Introduction to Self-Handicapping Leadership: The Nine Behaviors Holding Back Employees, Managers, and Companies, and How to Overcome Them
Employees witness self-sabotage daily from their leaders—not confronting errant employees, inconsistent leadership, hiring the wrong people, blaming everyone, acting like a control freak, self-centered decision making, or not keeping their word. These can cause employees to be apathetic, unmotivated, and lack ownership; so why do leaders do these things? Given the Internet, the hundreds of books, and the training programs available, it is probably not lack of education. Most leaders know what to do—make effective decisions, engage and motivate employees with a compelling mission and vision, build trust with full transparency and accountability, drive outcomes, and overcome resistance. Yet, Gallup research reveals that only about one in ten leaders consistently do all of those things. There is something else that gets in the way.1
In reality, the problem stems from leaders being uncertain and relying on the success of their impression management actions. Leaders let the excuses used in managing how others view them lead to reduced effort and learning. Because the excuses are successful, they do it again and again instead of finding a better way. This lack of effort and learning will ultimately lead to those poor leadership behaviors that cause all that bad employee reaction. Here is an example of how it starts and is reinforced. When a leader walks into a presentation and says, “Please be patient with me, I haven’t been trained on PowerPoint,” the audience immediately gives him a break and expects less. If he does present a poor slide deck, they don’t blame him, they blame the company for not training him. Conversely, if he presents a great slide deck, they think he is a hero for doing so well with no training. Either way, the excuse covered his actions—“great” impression management.
So he does it again and again. Some leaders will have a tendency to keep giving the same excuse presentation after presentation rather than get the training or read a book on PowerPoint. It is easy and seems to keep everyone happy. It becomes a habit and is repeated without a conscious decision. Two things will eventually happen: (1) The audience (or his boss) will get tired of the excuses and finally attribute his lack of PowerPoint skills to laziness—“poor” impression management; they think he had ample time to get educated on PowerPoint. (2) Further down the road, the day will also come where the PowerPoint presentation was so bad he lost a client, angered his employees, or lost favor with his boss—then he has created a real obstacle to success. These actions go well beyond just poor impression management, they represent ineffective leadership and poor outcomes. This process is a slippery slope and it is called self-handicapping.
Self-handicapping is the process where “people withdraw effort, create obstacles to success, or make excuses so they can maintain a public or self-image of competence.”2 It provides an explanation for potential failure or sets the stage for an individual to receive more personal credit for success than might otherwise accrue (enhancement).3 Self-handicapping is a before-the-event strategy with two varieties: (1) Claimed; and (2) Behavioral self-handicapping. Claimed self-handicapping is coming up with an excuse for potential failure and behavioral self-handicapping is when a person creates an obstacle for themselves. Both can be internal or external to the person (Table 1.1) and excuses commonly lead to behavioral handicaps. Self-handicapping allows individuals to externalize failure and avoid the personal accountability for learning from it. It can be a very attractive strategy for any leader unsure of himself—a common occurrence in business.
Table 1.1 Types of Handicaps
“I don’t know how to use PowerPoint very well.”
“My boss made me hire that employee.”
Not learning how to use Power-Point more effectively
Lack of mentoring/training the unwanted employee
Produce a poor PPT slide deck
Assign new, unwanted employee to a failing project
Self-handicapping influences observers’ impressions of a leader through two processes: (1) Before the task (lowering expectations); and (2) After it (changing attributions about the individual).4 Following performance, it may discount the blame ordinarily associated with failure.5 People tend to use self-handicapping when others are watching them (and presumably would have knowledge of their behavior/excuse).6
Claimed self-handicapping is common; leaders claim anxiety, lack of time, task difficulty, lack of authority, and lack of resources (whether or not these are actually true). Behavioral self-handicapping is used slightly less often (setting unrealistic goals, avoiding accountability, drug and alcohol use, and reducing effort).7 Internal handicaps (being unprepared, claiming an injury) are less likely to be used than external ones (the boss, workload, the organization) because leaders must appear competent and some internal handicaps like drug and alcohol use violate norms of organizational conduct. Yet, behavioral self-handicaps are more effective because they are less disputable and more tied to actual performance.8 Self-handicapping does not always undermine immediate performance because it reduces the stress of self-evaluation and that allows the person to focus on the immediate task and perform better. So there are positive short-term effects from self-handicapping;9 but it does inhibit long-term performance by creating obstacles to success. Frequent self-handicapping lowers observer impressions over time.10
Let’s look at a more complex example—a team meeting with a dozen managers seated around a conference table and the senior leader at the head of table. The leader is worried about poor customer satisfaction scores and his ability to influence them in his department. He says to the group, “I’m tired of all of the customer complaints. Stop second-guessing your employees’ decisions with customers and let them do their work.” By this point, everyone in that meeting is thinking the same thing. “Well, why do you think we’re doing that? If any employee makes the slightest mistake and it gets back to you, you will be down here yelling at us and making us look like fools.” Of course, no one says that aloud. The leader hasn’t really offered any meaningful solution or created any individual accountabilities to solve the poor customer satisfaction; he just dumps his demand on the group. None of the team offers up a meaningful solution that would really solve the customer satisfaction issues. Nor does anyone explicitly say, “Yes, I’ll do that, boss!” and take accountability. The discussion likely goes in circles with everyone nodding or saying, “We should do this” a lot (“We” meaning the boss), while no real action happens.
