Adrian was a successful vice president of sales in a Fortune 100 company when the company hired me to deliver a team development session. I flew in the day before the session and met with Adrian to interview him about the team and his goals for the session. He struck me as bright, passionate and energetic, and h e spoke quickly, with a kind of nervous intensity that was equal parts captivating and intimidating.
I arrived at headquarters an hour early the next morning to set up, but Adrian’s entire team of 10 direct reports was already having coffee in the boardroom. I began to see and hear obvious signs of team dysfunction within five minutes of walking through the door. I overheard one team member reveal that he had lost a valuable key account last night. Another asked the group if anyone had spoken to Adrian yet that morning and, if so, what was the “temperature”? Someone responded, her eyes wide, saying, “It’s definitely looking like a code red kind of day.” They all agreed to wait until after the team session to share the bad news.
As I readied my materials and listened to the exchange, Adrian’s team members were unknowingly revealing to me an elaborate system of tactics they had in place to manage Adrian’s unpredictable temper and moods. His tendency to overreact to mistakes and setbacks created a downstream series of dysfunctional team habits designed to avoid the boss’ anger. They walked on eggshells, withheld information and concealed mistakes. When they had to deliver bad news, they bargained with one another about whose turn it was to be the messenger and endure the “guillotine,” as they called it.
All of these tactics created an enormous amount of waste on the team that it could have spent more wisely elsewhere — wasted time, emotional energy, effort and relationship capital. Adrian was smart, experienced, well connected and successful, yet he struggled to manage his intense personality, resulting in permanent damage to his reputation and his team’s performance.
As Adrian entered the boardroom, the shift in energy and tension in the room was immediately palpable. Each team member displayed fear-based body language: crossed arms, avoidance of eye contact, tense facial expressions and the wringing of hands. I suddenly recalled him saying the day before that “it’s better to be feared than loved, right?” with a smirk.
Adrian was not a bad guy, but he was definitely a bad boss. I already had the assessment reports in a folder on the table that clearly explained the behaviors I was witnessing in the room. I took a deep breath and steeled myself for what was sure to be a long day unpacking the dysfunction impacting this leader and his team.
Derailing Personality Characteristics
Unless you always have been self-employed, chances are good you have had a terrible boss. Nearly all bad bosses have one or more personality characteristics that create dysfunction — what we call “derailers.” Descriptions of derailing personality characteristics first appeared more than 100 years ago, and it has been more than 30 years since research first indicated that undesirable personality characteristics cause leaders to fail. More recent research estimates that 30% to 60% of all leaders have derailing characteristics.
Derailers manifest in negative behaviors that emerge when we let our guard down or stop self-monitoring and self-managing. For example, we typically strive to be on our best behavior at work, but as we decompress after a long day, our loved ones tend to see our least attractive features. Imagine a busy executive who goes home tired and complains about work problems, is impatient with the kids and yells at the dog. We save our worst for our best, as the saying goes.
However, we let our guard down at work, too. For example, leaders often self-monitor when interacting with superiors or peers when the consequences of a misstep are significant. But with subordinates, leaders are often less attentive. The consequences of this behavior, although not especially politically damaging, can hurt team performance in the long term.
For example, a leader named Pat used this “kiss-up, kick-down” behavior often, publicly promoting and taking credit for team successes while quickly passing off the blame for failures. The company identified Pat as high potential, while her team became dysfunctional and demoralized.
While much has been written about the impact of derailers on boss/subordinate relationships, the impact on teams is particularly costly. Dysfunctional behavior patterns condition team members to find ways to avoid or manage their boss. For example, when Adrian would shout at his subordinates for making mistakes, they quickly learned it was in their best interest to conceal bad news.
It’s like touching a hot stove — once you’ve experienced the consequence, you will try to avoid it in the future. Over time, these coping mechanisms waste time and resources. One team, for instance, had privately engineered an elaborate scheme in which team members took turns submitting work products that were intentionally poor in quality. Their objective was to distract Anita, their micromanaging boss, for days as she redid the work and fixed their mistakes. While it was costly for the individual whose turn it was, it temporarily sheltered the rest of the team from Anita’s hovering, enabling them to get some work done.
Avoiding Team Dysfunction
Leader dysfunction breeds team dysfunction. So, what should talent management and development professionals do to avoid this creeping dysfunction? Take these three important steps:
1. Define “Leadership” Appropriately
Much of the academic literature on leadership implicitly defines leadership by role or title. The press perpetuates this approach by describing people who inhabit senior roles as leaders, regardless of their actual leadership capability. If, however, one studies human groups through the lens of history and the principle of survival of the fittest, it makes more sense to define leadership as a group resource.
In this sense, leadership has never been about a position or a title but whether a leader could help the group survive — or, in today’s world, help the team work together to meet collectively beneficial goals. Adrian was a high-performing salesperson who was promoted rapidly for his financial performance instead of his potential for leadership, with disastrous consequences for his team.
When leadership development interventions begin with the correct definition of leadership, they will inevitably focus on outcomes for team effectiveness.
2. Provide Leadership Development in Vivo
It is, of course, important for leaders to gain strategic insight about their derailer risks and the people and situations that trigger them. Most leadership development programs include assessment components to help leaders gain insights; it is equally important for interventions to involve the team and focus on how the leader and the team interact and develop interdependencies, for better or worse.
For example, Anita’s tendency to control every aspect of her team’s work resulted in team members who could not function without her, because they were never permitted to learn or develop new skills. The best approach is to create leadership development strategies that operate in real time. Examples include planning debriefs after one-on-one and team meetings with a focus on uncovering the root causes of team mistakes, dysfunctional interactions and other aspects of poor performance.
3. Evaluate the Intervention at Two Levels
It’s important to measure derailers and progress toward managing them in the behavior of the leader and the behavior of the team. Pam’s developmental progress, for example, would look different depending on whether it were measured using self- or supervisor evaluations or using team feedback. As with all human change and development, results will not be immediately obvious, which is why organizations should measure the leader’s progress vis-à-vis the team’s functioning and to provide ongoing feedback and coaching on more productive behaviors.
It also is important to measure the leader’s progress in enabling his or her team to be effective. A team that has learned bad habits from the leader will need to be deliberate about changing behaviors. The good news is that team members should be able to shed their dysfunction as their boss does.
While working through these three steps to break the cycle of dysfunction, talent management professionals should strive to be patient. Bad habits are difficult to break, because they are upheld by long-standing and partially hardwired personality characteristics. A leader attempting to rewire bad habits must carefully monitor and control his or her behavior in order to see team habits change.