Exploring Leadership: A Personal Journey Part 4 – Interview Question: What common mistakes have you seen among leadership teams?

This blog is part of a series. Last year, I embarked on a personal development project with the aim of discovering what skills I would need to become the leader I had always looked for. I identified successful leaders from nonprofit, corporate and education backgrounds and asked them the same series of six questions, the results of which are shared in this 8-week series. Use the arrows at the bottom of the
page to navigate between the related posts.

What common mistakes have you seen among leadership teams? Unsurprisingly, the interviewees were able to answer this question at length without much pause. I received an abundance of responses that I can summarize in the following six categories:

  1. Insufficient communication skills
  2. Too much talk, not enough action
  3. Lack of growth
  4. Workaholic culture
  5. Leaders in the wrong positions
  6. Damaging mindsets

INSUFFICIENT COMMUNICATION SKILLS

Transparency, listening and conflict were the three major areas this group of leaders identified for improvement. Transparency connects back to the valued characteristics of honesty & trust I explored in the previous post. The pattern of decisions made behind closed doors with little input or explanation breeds distrust and no one is going to willingly follow a leader or team they do not trust.

The interviewees stated that leadership teams are often detached from the people on the ground. They either don’t ask for input from the employees doing the work, or even worse, they do ask and then disregard what they say. Listening is one of the most basic communication skills and the one I feel is lacking the most. As a culture, we prioritize having something to say over listening to someone else; we
often listen only to respond.

This lack of willingness to truly listen to others also creates (often unnecessary) conflict. Instead of managing conflict, interviewees noted many leaders try to avoid it. It makes them uncomfortable and maybe even a little fearful of how others will respond or perceive them. However, conflict can be helpful in bringing about new ideas and solutions if each person has the skills to manage their emotions and considers the other person’s point of view.

TOO MUCH TALK, NOT ENOUGH ACTION

I think we can all relate to this one. How often have you left a meeting feeling like little was accomplished and it was a waste of your time? The leaders I interviewed experience those feelings too. Teams often focus on the problem and spend little time actually creating solutions.

The group of leaders I interviewed also noted that not every decision should be made by a committee because, often times, when decisions are ruled by committee, no one is willing to take ownership or responsibility when the outcomes aren’t favorable.

LACK OF GROWTH

What I learned during these conversations is that growth should be a balance. The group shared that leadership teams can become too comfortable and therefore fear change and only work to keep the status quo. They refuse to look at their own governance or ask for help when they stagnate or encounter challenges. Other times, leadership teams are constantly making changes but aren’t supporting the staff through those changes. Situations like that often leave staff feeling frustrated and discouraged which inhibits an environment where individuals perform to the best of their abilities.

WORKAHOLIC CULTURE

What we do for work is often a part of our identity. Have you ever noticed that when meeting new people one of the first questions we ask is: What do you do? This idea, combined with a work always mentality, has severely impacted employee stress levels. The leaders I interviewed, believing in a people first focus, want this to change. Thankfully, as the discussion surrounding employee engagement grows, there is also more of a focus on employee health and it appears this trend is swinging back towards supporting more of a work-life balance. Outside of this group, I have personally observed that leaders often struggle with this themselves even when they encourage it among their employees and
this can sometimes send mixed signals.

LEADERS IN WRONG POSITIONS

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Simply put, individuals are in roles that do not align with their strengths. The interviewees acknowledged that individuals are often hired or promoted for the wrong reasons. Maybe someone gets a job because of who they know. Or maybe they get the job because they are a high performer in a particular role. This, however, does not always mean they have the mindset or skill set to be a successful leader.

DAMAGING MINDSETS

We rarely get to choose everyone who sits at the table with us and the leaders I interviewed are no different. They identified individual mindsets that damage the efficacy of a team. There are those that bring their ego to the forefront of every meeting. You know the type: the person who refuses to accept any idea that isn’t their own. These individuals that lead with their ego often discourage development
because they are threatened by other peoples’ drive and ambition. There are others who actively protect their own personal interests over the organization as a whole and this can lead to a team being boxed in to one way of thinking and leaves little room for flexibility or creativity. If left unchecked, these individuals who are focused on themselves and unwilling to accept or promote change, can act as a roadblock that prevents the entire team from accomplishing their goals.

*****

When I asked the interviewees the question “What common mistakes have you seen among leadership teams?”, my intent was to be able to identify and ultimately avoid those common pitfalls myself. What I ended up with was a laundry list of destructive characteristics and damaging behaviors each leader had experienced while serving as part of a leadership team. I think we’ve all had similar experiences and it wouldn’t be difficult to come up with a list of our own that reflects pretty closely to what these leaders shared. As humans, our brains are affected more by negative experiences than positive ones; this is referred to as a negativity bias. It means we find it easier to dwell on the negative. The wording of this question played right into that tendency and didn’t give the leaders an opportunity to share beyond their adverse experiences. This list creates an awareness of the challenges which is a start; but looking back, I wish I had asked another question around how to successfully navigate the difficulties that ultimately arise when working with a team. I guess that will just have to be part of my next project!

NEXT: Exploring Leadership: A Personal Journey Part 5 – Interview Question: What do you wish you had known or prepared for ahead of time?

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