Why leaders fail
Why do leaders get fired from jobs? Data suggests that individuals who overuse their strengths are at the greatest risk of derailing, ie being fired or sidelined.
People who succeed early in their careers often do so because they identify their own strengths. For example, certain employees pay attention to detail and do what their line managers require of them.
Over time, these individuals may further develop these particular strengths. Individuals who are meticulous and dutiful may get promoted because they develop reputations for being perfectionistic and loyal. However, becoming increasingly over-reliant on such strengths may eventually make them inflexible; for example, those leaders who are good with detail may delegate poorly and be less able to see the big picture.
What causes derailment?
Broadly speaking, causes of leadership derailment cluster into three broad categories:
- ‘Moving away’. When under pressure, these individuals withdraw from social settings in an attempt to feel less anxious. They sometimes demonstrate emotional volatility (eg being initially enthusiastic but then disappointed or even angry about things). Often, they are insightful but overly sceptical about others, which can make them appear reserved, aloof and risk-averse.
- ‘Moving against’. These individuals tend to be self-assured, impulsive and assertive. When under pressure, they try to reduce their anxiety levels by talking more, having more ideas and taking charge of other people. Their confidence may inadvertently turn into arrogance.
- ‘Moving toward’. These individuals are highly accommodating and work hard to win the approval of others. When things are going well, they can be perceived as respectful and detail-oriented. Under pressure, though, they can appear overly submissive, unwilling to make decisions and micro-managing.
Research led by Purdue University social scientist Sang Eun Woo found that these categories of behaviour as measured by a personality test were remarkably predictive of employees’ chances of being terminated from their jobs. Both ‘moving away’ and ‘moving against’ behaviours among employees were related to higher rates of turnover due to so-called deviant behaviour (which was defined as theft, falsifying company records or a policy violation).
A large-scale statistical analysis of managers from the US, Australia, Germany and Kenya by researchers Blaine Gaddis and Jeff Foster found that ‘moving away’ behaviours were almost always associated with lower managerial performance and leadership ability. In contrast, ‘moving against’ behaviours were associated with both negative and positive effects; ‘moving against’ managers were rated by colleagues as being less trustworthy, but also as having higher leadership ability.
A third investigation, of 5,693 British employees, found that private sector employees scored higher on ‘moving against’ and lower on ‘moving away’ than public sector ones. The study’s findings support the stereotype of these sectors: that private sector employees are more dynamic, talkative and innovative, while those in the public sector are more cautious and reserved.
Steps to take
Appreciating the categories of behaviour linked to derailment is a start. However, individuals keen to protect themselves from being derailed should do the following:
- Get honest feedback. Ask several trusted confidants to give you brutally honest feedback about how you come across at work. To identify your weaknesses, don’t allow people only to compliment you. Explain that you are keen to learn hard truths so you can improve.
- Seek ongoing feedback. Hearing a piece of criticism once is unlikely to help you over the many years of your career. So ask at least one (and ideally more) of your trusted confidants to criticise you on a regular basis.
- Hire a coach or find a mentor. Don’t rely solely on your employer to develop you, given that you will likely work for many employers over your lifetime. Look for someone who can both support and challenge you – as support without challenge is mere counselling or therapy.
- Identify specific solutions for the different situations in which you are most likely to overuse your strengths. For example, an individual who is aware of their tendencies to ‘move against’ colleagues may spot that they often dominate meetings when there is little structure; always emailing an agenda to colleagues may guard against this tendency.
- Write down actions you intend to take rather than simply having a mental list of things you hope to do. Then share that written list with someone you consider more successful than you. Sharing your intentions in this way may make you more likely to follow through with your plan so that you don’t embarrass yourself in front of someone you consider better than you.
This article was first published in Accounting and Business magazine July 2021