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Why Leaders Underperform: Their Default is to Find Fault

New neuroscience research shows we can analyze or empathize, either or not both.

Why Leaders Underperform: The Leadership Default is to Find Fault

I was coaching James a new leader who had three direct reports. After about 6 months he was given another team of four to supervise. I talked to James about meeting with them individually and getting to know them, their work challenges and strengths. Then encouraged him to have a team meeting to go over his expectations, theirs and develop team norms.

It seemed like an easy task to do. Week after week when I checked in with him he hadn’t done it yet because he was a “working manager” with his own tasks and assignments which always took precedent over these leadership tasks. It became embarrassing for each of us as he always started off each coaching sessions with an apology that he hadn’t had these meeting yet. He was too busy with his own work. He was technically very sound and a nice guy but some of the basic emotional intelligent competencies, such as assertiveness, empathy, confidence, teamwork and collaboration, and emotional expressiveness were not utilized enough

As to be expected his new team became frustrated with him that he didn’t understand their jobs and they felt ignored. They complained to James’ boss. His credibility as a manager was tarnished and he had an uphill battle to gain just some of it back.

Why did this happen to James and cause him to underperform?

How come he didn’t have these supposedly easy meetings?

Was it skill or will or something else?

Work/Leadership Balance

We all know about work life balance but many leaders fail at “work leadership balance.”

Now we know why. Scientist led by Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland Ohio reported in NeuroImage that the brain has a built in neural constraint that stops us from thinking analytically and empathically at the same time This causes a leadership dilemma, because what takes precedence daily is analysis or problem solving over leadership actions.

Tasks such as trying understand the direct reports perspective, listening versus telling, being empathic or knowing how to communicate in a way that the direct report truly gets are on a different neural channel that doesn’t get tuned in easily. The leadership tasks are either unknown or they get relegated to do at a later time, like James did. Theses leadership tasks or checklist aren’t urgent and thus take back seat to the business deadline driven and analytical problems.

There are many reasons for the ignored or relegated leadership checklist as the chart below demonstrates:

Work Checklist Leadership Checklist

Urgent Not urgent

Significant experience Lmited experience

Usually trained Usually untrained

Easy to do Hard to do

Brain friendly Brain threat

Immediate reinforcement Long term

Immediate consequence Delayed

The key work tasks for a leader are on their calendar, but are your vital few leadership tasks on the calendar? The good news is your leadership tasks can take 5 minutes to 2 hours, but not all day long, you just have make sure you turn that channel on during the day.

Leaders’ Daily Checklist

So what should be on your leadership checklist to counteract your analysis default.

  1. POWRR: Acknowledge what people are doing right and you would like to see repeated. We use the acronym: POWRR – Point Out What is Right and what you want to see Repeated. The brain default immediately goes to what is wrong or needs improvement. In any task their maybe 30-40 tasks to completion, which ones hold the highest value for you? Can you underline them, like with a yellow highlighter so they stand out? We encourage leaders to have a 3:1 positive to negative ratio with their employees.
  2. Avoid the Manager Misstep: Manager’s step in too soon, step in the wrong direction and worst of all steps on the direct reports initiative. Instead ask your direct reports for their opinion on things before you give them your opinion. This is so simple and powerful, but again your analysis program is fixing what you perceive to be broken without “honoring” what your direct reports have already done or tried, what they think is the solution and their plan for execution or solving it. This will compel you to switch to the empathy channel.
  3. Strength Focus: Ask people about what their strengths are and what makes the best day for them at work. Try your best to have them do their strength a little more. Even 10-15% more can be significant for their productivity and job satisfaction. Their strengths will give them energy.
  4. Over communicate: Be very clear about what you want for your team and each individual. It is easy to think because you said it they understood it. Be clear about: What you are doing as a vision? Why they are doing it? What kind of decisions can they make on their own? When and what to report back to you? How best to work with you? These critical conversations are what James avoided. Direct reports want to know how to work with you and please you, don’t keep it a guessing game.
  5. Recharge: Take time to recharge during the day. Know what you need to do to stay at your best performance. What gives you energy and make it a daily routine. Some examples executives have said are: Taking a walk during the day, taking quiet time to breathe, relax or meditate, exercise at lunch, enjoy the outdoors, stretch, work on something else that you can get quick win, talk with people who give you energy or put you in a good mood, laugh and eat and drink regularly.

In Leading with Emotional Intelligence there are over 100 strategies that leaders can do to increase and sustain their performance. A few micro initiatives can have a macro impact.

More from Relly Nadler Psy.D., M.C.C.
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