Given the trend toward flatter organizations, more of us today have the opportunity to be a leader at work. That’s great news, but it comes with a catch: More of us must watch out for the errors to which leaders are prone.
Of course you don’t want to be like your terrible boss, the one who throws temper tantrums, or the passive-aggressive one who refuses to make a decision and then blames subordinates for the ensuing mess.
But the road to bad leadership is paved with good intentions. “I meant well” is not enough. You must be alert for the following eight traps.
1. Ignoring blind spots (What it sounds like: “I’m certain”)
Cognitive biases, aka blind spots, are a much-studied phenomenon, and psychology points to an unfortunate fact that you can’t avoid them entirely. You can mitigate them, however, by taking steps to break out of our ordinary ways of looking at situations. To adopt these new perspectives, some leaders might attend innovation workshops or hire creativity consultants. But the best way to go about it is a lot more direct. You need to talk—and more important, listen—to a diverse set of people.
2. Being naïve about relationships (“They love me!”)
Research by Laurence Stybel and Maryann Peabody indicates our relationships can be grouped into four categories: friends, foes, allies and adversaries. Friend and foe relationships are unconditional: A friend supports you no matter what, while a foe works against you no matter what. Allies and adversaries, in contrast, are with you or against you based on interests, which are conditional and transitory. Savvy leaders understand these four relationship types and watch for the most common form of the trap: mistaking allies for friends and adversaries for foes.
3. Scorning the soft stuff (“Get over it.”)
This trap is for leaders who expect hearts to be checked at the office door. They fail to see that denying people’s emotional connection to their work is one of the fastest ways to squash an organization’s spirit. Moreover, research on workplace climate shows that factors often dismissed as fluffy—things like teamwork, purpose, and mastery, which invest work with meaning—are linked to solid financial results. Leaders who dismiss the soft stuff may find harsh surprises in their P&L reports.
4. Pursuing simplistic answers (“It’s obvious.”)
Many leadership challenges are not problems but dilemmas. A dilemma is an issue with two sides, each with benefits to be maximized and drawbacks to be minimized. There’s a set of classic dilemmas most organizations face, among them centralized vs. decentralized, long-term vs. short-term, and planning vs. action. Dilemmas are managed, not solved. Rather than simply trying to solve problems, leaders should identify the dilemmas they face and cultivate the good on both sides.
5. Declaring victory too soon (“My work is done.”)
Change initiatives typically unfold in five phases: the start, the rapid ascent, the plateau, and finally, either the gentle rise or the cliff. Many leaders make the error of declaring victory in the middle of the rapid ascent. “With the wonderful progress we’ve made and the goal within reach,” they think, “my team can take it from here.” What they fail to anticipate is the plateau that inevitably appears at the top of the climb, stretching for miles to the destination. Planning for the plateau is key to driving change successfully.
6. Failing to adapt (“This is the way.”)
When a crisis hits, don’t freeze up. Instead, stay in the learning zone, where the focus is ongoing inquiry. Leaders can keep adaptability high by asking three questions based on the pronouns we, I, and they:
- How might we resolve these difficulties and move forward as a team?
- How did I contribute to the difficulties, and how can I avoid making the same mistakes again?
- How did they (my team members) contribute to the difficulties, and how can I coach them so they’re better prepared for the next crisis?
7. Devaluing others’ strengths (“I’m the expert”)
What sends leaders into this trap is a tendency to see others as if through the wrong end of a telescope: appearing smaller than they really are and with less talent and expertise than they really have. A leader must sometimes be a critic. The criticism, however, ought to stem not from an urge to “fix” people, but rather from an appreciation of their unique potential and a sincere wish that they realize that potential.
8. Dominating and abdicating (“Not unless I say … Oh, whatever.”)
This eighth and final trap is about failing to find the right balance between direction and involvement. The best leaders know how to bring the two together so that their team feels both clear on where they’re going and engaged in the process of getting there. Less effective leaders, on the other hand, tend to oscillate between domination and abdication. One minute they’re cracking the whip and the next, missing in action.
To which of the eight leadership traps are you and your team most susceptible? How might you help yourself and others steer clear of these pitfalls?
Jocelyn Davis is an international leadership consultant and author. Learn more about the eight leadership traps and how to avoid them in her latest book, “The Greats on Leadership: Classic Wisdom for Modern Managers.”