As business leaders, we’re driven people. It’s easy to think that if we don’t push, the right things won’t happen. After all, isn't that why we are we here?
How to lose colleagues and intimidate people
I once worked briefly with a group of hospitals headed by a CEO who was a very driven man. Ambition for achieving high goals is generally a good thing, yet this fellow was driving his team crazy.
This CEO’s dislike of failure was so intense that he would pounce on anything that looked even remotely like a problem. His staff quickly learned to avoid bringing up issues so they didn’t have the hands-on attention of the CEO as they dealt with problems. This led to the senior executive team members trying to solve systemic problems individually – which of course rarely worked.
As a result, the CEO would find out about failures only after they had already occurred. This sequence of events played into his internal story that his people were incapable, and that his involvement was absolutely critical to prevent further failures. A few years later when this hospital system merged with another, this well-intentioned fellow was probably surprised to find himself suddenly available for another position. His fear of failure – of somehow not doing things right – led directly to this fear coming true.
There’s a simple premise operating here: as a leader, you get what you project. On one hand, this isn’t very comfortable. Whatever you do as a leader tacitly gives people permission to do the same thing. Meaning if you interrupt people while they are speaking, you’ll start seeing that behavior in others. And if you try to avoid failure at all costs, your reports will do that, too.
On the other hand, you can use this projection to your advantage. As Gandhi famously stated…
Be the change you want to see in the world
Had our hospital CEO allowed himself and his staff some leeway to be human and make mistakes, it’s likely that problems would have surfaced earlier and other executive staff members would have been able to step up to help.
Another CEO we worked with was having a similar problem where salespeople were hiding their mistakes and trying to solve them alone, resulting in spectacular flameouts of deals with great potential for the company. After some collaborative brainstorming with us, the CEO established a Friday afternoon meeting, with simple refreshments, where the salespeople shared experiences to find out who had the biggest sales mistake that week.
At first it was a little strained, but after getting a slap on the back from the grinning CEO, a trophy I will decline to describe, and hearty applause from the rest of the crew, each salesperson began to look forward to the fun of admitting failure. Or perhaps it was because after the biggest failure was determined each week, the group would do a quick round-robin on how they would do things differently next time. People stopped dreading failure, and the mistakes got smaller because everyone was learning. After 6 months, the group shifted to meeting monthly because they couldn’t come up with enough failures each week!
Actions you can take today
1. Find out how hard you are pushing yourself – and your team. Take 5 minutes and reflect on the last couple of times your business experienced a failure or near-failure. What was your involvement? How did other people react to your attention? Then take 2-3 minutes with your direct reports individually – ask “I’d like to know how much you saw me pushing in [situation].” Listen, then ask “What do you think would help you / the team / the business more instead?” If you’re willing and able, try it on for size.
2. Celebrate failure. Take 5 minutes and list the top 3-5 areas about where your business is not succeeding as much as you would like. Take another 5 minutes and brainstorm how you, like the CEO and sales team above, might bring the challenges out into the open in a simple and fun way. Try something small and go from there. Hint: don’t let the team get caught in “should have” mode – instead ask them what they want to do “next time.”