As an executive for a large government contractor, Kevin was known for his ability to make things happen. Sure, there was collateral damage - a few bodies left behind - but that was business. When he was sent in to turn around a struggling arm of his company, no one was surprised.
Shortly after, his company's executive team participated in a round of interview-based, behavioral 360 degree feedback with Learning as Leadership. Kevin wasn't particularly concerned -- he knew his style got results and had come to terms with the occasional consequences.
He was surprised, then, when some of his feedback stung. "Aggressive"; "Righteous"; "One-man show". One co-worker responded that Kevin was "just as unlikely to collaborate with peers as he was to get buy-in from his team." Several felt he was motivated not by results but by his desire to move up the ladder.
Taken piecemeal, none of this was news. But as the overall view others had of him emerged, a pit formed in his stomach. It quickly became resentment -- of his coworkers, of the feedback process itself. As he mulled it over, both with his coach and on his own, Kevin realized that what really bothered him was the impact of his style on his colleagues. The frustration they felt; the cost to relationships and morale. For the first time, he was hearing the consequences of his version of "business as usual."
The quiet cost of 'business as usual'
Like Kevin, most of the executives we work with are somewhat aware of their leadership style. They know their main weaknesses, try to mitigate them, and vaguely hope their colleagues don't notice too much. Even the most self-reflective leaders tend to miss the impact of their style and behaviors on others.
It isn't surprising. Based on the 5,000 executive feedback interviews we have conducted over the last decade, close to 80 percent of leaders exhibit some form of conflict avoidance (the other 20 percent, like Kevin, employ its sister dysfunction, steamrolling). This means most leaders are not actively expressing behavioral observations to their colleagues. Providing feedback is fraught with possible conflict or damage to relationships. Why take the risk?
Unfortunately, these unspoken perceptions, beliefs and frustrations play an important role in work relationships. They undermine trust, collaboration, and have a habit of popping up at the most inopportune times. Getting them on the table, and using them to inspire our growth is crucial not only to our development, but to the health of our organizations.
Connecting with the costs provides motivation for change
"People go around him unless he's absolutely needed"; "Junior folks are afraid of him"; "I don't tell him what I really think, because he knows he's right anyway." Kevin took a deep breath and understood what this looked like in aggregate. He was pushing others away. People were afraid instead of creative. Intellectually knowing he left bodies behind was different than hearing the personal consequences on co-workers. There was a business downside he hadn't been seeing, and he wasn't leaving a legacy he wanted to be remembered for.
Kevin also realized his colleagues' difficulties with him weren't new -- only his awareness of them was. His teammates had been quietly feeling this way, and working around him, for some time. Now that he knew, he had a chance to do something about it.
As Kevin worked to change his behaviors and be attentive to how others experienced him, his relationships became more connected and collaborative. He'd worried if he lost his hard edge, people wouldn't respect him. Instead, their appreciation of his strengths grew as they no longer needed to defend themselves from him. It turned out that Kevin hadn't been a great leader because of his bulldozing style. He had been a great leader in spite of it.
Hearing others' perspectives on our rough edges can be just what we need to kick-start a period of growth and self-discovery. The seed of your next level may be just beyond your personal awareness. What are your blind spots? What's your learning edge? Find out.
For fresh ideas on how to collect your own feedback, click here.
For more in-depth work on leadership, teams and organizational culture challenges, Learning as Leadership offers unrivaled seminars: http://www.learnaslead.com.