Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Elephant in the Board Room

I can’t think of single textbook on leadership that says it. MBA programs certainly don’t: it would be against their interests. And it would be the kiss of death for consultants to provide advice to the effect. An article in Forbes said so in 2013 but it wasn’t quite what needed to be said. It’s an elephant that sits there, in the room at performance review time, at the interview and when promotions are dished out. So I will, say it, at the risk of becoming really unpopular.

There are people, probably quite a few of them, who should not be allowed to be in leadership/management positions.

Personality traits and cognitive schemas are two aspects of the human condition that underpin a good chunk of our behaviour, if not most of it. They are both very resilient and are unlikely to change very much except in the face of a relatively powerful experience with a strong emotional component. This is especially true if the trait is strong and the cognitive schema well established. Weaker traits and schema may change with experience.

Most people are aware of personality traits and have probably completed a DISC profile or an MBTI at some stage of their working life. These are great tests and useful. However, the Big 5 personality traits are the only ones recognised by psychologists to consistently predict behaviour, based on an enormous body of research. It is not surprising, but disappointing to see some very strange personality tests used by some consultants and described in books, that would be about as useful as a horoscope. But, like a horoscope they give people something to talk about even if they not very relevant to real life.

Cognitive schemas are values, attitudes and beliefs: our dogmas and holy cows. These are learned but are powerful predictors of behaviour. There is a barrow load of research to show that people are more likely to act on their schemas than on facts if the latter contradict the former. Our schemas are at the heart of our decision-making.

It goes without saying that people who like to use bullying tactics should be out of the leadership frame. However, bullying still seems to be a popular pastime in many workplaces, particularly the public sector, education and health. But none are immune from the problem. Of course bullying is illegal in most western economies. Strangely, though, bullies still seem to survive despite it having serious consequences to employee engagement and subsequent poor performance and quality. That other flaw in personality, the psychopath, also manages to thrive in organisations largely due to guile and the inability of people to spot them until it’s too late. But these are extremes and there is a much more common problem with personality and management/leadership.

Using the Big 5, it is my view that people will have trouble being a leader/manager if they are low on Openness to Experience (willingness to try something new), very high on Conscientiousness (need to plan, organise and control-inflexible), and low on Stability (highly anxious). Similarly people will have difficulty if they are low on empathy, low on optimism, have high control needs, have trouble self-reflecting and are low on trust.

Any one of these predilections is likely to lead to problems being a leader or manager. A combination of them is likely to be lethal.

Most people in an organisation know who the capable managers/leaders are and who are the misfits. But apart from whispers in the tea-room and at the annual Christmas party many organisations (leaders of) do not act. Many organisations don't consider these characteristics when they recruit or promote. And spare me the nonsense about being able to weed out misfits at interview. It is all too easy to pull the wool over the eyes of an interview panel. Ask any psychopath!

Of course there’s not a profile of a perfect manager/leader and neither should there be. Different people make the world go round and certainly make it a more interesting place. But I wouldn’t allow a surgeon with low attention to detail operate on me, or a lawyer who annoys the hell out of judges with her abrasiveness to represent me in court. You wouldn't be keen on having an accountant who is low on Conscientiousness. Well you shouldn’t. My psychologist needs to be high on empathy.

We need to apply the same standards to management and leadership. Until we do management can hardly call itself a profession given anyone seems to be able to be lifted to the position with minimal scrutiny. Mostly people are recruited to be managers/leaders because they are good at their profession.

Sorry, but the abilities needed to fly an aircraft, build a bridge or teach a classroom of children are not the same that we need to manage/lead people.