The dark side of personality concerns behaviors and attributes that derail people – getting them into trouble and making them less effective as leaders. Typically, these derailers appear when people are under stress (e.g., they have a tight deadline, they are dealing with ambiguity, etc.) or when they are not self-monitoring (e.g., they are around people with whom they can let down their guard and not manage their image).
Many times, these behaviors are an overuse of a key strength from the bright side of their personality. For example, a leader who is conscientious, detail-oriented and sets high standards on a day-to-day basis might become perfectionistic, nitpicky and micromanaging when under stress – driving his or her direct reports crazy and garnering the reputation for being impossible to please.
While overuse of strengths is certainly problematic, underuse of a behavior or trait can be equally derailing, but in a different way. Underuse is another shade of the dark side, and it can have significant impacts on a leader’s effectiveness, reputation and, ultimately, career. Underuse of behaviors is usually not as visible or memorable as overuse, but it can be equally damaging.
To illustrate this principle, consider leaders who overuse their enthusiasm and sense of urgency to the point that they are emotional, excitable and volatile. Their tempers and hot-headedness are usually very memorable to the people who witness their “excitable moments.” In contrast, a person who underuses enthusiasm and sense of urgency will most likely come across as boring, dispassionate and flat and will not be able to motivate anyone. In short, the person will not be viewed as a leader. While the underused behavior might not garner immediate attention the way an overused behavior does, the impression it creates will accumulate over time, adding to the person’s reputation of not being an effective leader, which can be a death knell to a career.
The throwaway line that captures the essence of this discussion is, “Overuse can get you fired, and underuse can get you passed over.” Although a simplistic view, it is not far from the truth. If coaches were asked to give behavioral examples of executives who were fired, they would quickly fill a flipchart with examples of overused strengths that resulted in over-the-top behaviors. If those same coaches were queried about executives who were fired for underused behaviors, they likely would have very little to report. However, if they were asked to recall people who were passed over for a promotion or whose careers hit a plateau, they would most likely come up with a list of underused behaviors that resulted in the person not being perceived as a leader – descriptors such as “no fire in the belly,” “too quiet,” “too slow to make decisions,” “trusting to the point of being naïve” and “lacking influencing skills.”
While it’s critical for leaders to have self-awareness and situational awareness regarding their overuse of behaviors, it’s equally important to have them regarding underuse, as underused behaviors can be “silent killers.” Leaders need to constantly be vigilant as to how they are coming across, who their audience is and what level of behavior is appropriate for the situation, and then adjust their behavior accordingly. Often, it is much more difficult for leaders to dial up underused behaviors than to dial down overused behaviors. This is because the dialed-up version of the behavior is so foreign to leaders who underuse them, and they feel that the behavior is unnatural. For example, a leader who is quiet and does not show much emotion will typically have a harder time speaking up and demonstrating emotion than the leader who is trying to rein in those behaviors.
Dialing Up Leadership Traits: Leader Emergence
Consider the case of Robert, a design engineer for a manufacturer of commercial aircraft electronic components. He worked primarily as an individual contributor and was a hard worker who seemed very calm and even-tempered under pressure. People viewed him as task-focused with little interest in engaging with people. He tended to work long hours and was not bothered by the fact that his attention to detail spilled over into work for others, which earned him a reputation as a grinder who got things done.
His hard work and solid performance brought him to the attention of the senior management team. He had the technical skills to be promoted to a new role as project leader of a cross-functional team. However, the senior managers were planning to pass him over, because the new role would require effective leadership, collaboration, communication and team-building skills that they felt would be too much of a stretch for his quiet, reserved nature and tendency to fade into the background in social situations.
Robert’s manager was very direct with him about those concerns and perceptions. Robert realized that if he were ever going to be promoted and achieve his potential, he needed to visibly demonstrate that he could dial up the traits that were crucial in the new role. He requested the help of a coach, and they embarked on a coaching initiative designed to develop the traits he needed: assertiveness, communication, being more approachable and sociable, and being less perfectionistic.
It was difficult at first for Robert, because he had to exert so much energy just exhibiting the behaviors. However, the new dialed-up versions became easier the more he practiced them, especially when he saw that they truly did make him more effective in his interactions. Robert’s commitment to change and his demonstration of the newer, more visible behaviors in front of the senior team members convinced them to promote him into the new role.
Leader emergence (the behaviors typically associated with overuse of strengths) is perhaps one of the most significant variables in career success. When leaders who are underusing traits are passed over due to executive presence concerns, it is a lose-lose for the leaders and the larger organization, as both the leaders’ good ideas and the good ideas of their teams often go unnoticed. Although dialing up underused behaviors can be difficult, with sufficient self-awareness, situational awareness, desire and determination on the part of the leader, it can be done.