Analysis: Why New Leaders Disappoint

It’s inadvisable to promote employees based solely on past performance. And when you do bump them up, you mustn’t desert them at the helm.

In what way could the firing and hiring of Della, an animal shelter manager paid a fairly modest salary, hold important lessons for high-level corporate executives and their boards?

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With Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s “temperament” a point of contention in the battle over her U.S. Supreme Court nomination, it’s a good time to look at the role of disposition in a work setting.

Temperament refers to one’s characteristic way of relating to the world: a tendency to be irritable, shy, outgoing, excitable, or calm. Your disposition is in part genetically determined, so it doesn’t budge much. But you can modify some of the behaviors it produces.

That’s important, because your temperament can determine the way others relate to you, starting early on. An irritable baby, for instance, can make some parents, particularly those who aren’t getting the positive reinforcement they need, feel less inclined to become attached to and nurture their child. And an adult who is, say, tough (as critics claim Judge Sotomayor is) can elicit submissiveness from some, combativeness from others.

At work, recognizing the role of temperament can usefully depersonalize other people’s behavior. It’s easier to supervise someone who often seems unenthusiastic once you realize that he or she may simply have a cautious disposition. And you’ll be less afraid or angry once you realize that your gruff CEO snaps at everyone.

Taking stock of your own temperament is a key element of self-awareness. Once introverts understand how their withdrawn behavior may discourage interaction, they can push themselves to come out of their shells. (It can be done. In a survey by organizational expert Edward Brewer at Murray State University, CEOs scoring high on the introversion scale said they were able to “adapt their communication style.”) Extroverts can learn to sense when they’re coming on too strong, saving their enthusiasm for the right occasion so they don’t wear everybody out. In my experience, the best business leaders are endowed with a sturdy, even-keeled temperament, not overly outgoing or “interior.” They’re like the healthy babies who don’t cry for long and sleep through the night, a gift to parents early on and to companies later in life.

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Constructive criticism is a crucial tool. Some advice on how to give it, how to take it

By now, just about every manager has gotten the message about the importance of delivering timely, candid feedback. But very little is said about the art of receiving it.

Constructive criticism is a crucial tool in gloomy economic times. Frankly, I rarely meet individuals who are really good at giving others an appraisal. But no surprise, here for most of us it’s still easier to give this kind of feedback than to get it.

I’m often asked by boards of directors to gather and deliver feedback to CEOs, whose positions tend to isolate them. The best of them embrace the experience, because they’re starved for this kind of information. Others, and not just those in the corner office, aren’t capable of digesting or ultimately using the critical comments they hear about their performance or behavior.

Granted, sometimes the problem is with the way such critiques are delivered (more on that later). But in my experience, the biggest obstacle to absorbing feedback is a recipient’s narcissism. We all have this trait in varying doses. But for some it’s a serious problem, one that makes them feel inappropriately wounded or humiliated by any criticism. Their reaction is to get angry or dismissive or to employ other defenses. One CEO I worked with always agreed instantly with any negative feedback I conveyed, implying that he was so self-aware he wasn’t being told anything new. By brushing me off, he successfully deflected the criticisms, but also missed an opportunity to learn from them.

Another defense can be to reject criticism because of the way it’s delivered. I don’t condone obnoxiously conveyed feedback. But I believe it can contain a germ of truth. And a harshly expressed assessment may also be a sign that a colleague or boss has been long frustrated by an individual’s refusal to hear anything negative.

It may seem counterintuitive, but one the best ways to ease the sting of criticism is to ask for it on a regular basis. Think of it as preemptive action, a strategy that will help you learn, in doses you can handle, how you are experienced by others. It’s a healthy way to gain a sense of control over being critiqued.

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Given the excesses that preceded it, it’s no surprise that the current crisis is generating a backlash against lavish spending. The danger for CEOs? Embracing frugality for frugality’s sake.

There are obvious virtues to the cultural shift away from exorbitant or ostentatious spending. It’s not a bad thing for business leaders, in particular, to be more circumspect about displays of their personal wealth – and to be prudent about large-scale corporate purchases. But it’s one thing to restrain the impulse to buy a new Bentley or book a company retreat at an ultra-luxe resort. It’s another to hold off on purchasing or investing in things that are affordable – or necessary – out of shame or because of societal pressure.

I’ve been seeing such inhibitions against routine spending in some of the CEOs and entrepreneurs I advise. Feeling vulnerable because of the prevailing public sentiment against profligate or reckless business leaders, they’re postponing purchases that would seem to make sense – everything from clothes to other companies.

