In today’s highly complex and fast-paced environment, leaders constantly navigate a wide margin of error. Given globalization, heightened competition, and ever-shrinking budgets and cycle times, the potential for leaders to make mistakes is great.
Some leaders err by commission — actively undertaking acts that undermine team or organizational success. Others err by omission — failing to do something that’s necessary. But there’s another group of leaders who, with the best of intentions, may do the most damage of all. These are the leaders who err by whoa-mission. (“Whoa,” as in the command riders use to pull a horse back, slow it down, or make it stop.)
These well-meaning leaders make a significant mistake and ultimately thwart staff development and sub-optimize their teams in the process. As counterintuitive as it may seem, this happens not because they are doing too little but because they are doing too much. Not unlike helicopter parents who get in the way of their children growing, learning and becoming independent, these managers who err by whoa-mission cultivate in their employees’ low self-efficacy, lack of initiative, compromised capacity and a debilitating sense of dependence — all because they do too much.
Since too much of a good thing is still too much, leaders need to check themselves and their behavior on a regular basis, determining whether they need to brake or pull back a bit. They need to honestly gauge if they might be guilty of being too helpful, too fair or too gentle.
A leader who is too helpful can actually leave others helpless. Solving an employee’s problem. Detailing a development plan. Giving step-by-step instructions about how to proceed. These are proactive, caring and supportive efforts on the part of the leader. But they compromise the capacity of others to build problem-solving skills, own their development or learn how to navigate the ambiguity of work. Being a little less helpful lets employees figure things out for themselves, struggle, fail (and even discover that it’s not fatal), and come to depend upon themselves and their capacity.
In addition to helpfulness, fairness — another admirable trait — is frequently misapplied or applied in excess by leaders. In an attempt to be equitable and just, many leaders work diligently to treat each employee in an identical fashion. They bend over backward to ensure that rewards are evenly distributed and recognition makes it around to everyone. But this “sameness” typically backfires, as different employees require different attention to support their efforts and optimal performance. Fairly rotating the “employee of the month” title only ensures that everyone receives fairly meaningless acknowledgement at some point.
And one final common leadership mistake involving an overused and unproductive positive trait is being too gentle. Many leaders rightfully endeavor to build self-confidence and self-esteem in others. But frequently they do this by withholding candid feedback. Rather than offer honest information about performance, they hint, dance around, or adjust expectations to avoid confrontation. And in the process, employees fail to appreciate how they are letting the team down—or how they can elevate their contributions. Over time, this kind of excessive gentleness on the part of a leader can compromise the team and the organization — not to mention individual employee performance and even continued employment.
Effective leaders understand that a strength that’s overused becomes a liability. They appreciate the value of partnering with and supporting employees, behaving equitably, and treating others with respect. But they also appreciate the risks of stepping over the line to become too helpful, too fair, or too gentle…. and rein in their efforts to avoid errors of whoa-mission.
Julie Winkle Giulioni is the author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want,” with Bev Kaye. Giulioni has spent the past 25 years improving performance through learning. She consults with organizations to develop and deploy innovative instructional designs and training worldwide. You can learn more about her consulting, speaking and blog at JulieWinkleGiulioni.com.
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