March 2017

Are You Enabling Bad Leadership?

Bad leadership behavior may get all the attention, but how much do we contribute as followers of those leaders?

I’m working with a leader who is behaving badly with emotional outbursts; a strong need to control, to keep everyone aware of how ‘smart’ he is, and difficulty in listening to his team.  And… he is technically brilliant, with years of successful personal performance.

His team is responding as you would expect. Most are afraid to speak up, following blindly without questioning and becoming less and less productive and engaged in the actual work. 

So what needs to happen here? Is the responsibility to change completely on the shoulders of the leader or are followers at least partially to blame if they enable these bad leadership behaviors to continue?  Barbara Kellerman, author of Bad Leadership, What it is, How it happens, Why it matters, argues that leadership does not exist in a vacuum. She points out important aspects that include follower behaviors that enable bad leadership. 

While I’m not excusing bad leadership behaviors, my focus in this post is to explore the concept of how, as followers, we may unconsciously enable the very behaviors we deplore.

My experience...

Many years ago, I experienced working for a leader who was both intelligent and successful, and also very controlling with an ability to create daily moments of unnecessary drama.  As I look back on that situation I can see that our entire leadership team continued to enable her ‘less than effective’ leadership behavior in many ways. Because we all wanted to avoid this leader’s emotional ‘punishment’, we also avoided healthy personal behaviors that may have helped this leader recognize her impact and make some changes.  How we choose to respond to this type of leadership behavior can make a big difference, especially for ourselves.

I had an opportunity to experience this leader very differently before she left the company. I (finally) consciously chose my approach and my response to her.  During an emotional drama-filled situation, instead of falling into silent collusion with her, I chose to respectfully challenge her position.  Through my new-found confidence, I watched her behavior change in response to me. She calmed down and we  had a constructive conversation about the situation that was troubling her. It was an eye-opener for me to recognize that if I approached her in this new way during those difficult years,  she may have been able to recognize her own behaviors that were creating unsuccessful outcomes. At the very least, it would have lowered my own stress levels and raised my confidence.

Working for bad behavior leaders

You have a couple of choices if you want to stay. You can either stay quiet, follow blindly, and hope for the best; or, you can take some steps to respond positively, with self-confidence and new perspective to help you and the leader work better together. 

Try these ideas:

  • De-personalize the relationship – don’t take this leader's behavior personally.  Remember that it’s hardly ever about you -  so check your perspective before you act on how you feel about it
  • Change your point of view –  check your own response first – are you looking at the overall big picture or only your perspective?
  • Understand the leader’s goals, pressures and objectives -  don’t fly blind when offering up your view points
  • Ask  your leader questions  – from a curiosity position and listen to the answers with the goal of learning something new that will allow you to understand and offer better solutions
  • Recognize what’s present (what’s working) when you reach breakthroughs with your leader - how are you communicating and listening?

Sometimes just changing your point of view, and detaching emotionally from the situation can provide new clarity and understanding.

 "Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it." -Charles Swindol

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