One client confessed that while he needed a new suit, he was embarrassed about being seen in the fitting room of the upscale retail shop that carries the brand he wears. Another is sitting on a merger idea, fearing that his board will look askance at what might have earlier been seen as a prudent strategic acquisition. Still another is putting on hold a key senior manager hire, worried that it will trigger resentment among other executives, who were told that budgets will be tight this year.

How to overcome such inhibitions? By realizing that a paranoid, guilt-ridden, and ultimately false frugality doesn’t make any sense. Simply refusing to spend, in the hope that this is the safe thing to do, is hardly inspired leadership. And inspired leadership is what’s needed in tough times.

My advice: Use the scrutiny you’re under to highlight your decision- making process. Acknowledging that the zeitgeist favors retrenching, explain to the board why the acquisition you’re considering is nonetheless a wise step. Talk to your management team about the importance of filling that key post, even amid a company freeze on raises that has them worried. Then, while your courage is up, decide about that new suit.

Issue: A Good Employee Turns Scratchy

An impressive employee diligently works her way up through the ranks – only to give a subpar performance once she gets to the top.

Beth Waggoner watched in amazement as a promising employee she had promoted performed so poorly it put an entire organization in danger of sinking. An accountant who loves animals, Waggoner was serving (pro bono) as president of the board of directors for Paws Need Families, a no-kill nonprofit cat shelter outside Philadelphia.

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Coping with the loss of a house or job is easier if you’re resilient. Trusted friends and increased self-awareness can help build the trait.

In a word, resilience. The ability to bounce back is crucial in tough times–not just for economies but for human beings. Many psychologists consider it a key component of emotional health. Resilient people, they have observed, are naturally better at containing their anxiety. And that enables them to see in hardship the seeds of opportunity. What would emotional resilience entail in the face of the current crisis? The ability to resist being swept up in the global state of panic and to adapt as creatively as possible to one’s setbacks and losses.

As with most personality traits, the roots of resilience usually are developed in childhood, when some combination of temperament, family support, and perhaps plain luck helps an individual prevail over adversity–even something as traumatic as the loss of a parent. Once overcome, such experiences can be carried into adulthood in the form of resilience.

Does this mean you have to suffer to develop this quality, or that it’s too late to become resilient during adulthood? Not at all. But just as there is no shortcut to emotional health, you can’t become resilient overnight, or by sheer will, or by reading the latest book on the subject. Instead, resilience is acquired through increasing self-awareness. You must connect with trusted and candid intimates who help you build confidence. You need to repeatedly expose yourself to a range of difficult circumstances and then overcome them. (A few years ago, I pushed one of the CEOs I advise to defy his fears and take risks in the face of losses. The tactic–he wound up developing new products–paid off, both literally and in the form of durable confidence.)

In the current meltdown, I see the resilience factor at work in the CEOs I speak with. Some see a dangerous and unpredictable time that they hope to “ride out.” Others consider these events a chance to learn, as they focus on protecting their companies and looking for opportunities. It’s not easy to figure one’s way out of the loss of a job, a home, or the bulk of one’s savings. But resilience can help banish the extreme anxiety that prevents clear thinking, action, and the ability to imagine what’s around the next corner.

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We’re hearing a lot these days about the role of emotions in the financial meltdown. Even former Fed chief Alan Greenspan said he “made a mistake in presuming” that rational self-interest would prevail in the markets. But nowhere are psychodynamics more in play than in the hot debate on what Washington’s role should be.

Is the government your daddy? In a way. Our widely different reactions to the idea of Washington as problem-solver, disciplinarian, or caretaker–as surrogate parent, in other words–reflect more than ideology. To some extent they reflect our attitudes toward our real (or wished-for) parents.

George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at the University of California at Berkeley, identified an aspect of this phenomenon in his groundbreaking work some years ago on the “strict father model” of American conservatism and the “nurturant parent model” of American liberalism. But the effect goes beyond these cultural metaphors (and a historical aversion to Big Government that dates back to our founders). It reaches into the relationships we formed with parents and other authorities. Our early perception of these figures–as benevolent or punitive, welcomed or foisted upon us–can feed into our assessments of government as a fundamentally good force or as basically bad.

Take the issue of dependency. A child who was made to feel ashamed when asking for help may be more likely as an adult to oppose government programs than a kid allowed to feel comfortable in his dependency–or for whom empathy carried a bigger premium at home than self-reliance.

So while nobody relishes paying taxes, those who unconsciously view government as a “good parent” may be more sanguine about forking over money to support federal agencies and programs.

Of course, there’s no psychological formula for determining the political attitudes that might arise from parent-child dynamics. Some people do unto others what was done to them as children. Others react by doing the opposite. Finally, there’s the tendency we all have just to adopt the stated views of our parents–political and otherwise.

