As a member of Duke Corporate Education's faculty, Marla Tuchinsky helps executives grapple with and work through some of their most complex leadership issues. When she's not doing that, she lives a full life that includes playtime with her three-year-old son. Recently, Marla found an interesting connection between the worlds of childhood play and executive leadership.

Jake Breeden: Marla, you mentioned something you’ve been thinking about as you watch your son play at a playground with other kids. What was that?

Marla Tuchinsky: The kids seem to have a strong preference for being either creators or destroyers. Some like to build the sandcastles while others wait patiently just to rush in Godzilla-like and trample the others’ work. The same kids seem to gravitate to the same roles time after time. Now, occasionally the creators like to smash the sandcastle and the Godzillas will help build before they crush. But it seems the kids tend to prefer to act in one of the two modes.

JB: And do you see people tending to have either a "build things up" or "tear things done" preference at work?

MT: Yes, I think we all have to some degree. I recently worked with a matched pair. The “destroyer” prided herself on being demanding and hypercritical under the guise of being a savvy, logical consumer. She wouldn’t say what she liked, only what she didn’t. She asked potential collaborators to tell her about a time when they faced a disaster situation, and to share with her their worst experiences. She looked for opportunities to destroy. Her boss, on the other hand, was very generative, always building on others ideas and adding her own, and sharing what she liked about the work product.

JB: So do we have a basic tendency to either create or destroy? Or does our preference change based on mood or context?

MT: In some ways, it feels like there may be a natural tendency that’s further shaped by our experiences. It reminds me of how we make decisions in Myers-Briggs terms: are you a Thinker or Feeler? We might have an initial preference, and the environments we’re in may reinforce those tendencies. For example, many organizations reward people for their logical decision making, for poking holes in plans or suggestions. We call it critical thinking skills, although sometimes it’s just being critical. I’m all for a Devil’s Advocate helping make a decision or innovation better, but if all a leader ever does is play the Devil, it’s hard to be around that person over time. It can have negative consequences over time.

JB: Do destroyers know about their own predisposition to destroy? If not, how can they become more self-aware?

MT: Some do and recognize that they’re rewarded for that behavior—they see their destruction as a sign that they’re a tough leader. In their minds, tough is good. If they keep getting promoted, then they have no incentive to change. Others may not recognize their effect on those around them; it’s their blind spot.

Either way, if leaders were interested in understanding their effectiveness, there are many ways to get that information. One is a 360 feedback process. Use a structured questionnaire to gather information about how others perceive that leader—strengths, quirks, blind spots. Or just ask a select few whom you trust what they see. “When you think of me as a leader, what three or four adjectives would you use to describe me?” If analytical, sharp, and "devil's advocate" are the first three, there could be an opportunity to counter balance with a bit more generative collaboration.

JB: So back to the playground. What’s your advice to parents who see their kid’s creation destroyed? And what if their kid is the Godzilla?

MT: (Laughing) Well, being an educator, I feel a duty to say ‘use it as a teaching moment for your kid’. Help your kid understand that adverse events happen and teach him the ways he can bounce back. For instance, have him start rebuilding the castle or have him tell the destroyer how that made him feel (offer feedback to the destroyer). Lessons in resilience will serve kids well over their lifetimes.

And if your kid is the one tearing down another’s work, it’s time to begin equipping him with collaboration skills. Get down in the sand with your child and help him rebuild the castle, and role model how to involve other kids in the process. More and more work is being done in teams, so learning to work well with others is another critical life skill.

About the Author

Jake Breeden

Jake Breeden is the author of Tipping Sacred Cows. He is a faculty member of Duke Corporate Education, where he’s taught leaders at Google, IBM, Starbucks and others.

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