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 avoid derailment.

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
  • journaling.

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 Bulletin, Leadership Quarterly, and Journal of Leadership Studies.


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