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So much is written these days about teamwork and collaboration. But what about when you have to stand out by taking a stand? Some situations call for confrontation.
The best CEOs I work with know how to exert pressure, say no, and start and win a fight when necessary. So much for teamwork? Actually, collaboration and confrontation aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s aggression&151la basic survival mechanism&151land then there’s its tamer, more socially adaptive cousin, assertiveness, which can be deployed usefully, including with people working on the “same side.”

The need to be assertive comes up all the time. It’s essential in negotiating contracts, rejecting bad work, criticizing a strategy, or firing (or defending) an employee. Yet some people will do almost anything to avoid confrontation. Why? They may fear that expressing any displeasure will open the floodgates of their own anger. Or they may have been raised to regard aggression as dangerous or shameful, and to see criticism as hurtful. Confidence and character play a role, too. After all, you’re likely to be held accountable if you take a strong position and win.

There are prices to be paid for fleeing the good fight: everything from hours of correcting underlings’ work (rather than sending it back) to being perceived as a weak leader who tolerates mediocrity. Of course, too much confrontation&151lor yelling just to vent frustration&151lwon’t work, either. If that’s your habitual response, you’ll be seen simply as disagreeable. (Overly aggressive people use confrontation as a form of armor.)

The key, oddly enough, is to empathize with the person you’re confronting. To that end, marshal useful facts rather than impressions, offer alternatives along with your objections, and limit comments to the deed, not the doer. Your opponent won’t hear anything you say after an attack on his or her character. And don’t be self-righteous. Or gloat if you prevail. Nobody likes a poor winner.

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It’s summertime, and that means the corner office will probably be unoccupied for a week or two. What happens when the boss goes on vacation? That may depend on what happens before he or she leaves.

Work dynamics can change drastically when a team leader takes off. For a few employees, an authority figure’s absence signals a holiday&151la chance to suspend the rules and expectations. These temporary slackers tend to come in two varieties. Type I: those who are so focused on basking in the boss’s approval that their self-esteem slumps (along with their productivity) in the absence of that watchful eye. Type II: the arrested-development crew&151lemployees still channeling their school days, who can’t wait to skip out early or defy the “substitute teacher.”

Others can move to the opposite extreme, out of anxiety or arrogance. There’s nothing worse than a second-in- command who acts like the big shot he always wanted to be when standing in for the boss&151lvetoing ideas left and right and exercising power for the pleasure of it.

Once these dynamics are operating&151lwith self-importance spawning small mutinies&151lit may be hard to steer the team back in the right direction. The trick is prevention, and that falls to the boss, before the vacation even starts. If that’s you, try to have a preemptive pep talk with your stand-in to lay out what you’d like accomplished in your absence. Be sure to express confidence in his or her judgment and competence. But be clear, even if you transmit it casually, that you’re leaving the operation in steady hands, not relinquishing your authority.

To cement the message that you’ll still be involved, you might want to reassure the whole team&151lin an e-mail, perhaps&151lthat in the event of an emergency or if a crucial decision must be made, you can be reached.

I know, that means giving out your phone number at the beach or keeping your BlackBerry turned on (something I advise my CEO clients to do on vacation, anyway, because it makes them less anxious). But if you’ve prepared your crew, the call may never come.

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I inadvertently found out that a colleague who shares my duties earns a lot more than I do. While he has a bit more seniority, it’s not enough to justify this gap. I want to ask for a raise but don’t know what to say. Meanwhile, I find I’m resenting my co-worker, even though this isn’t his fault. – Anonymous, New York

Yes, your ire is misplaced, as you’ve already figured out. And your understandable envy may be about more than just the money.

Unequal pay for the same work can appear unjust. But absent a pattern that’s illegal (race or sex discrimination, for instance), such a differential can be reasonable&151;indeed, inevitable&151;as employees strike their individual bargains. Beyond tenure, there’s the question of who’s performing better (worth looking at, hard as that may be). Or a boss may award a hefty raise to keep someone from defecting to a competitor. Then, too, some people are able to be more assertive than others in salary negotiations. It might be useful to look at your own conflicts about asking for more&151;at work and elsewhere. His ability to do so might be part of what you resent (and envy) about your colleague.

How to approach the boss if you do ask for a raise? In the usual way: Talk about your accomplishments (stressing any skills you have newly mastered), your commitment, your plans for future projects. Resist the temptation to bring up your colleague’s salary.

In fact, focusing on yourself&151;grappling with hard questions and perhaps taking action&151;is the cure for your smoldering resentment. It beats grumbling aloud when your co-worker leaves early (or for a fabulous vacation) or otherwise turning your preoccupation with his pay into torment or martyrdom. Think of it this way: Your colleague demonstrated that your work could be better compensated. The rest is up to you.