalibration, I was asked an interesting question: ‘In your work with business leaders, do you see common issues arising and, if so, what are they?’
On reflection, my work with leaders has identified three leadership blindspots that I discover and challenge with regularity:
1) A Martyr Mindset
A martyr will consciously or unconsciously remain in a state of hopelessness over problems and pain, reducing, and in some cases removing, entirely the hope that is necessary to catalyse change.
This limits the ability to achieve prosperity; stress and pain persist and remain unresolved. In the more extreme cases, the martyring habit crushes a person’s ability to make decisions; they may choose to remain in a place of stress or passively suffer.
How might this look in practice? Consider these four examples:
1. A successful task-driven manager is promoted over the years to the board but they cannot give up the comfort they receive from dealing with management tasks.
They fail to delegate yet carry board-level responsibilities. They complain that they don’t have the time to do it all, yet choose to pass on very little responsibility to others.
2. A helpful, empathetic person becomes so used to ‘getting down in the ditch’ with friends or colleagues to help them out that this becomes a significant part of their identity. If they’re not helping someone else out they feel that something is wrong, yet their own problems remain unresolved.
3. A high performing leader is let down once by a colleague and decides that is how things will always be. Rather than challenge the situation, the high performer works even harder, covering their colleague’s work whilst building up resentment that their efforts are not properly recognised.
4. A team leader shields their team from the CEO’s unreasonable outbursts, ’taking one for the team’ persistently until this becomes normal. Rather than challenge the CEO or find somewhere else to work, the team leader continues to suffer the stress on the basis of ‘better the devil you know’.
Counterproductive habits such as martyring can become seductive; they make sense at the moment of decision, as there is a short term ‘feel good’ that goes with the habit.
For the martyr, pity is often what provides the short-term buzz, but this can soon wear off to leave a lasting resentment and unhappiness. Our responses to stress and trouble are complex, but the following tactics can often provide a basis for overcoming a martyring mindset.
● Create boundaries. Don’t say yes to every task, especially when you know it will create problems for you. Pause, consider and either resist or suggest an alternative.
● Be clear about your expectations. Hold others to account. Don’t just assume they know what you expect and then feel disappointed. When they don’t perform to your expectations, discuss the problem with them.
● Adopt a growth mindset. Think about what can you learn from these situations. Often it is in overcoming adversity that we grow the most. <link to adversity article>.
● Don’t brush things off. When someone says or does something hurtful or unacceptable, let them know.
● Ask for help. Martyrs often take pride in their self-sufficiency. Asking for help takes courage and humility.
● Make a change. If, having asked for help, there is no change, then make that change. This might include taking steps to exit a dire situation.
2) Avoiding Difficult Conversations
I have the privilege of spending one-to-one time with leaders with diverse experiences and frequently hear about their struggles with colleagues.
However, when I ask whether they have raised the issue with the said person, all too often their response is ‘no’.
Failing to address issues will limit individual and team performance.
Healthy organisations actively foster an environment that enables both praise and criticism, so that performance excels. Other people’s perspectives help us to see things that we would otherwise miss and give us an opportunity to improve.
Not tackling issues sends a clear signal to the team that the leader prefers superficial harmony to the best outcomes, and the net result is the worst of both worlds.
The Fear Factor
Reasons for avoiding difficult conversations can be condensed into one word - fear:
● Fear of their response, for example, anger or upset.
● Fear of a negative impact on the business - they might walk and take clients with them.
● Fear that others in the business will see you negatively and won’t like you anymore.
● Fear of the effort; it’s a distraction, maybe it will just go away.
Yet every leader I speak with about this knows that the benefits of addressing the issue directly are critical for a healthy organisation.
Addressing the fear factor has a myriad of benefits, including:
1. Team performance is enhanced.
2. Team trust is built.
3. Team harmony is fostered at a deeper level, the short-term difficult conversation setting the basis for longer-term health.
4. Risks are reduced as negative issues are identified and resolved.
Leaders learn by hearing other people’s perspectives.
Yes, there are sometimes consequences to deal with, however, these are usually more surmountable than initially feared and often provide the basis for significant improvement.
The key is to talk to people, rather than about them.
3) The Echo Chamber
We are experts in the field of human data analytics, applying insight from psychometric surveys.
One of the skills that we measure is ‘avoidance’ skill - a sophisticated risk awareness that provides an ability to weigh risks and perceive the consequences of a decision.
It’s often the weakest leadership skill that we measure amongst teams and individuals, with people preferring to ‘cross that bridge when we come to it’. Yet anticipating trouble ahead is far more efficient and effective than blindly walking into trouble.
One of the reasons for a lack of skill in this area is a leader’s propensity to build a team that ‘echoes’ their own thoughts.
They recruit and promote in their own image too frequently. The resulting confirmation bias leaves both new creative ideas and potential risks undiscovered. There are many reasons that leaders do this, even those that champion the idea of diversity in the boardroom.
More Haste, Less Speed
In my experience, a common theme is expediency; a desire to build a team quickly and get on with the job.
When travelling at speed, our biases disproportionately influence our decision making. In other cases, pride can limit the extent to which diverse thinking is built into a team, with the leader preferring people who affirm, rather than challenge, their decisions.
How can productive avoidance skill be enhanced?
● Actively building a team with diverse experience and choosing to invest time building understanding and trust is a highly effective way of building team avoidance skill.
● Seeking fresh perspectives, especially from outside of the company bubble, further adds insight that can enhance sensitivity to trouble ahead.
● For the speedy, choosing to pause - even if only briefly - makes a significant difference. Stopping to reflect, ask a few extra questions or wait for a fresh perspective from someone who’s not immediately available can bring essential insight into decision making.
Our work is all about supporting and challenging leaders and leadership teams to engage their productive skills more effectively and overcome their blindspots.
These are three frequent issues that we encounter. What would you add? I would be delighted to discuss how we can help you.