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Why Leaders Are Not Talking About Self-Handicapping?

Self-handicapping is almost always hidden, subtle, and hard to nail down—often denied by the individual and undiscussable by the crowd (an undiscussable is something no one can discuss in front of the boss but is the main topic of discussion without the boss present). There is virtually no research about self-handicapping in business. Think about your situation at work. Deep down, the employees know something is not going right. They know what exceptional leadership is supposed to look like, but they never see or feel it. With a little exposure to what self-handicapping is all about, managers and employees can start to see the layer of excuses and the impression management going on. Saying something like, “I didn’t get a good night’s sleep last night,” just seems to roll off the tongue in an unconscious effort when you are uncertain about your ability to get something done or do it well. Leaders doing this may not “see” themselves doing it or be able to admit to the impact they have. That is because the behaviors have become “natural tendencies” over time—habits. It leads down the ERO Spiral quickly.

Simply put, there is no conversation about self-handicapping in business—especially about overcoming it. When this conversation is started, leaders can begin to reverse their self-handicapping behaviors, find more time to master their job, remove the obstacles they place on the workers and themselves, and see significant improvement in their area of responsibility. Their confidence will improve; they will be more humble. They will reverse the ERO Spiral. That is the road to exceptional leadership.

In emergencies, people have a way of cutting through all the bureaucracy and red tape. They just get the work done and the objectives met. They organize; they have two-way conversations; and they divide work without complaint. They express their fears and needs. They work harder. So, why in everyday organizational life do we evolve into this mess of avoidance, impression management, and self-handicapping? Part of it is that we avoid talking about it. Picture someone in a meeting keeping some project out of his budgetary responsibility because he thinks it may fail. He is avoiding accountability because he knows 70-90 percent of all projects fail, so having nothing to do with it is best. And then no one brings that up as an issue! That is avoiding talking about self-handicapping. Self-handicapping is bad enough; making it undiscussable is worse. This is why we want to give you a vocabulary and start a conversation about self-handicapping. Picture it—we are all in a big swamp bogged down and no one wants to say anything about it. When we can see self-handicapping clearly, laugh at ourselves for doing it, and role model so others reverse it, we free ourselves to solve real problems and add true value for customers. We may then find those actually “fun” times when we were free to try anything to solve the emergency and were heroes when we did.

Another reason for no discussion is that leaders are often uncomfortable dealing with or talking about human issues. This has always been a problem in team building, crucial conversations, performance management, and coaching. They don’t like to judge people or deal with “psychological” issues. So, leaders often avoid the very things that are likely their core problems in not achieving the mission—people problems—specifically self-imposed people problems. But ignoring self-handicapping will not make it magically go away. We want it out in the open. The principle of developing a common language among members of any community to facilitate effective change is well-established.16 Right now, there is no common vocabulary for talking about self-handicapping in business. We find it fascinating how many leaders identify these issues in their employees but have no tools to deal with them. They often see it as trait-based—a personality defect—and too difficult to tackle head-on. It is also interesting how many of those very leaders do not see their own self-handicapping.

Furthermore, there is currently no cute, nonthreatening way of pointing out these problems at work such as the monkey being on your shoulder when you delegate accountability poorly. None of us yet have a picture in our heads of the “self-handicapping rabbit” running down the rabbit hole of poor leadership because of his tunnel vision, avoidance of accountability, or poor talent management. Managers often talk about leaders falling down the proverbial “rabbit hole” when they are “burned out” and leading poorly. We think self-handicapping is a severe case of “running down the rabbit hole” so we offer up the rabbit who self-handicaps by hiding in the hole. The rabbit hole is his “comfort zone” where he goes to find the easy way out. We encourage our readers to use the “self-handicapping rabbit” as part of the new conversation about self-handicapping at work.

A leader who self-handicaps also reinforces a workforce to self-handicap such as the team not speaking up. That is why every leader needs to make an effort to overcome all claimed handicaps and then take the high road to eliminating the behavioral handicaps he may be using. We believe self-handicapping also contributes to organizational change initiative failure. Employees overvalue their old habits and what they currently gain from them—status and comfort zone—while leadership overvalues the new strategy and potential long-term results without helping the employees navigate the road to the new. Great leaders overcome their self-handicapping and find ways to protect the employees’ status and provide new rewards/status to replace those lost in the transition. There is a focus on “overcoming resistance to change” in business but those very words are self-handicapping. They imply that the leader must do something to employees, but this creates an obstacle—more resistance. A leader who says, “What rewards can I offer employees to make the change willingly?” and “How can I help my employees retain their status in this change?” (WHAT and HOW) removes obstacles and allows the employees to want to move toward the change.

Let’s look at another example. One leader that comes to mind was very bright, but young in the role. This leader overpowered in meetings, spoke loudly, and was somewhat a bully (creating an obstacle). He felt and acted like he knew everything. This was a coping mechanism for his insecurity in his new role and resulted in him always trying to be the “expert.” While his insecurity was covered up in the short term by this self-handicapping behavior, the long-term obstacle to success was a stifled work group, with little engagement and motivation to speak up or contribute. In situations like this, the leader’s bosses eventually see the impact of this behavior on employees, customers, and his “numbers.” Many of his employees assume he is a “know-it-all,” “control freak” and stay out of the way. Some see right through his behavior to the real problem—insecurity—but say nothing.

The trouble is that management will react eventually. If the young leader is lucky, he will have a boss who recognizes the real problem and coaches him about his behavior and impact—overcome the insecurity, tone down the “need to be an expert” mentality, and he eliminates the self-handicapping obstacles to his leadership. His negative impact on employees can be reversed and he is ultimately successful and moves up in his career. The downside is that his superiors are only attending to the numbers and make the conclusion that he “just does not have what it takes.” and is replaced. What are the odds of either occurrence? Well, the knowledgeable, caring boss is rare. It is more likely that this would be a ruined career and a stifled employee. Without help to overcome self-handicapping, these situations can destroy any chances for advancement at work. And no one will tell him the “real” reason why. We want the conversation about self-handicapping and the ERO Spiral out in the open so bosses and managers in these situations can talk and grow rather than create further obstacles for employees and ruin careers.

Most business fads offer lots of prescription and little description. They say things like, “motivate your employees” or “drive for results” but unless managers know precisely what to do and why they don’t (in a way they understand clearly), they may not be successful. For example, if a leader tries motivating employees with the rewards that he values—more challenge or solving work problems—we can almost guarantee he will not be successful in increasing the effort level of his employees. They don’t value those rewards. The leader sets out to do the “right” thing, but handicapped himself with poor techniques. It is one thing to understand self-handicapping, it is another to be able to remove the things causing it and to develop and master new effective techniques. We offer details on “What” and “How” in every chapter.

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