By Wes Ball. Wes is a strategic innovation consultant and author of The Alpha Factor – a revolutionary new look at what really creates market dominance and self-sustaining success (Westlyn Publishing, 2008) and writes for Leadership turn every Tuesday. See all his posts here. Wes can be reached at www.ballgroup.com.
Are leaders and managers getting dumber or is it just who is assessing them?
Wally Bock’s Three Star Leadership blog led me to a very interesting post by Ken Nowack concerning the discrepancies between self-perception of performance and external assessment for corporate executives. The point of the article was that, as managers move up the corporate ladder, they seem to gain more and more blindness to their real performance.
The “no-clue gene,” as Nowack put it, crosses gender boundaries, but “does seem to be more pronounced as leaders move up the corporate hierarchy.”
Any of us who have worked in the corporate world know what he’s talking about. And the worst part is that most corporate employees look at the top-most levels of their company and fear that the person at the very top may be one of the clueless ones.
I have seen this at work across all size companies from the largest in their category down to mid-sized regional companies. Smaller companies are not immune, but there the faults of a leader are far more apparent to everyone involved, including the leader himself.
Ignoring the obvious and all too typical problem of employees naively believing that they could certainly do better at their manager’s simple job, even though they really don’t see what he or she actually does, I have seen three factors that drive such disconnects for managers between self-perception and the perceptions of those around them:
- Corporate pressures on managers/leaders and internal competitiveness are immense these days, and they create a self-defensiveness that increases significantly as one moves up the corporate ladder. This pressure creates stress that actually does reduce performance aptitude, while it also creates a greater self-protective need to justify oneself. Honestly, who would want a top-executive job in most large corporations these days, no matter what the payout looked to be?
- The demands upon top leaders are so great that they themselves don’t believe they are up to the challenge, so they compensate with apparently extreme conceit. This is a most natural reaction among most personality types to any self-perception of weakness. Among driver personalities it can be a positive self-motivator – they have learned that, if you think of yourself as something better, you can become it, so they use this tool to drive themselves to greater performance. Among other personality types, this compensation usually backfires.
- Most leaders have bought into the belief that they must be able to walk on water in order to lead an organization or team. It’s the old military code that a leader never admits ignorance; he just states his opinion with greater confidence. That is a formula for failure in the corporate world, if I’ve ever seen one. No one can stand up for long to that kind of expectation. Yet, when faced with the reality of personal weakness, many positional leaders just can’t or won’t face that truth.
I wrote a post a few months ago supporting Jeffery Immelt of GE, who had just been whipped public ally by his ex-boss, Jack Welch, for not being a clairvoyant about profit in their tumultuous financial services group. I’m not a big fan of Immelt, but the pressure he was under to perform with perfection in an imperfect environment demonstrates what many top leaders are up against.
This problem only decreases in scope and intensity, as you go down the corporate ladder.
- There far too many persons ready and willing to throw someone else under the bus when they spot any weakness that can be exploited.
- I can’t even guess how many times I’ve heard corporate employees say that they can’t trust anyone.
- The loneliness of business that used to only exist at the top tiers has sifted downstairs throughout the corporate ranks.
- The fad of 360-degree assessments has only fueled such isolation, because everyone around you suddenly becomes a potential critic who will be heard.
There is certainly incompetence evident in most organizations. I would suggest, however, that the perceptions of incompetence are often anything but objective, and the causes for the real managerial and leadership weaknesses seen could be addressed through a better model for expectations for leadership and how to assess performance.
When was the last time you trusted a co-worker who could assess your performance?
When was the last time you saw someone in your organization admit weakness?
I had a unique view of this through the 15 years of research I did into dominant companies for my book The Alpha Factor. I saw it at an even closer level as we conducted the tests with more than 75 companies to see if our findings could create dramatic, sustainable growth.
One of the interesting things I discovered was that there was little direct correlation between ability of a company to create such sustainable growth and the actual competence of top leadership.
Rather, it was the willingness of top leadership to allow the smart, very competent people below them to do smart things that had a far greater correlation than the leader’s personal aptitude.
I recall being more than a bit skeptical about the conclusions of Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, where his team had decided that leadership approach was the critical factor in defining great companies vs. simply good ones.
Image credit: flickr