There’s a lot to be said for playing to your strengths, but when you suffer a career setback, it’s rarely because of something you’re doing well. Psychologists Eric Nelson and Robert Hogan have noted that it’s the dysfunctional habits that “interfere with the leader’s capacity to build and maintain high-performing teams.” More recent research supports and expands on this finding. This tracks with my decade of consulting with CEOs and likely your own experience: When was the last time something threw your team off track? Was it because of a team member’s strength, or did it have to do with an unchecked recurring tendency?
These “dysfunctional interpersonal and self-regulatory patterns,” are derailers, and everyone has them. In this HBR article, Tomas Chamorro Premuzic focused on the “dark-side” personality traits that make workers, and particularly managers, less effective. I find it useful to also focus on behaviors or habits — ones that might have served us well at one point in our lives but now get in the way of success. Maybe avoiding conflict at home as a child was beneficial. Maybe blaming someone else got you out of trouble in your teens. Maybe striving for perfectionism in young adulthood helped you achieve what you thought was impossible. Derailers don’t start off derailing us, but left unchecked, these tendencies can wreak havoc on your ability to manage effectively.
Because derailing habits start in the limbic system — the emotional center of the brain, which triggers a flight-or-fight response every time we feel threatened — they can be hard to break. However, emotionally intelligent leaders know what triggers their limbic brains and learn how to control their responses. Strategic ones also design their environments and teams to keep themselves — and everyone else — on track.
In my work, I’ve identified six common derailers and ways to overcome them.
This isn’t just about avoiding difficult discussions, though that’s certainly part of it. At its core, conflict avoidance uses escape or intimidation to mask insecurities and avoid having our fears, uncertainties, or mistakes exposed. I once worked with a firm who called me in because an important team was about to implode. Its manager — we’ll call her Shelly — was alienating her reports. The senior leader, who we’ll call Bryan, knew a situation was brewing, but he wasn’t willing to confront Shelly and intervene. Instead, he would listen to team members who complained about her and verbally validate them, but do nothing else. Eventually, the group’s top performer went around both Shelly and Bryan to the firm’s vice president, threatening to quit unless the firm took action.
Once you label conflict avoidance as a fear and derailer, it becomes easier to face. Seek advice on how to confront the issue. If you’re nervous, start by simply writing down your plan. It’s best to respond to the situation directly and in person. For example, Bryan could sit down with Shelly, discuss the problem, and offer support through additional coaching and training. This is the skill-building approach. Or they might talk about where her existing skills are of most use to the firm and consider shifting her away from her leadership role.