It is no wonder that one of every two managers is ineffective. Many
display behaviors in certain problem areas, including problems with
interpersonal relationships, difficulty leading a team, difficulty
changing or adapting, failure to meet business objectives, and too
narrow a functional orientation. If a manager is displaying
behaviors in these problem areas, does that mean that he or she is
doomed to derailment and ultimate failure? In some cases, yes.
Research shows that there are some personality characteristics or
profiles that are linked to ineffective managers, managers who show
derailment signs, or failed managers. Because personality is
usually set by adulthood, the likelihood of a manager's changing
his personality is rather small at best, and, therefore, some
managers may be more likely to derail because of their
personalities. This is all the more troubling because a personality
trait - such as narcissism - that has been viewed as a negative
trait for leaders to possess, has been found to be linked to
leaders that emerge from leaderless groups. In essence, personality
traits such as narcissism may help people emerge as leaders, but
could just as easily lead to their ultimate downfall.
Unlike personality, behaviors can change, assuming certain
conditions are met. For example, the signs of derailment need to be
discovered early. The behaviors that managers need to change must
also be clear. In addition, the manager must be focused and
motivated to make the changes, and must have support from the
organization or a development professional. Ultimately, if given
enough time, managers showing derailment behaviors can get off the
track toward derailment and on a track toward a successful career.
What follows is distilled from a host of recent research that has
attempted to look into the predictors of derailment to help inform
the field and give advice and strategies for managers seeking to
One practical piece of advice for leaders trying to avoid
derailment is to enhance their self-awareness.
Leaders must not only understand whether they see themselves the
way others see them, but also understand their strengths and
weaknesses and become aware of their work and life circumstances.
For instance, many derailed leaders were unaware that they did not
fit in well - with the demands of their jobs, their bosses and
their managing or leading styles, the people around them, or the
directions of their organizations - until it was too late. Managers
should also take the time to become aware of situations that could
trigger derailment, such as work overload, major life or career
transitions, or boredom. Managers can increase their self-awareness
and get off the track toward derailment by
- reflecting on life-shaping moments
- using executive coaches
- using mentors
- taking personality tests
Another way to enhance self-awareness is through feedback. Leaders
don't always know whether they display derailment behaviors. As
recent research has shown, leaders are not in alignment with how
others view their derailment tendencies. This is especially true
for managers at the highest managerial levels, who often are out of
touch with how they are perceived by others, are more arrogant, or
may surround themselves with those who are less willing to give
truthful, straightforward feedback. In short, managers continually
believe they are less likely to show derailment signs than their
peers, those who report directly to them, and bosses believe.
To avoid derailment, Michael M. Lombardo and Robert W. Eichinger in
Preventing Derailment: What to Do Before It's Too Late,
state that managers must openly receive honest, constructive
developmental feedback. By using this feedback from various sources
internal and external to the organization, both formally and
informally, managers can avoid derailment by developing new
strengths, focusing less on the technical matters that got them
promoted early in their careers and more on leadership roles that
will get them promoted later in their careers, being less
controlling of their work and of others and more accepting of
ambiguity (which is apparent at higher levels of organizations),
being less promotion-oriented and more oriented toward problem
solving, being less emotionally volatile and more emotionally
stable and composed, and becoming more aware of their interpersonal
impact on others.
Another important piece of advice is to have a mindset of learning
and to be willing to improve. A 2009 study of 173 U.S. college and
university administrators showed that administrators who understood
their strengths and weaknesses and were willing to improve were
less likely to display derailment behaviors. Willingness to improve
comes with being open to learning new things and having a learning
orientation. Managers must try to develop new strengths, learn from
their management experiences, handle mistakes and failures by
admitting them and learning from them, and become active learners
by avoiding past habits to be better equipped to make transitions
and deal with novel, challenging situations.
Managers also need to foster relationships and get support from
others to lessen others' perceptions that they are displaying
behavioral indicators of derailment or to avoid derailment
completely. Managers who felt more support from their supervisors
and co-workers were less likely to show derailment signs. Another
2008 study found that positive relationships can lessen the
perception of derailment behaviors. Specifically, it found that
working effectively with members of upper management and having a
good relationship with them helped the managers treat those who
reported directly to them in a warm and caring manner, putting them
at ease. Ultimately, this led to managers' being seen as less
likely to show derailment behaviors.
In essence, when managers effectively work with the management team
above them and give support to those below them, there are lessened
perceptions of derailment behaviors. Therefore, managers need to
try and improve their relationship with members of upper
management. They need to meet regularly with upper management and
become comfortable and confident around them. They need to get to
know those in upper management on a personal level and network with
them. Managers need to discover how those in top management think
and behave, and attempt and practice influence tactics (that is,
managing up) with them. Leaders must also treat their subordinates
well, put them at ease, help them, and support them.
Leaders who adopt or enhance certain managerial skills can also be
seen as less likely to show derailment signs. For instance, leaders
who were more successful at exemplifying the skill of participative
management (that is, using effective listening skills and
communication to involve others, build a consensus, and influence
others in decision making) were rated by their bosses as more
successful and less likely to display the characteristics and
behaviors associated with derailment. To avoid derailment, managers
should therefore try to improve their communication skills, foster
collaboration, learn how to build a consensus, and give voice to
others in the decision-making process. Also, leaders who are more
politically skilled are seen as less likely to show derailment
signs. To avoid derailment, leaders should enhance their political
skill by building networks, becoming perceptive observers and
discerners of people and situations, practicing influence skills,
and acting with true sincerity.
Finally, leaders who are less likely to show derailment signs have
a good balance between work and life. Recent research has shown
that leaders rated higher in work-life balance were seen as less
likely to show derailment behaviors than leaders rated lower in
work-life balance. This might lend evidence toward the fact that
organizations may consider a manager's perception of work-life
balance when discussing and planning for career-related decisions
and opportunities. Further, it gives credence to the foundation of
programs implemented to help managers balance their work and
nonwork responsibilities and activities, and thus the results of
this research should encourage organizations to help managers lead
more balanced lives.
Note: This article is excerpted from The
ASTD Leadership Handbook, edited by Elaine Biech.
William A. Gentry is currently a senior research associate at the
Center for Creative Leadership and an adjunct assistant professor
in the leadership studies doctoral program at North Carolina
A&T State University. He graduated summa cum laude from Emory
University and received his MS and PhD in applied psychology (with
a concentration in industrial-organizational psychology) from the
University of Georgia. He has published (or has work forthcoming)
in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Vocational
Behavior, Personnel Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology
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