Even though the leader’s apprehensions may be the hottest topic of conversation when the leader is back in his office, why don’t these managers speak up in the meeting and try to get the real problem on the table? Why doesn’t the leader magically change his ways and assign accountabilities? Where is that brave employee who will speak up and lead the team out of the mess? Why doesn’t the entire group stop and brainstorm meaningful solutions together? We know the answers—they don’t want to get on the leader’s bad side or feel any other repercussions from speaking up, they don’t think anything they can do will really change the situation, and, ultimately, no one wants to look stupid or be embarrassed in front of their peers. Everyone is managing impressions rather than solving real problems. But the impression management becomes self-defeating behavior—something that once was useful but now causes problems. This process can’t be discussed openly; nor can the embarrassment and fear around it be discussed directly (an undiscussable). The result is a huge cover up for the boss’s poor leadership skills and for the group’s lack of action. This situation is self-handicapping for everyone involved and happens every day. Eventually, this poor leadership trickles down to even lower customer satisfaction.
These things that managers do to sabotage their own leadership is our focus. This self-handicapping is the explanation why many leaders and organizations stay good and never reach exceptional. Excuses used in impression management often lead to self-defeating behavior that causes significant obstacles to leading effectively. Here is how it works—the excuse, “I am not good at PowerPoint,” leads to reduced effort to learn PowerPoint (self-defeating behavior) which then leads to a poor presentation in a key meeting (obstacle) and that creates dissatisfied or lost customers (poor outcomes). Because of the focus on what leaders do to self-sabotage themselves, this book will profoundly alter how you think about leadership. These leadership missteps rarely lead to failure; the work still gets done. Self-handicapping simply inhibits—keeps leaders and their teams from growing, innovating, and working at their fullest; they get bogged down with excuses and self-sabotaging behavior. The group went back to work and achieved something; they probably didn’t improve customer satisfaction, but work got done and the enterprise went on. As the customer satisfaction gets worse, the leader may be replaced. But as we all know, that will bring a host of new leadership problems to be managed. This is why the process is called self-handicapping—not suicidal behavior. Eliminating self-handicapping is the key to exceptional leadership.
Here are the most common behavioral handicaps leaders do to themselves. Each leads to many obstacles for leading employees or creating change in organizations.
- Avoiding Accountability—Avoiding conflict and confrontation; making excuses or blaming others; playing “devil’s advocate” constantly; poor presentation of self in public, or social media; and not holding others accountable.
- Tunnel Vision—Focusing on the small picture (ie, continuously developing “tools” to solve problems in order to avoid big picture thinking); attending to people only until you get your way; being linear (tackling only one problem at a time); and not effectively prioritizing or juggling projects.
- Lack of Awareness—Little or no self-assessment of one’s traits, strengths, or leader behaviors; little or no consistent direction or vision for oneself or others; not understanding one’s personal impact—what is left in your wake, and not burning bridges.
- Poor Analysis and Decision Making—Not asking the right questions; frame blindness in decision making; not knowing what you don’t know; not questioning yourself or your organization; and making decisions for instant gratification, impulse, selfishness, or to please others.
- Poor Communication Culture—An inability to create transparency and trust; not being consistent and open; lacking listening skills; being defensive or unable to take constructive feedback; not allowing vulnerability or expression of doubt in meetings; and ignoring the wisdom of the crowd.
- Poor Engagement—Viewing everything as a transaction, rather than as a partnership; not adding value to relationships; poor networking; talking about others behind their back; and aligning with only a few individuals (pack mentality).
- Poor Talent Development—Hiring the wrong people; not being on the lookout for talent that can be grown in your organization; avoiding coaching, mentoring, and sponsoring deserving employees; not paying attention to the fit of people in the team; and allowing coaching and mentoring from bad leaders.
- Micromanaging—Leading through fear, coercion, and intimidation; constantly looking for fault and who to punish; being unable to cope with uncertainty or the unexpected; choosing situations where no unexpected challenge or event will take place; and not understanding interpersonal boundaries.
- Not Driving for Results—Anything that keeps one from focusing on outcomes (confusing effort with results or confusing internal results for customer outcomes); avoiding challenge and risk; spending time thinking about how things should be instead of taking action; and not using baby steps.
These categories are not completely distinct or a simple list of handicaps. One category can easily blend into one or more of the others. They are not in any particular order, but there does seem to be certain progressions from one to another. Like all things in life, a little self-handicapping is manageable, and can be coped with; but habitual use keeps leaders from performing well and learning. There are simple reasons leaders do this things; we will analyze each and find solutions.