Leaders Behaving Badly
New study shows most business leaders worldwide lack the fundamental skills and behaviors necessary to effectively lead. The data show interactive conversations are key to improving this sorry state.
By Kristen B. Frasch
One would think the higher up a business leader goes, the better he or she becomes at effective leadership. Well, not so fast, according to a study from Bridgeville, Pa.-based Development Dimensions International released earlier this month.
The research, taken from a meta-analysis of DDI's assessment data from close to 4,000 leaders worldwide, finds most front-line leaders lack the fundamental interaction skills and behaviors required to be effective leaders. And senior leaders are even worse.
"At assessment centers, leaders go through simulations and must exhibit behaviors that reflect a leadership position," says Richard Wellins, senior vice president of DDI. "Different from survey results, the results gathered from [such] data represent a more accurate, predictive picture of what is required to perform effectively as a leader. As such, this report measures how leaders around the world are really behaving ... ."
Going by the study, Driving Workplace Performance through High-Quality Conversations: What Leaders Must Do Every Day to Be Effective, it's not so good.
What's missing, "at every level of leadership," according to DDI's release about the research, is the ability to facilitate effective conversations, something that should be mastered by every business leader as part of a core set of interaction skills in order to build relationships and get work done.
"Senior leaders," the release says, "have not mastered these skills and are no better off, even though they have been at it longer."
Indeed, the research shows, 90 percent of executives act before checking their understanding of an issue and are ineffective at inviting ideas from others. And only 11 percent successfully preserve their colleagues' self-esteem and display empathy that would demonstrate interpersonal diplomacy. Front-line leaders fared only slightly better in these areas than their seniors.
"Leadership really is a series of conversations," Wellins says. "The quality of that interaction accounts for a large variance of good or bad leadership," yet few employers really understand that and hire, develop and reward their leaders accordingly.
The problem with leadership-development programs, he says, is that they include many skills and competencies around such things as team leadership, setting vision and strategy, influencing others and innovating, but "not the underlying five behaviors you have to do well to do any of those other things well."
So what are those five core interactive behaviors? As DDI lays it out, according to its assessment analysis:
* Maintain or enhance self-esteem by being specific about what people do and why their contributions matter;
* Listen and respond with empathy, showing understanding for the facts and feelings being expressed;
* Ask for help and encourage involvement by employing questions to unleash everyone's ideas;
* Share thoughts, feelings and rationale to build trust and provide context; and
* Provide support without removing responsibility to build ownership and accountability.
And just how bad are leaders at practicing them? In an earlier global workforce study by DDI, Lessons for Leaders from the People Who Matter: How Employees Around the World View Their Leaders, 60 percent of 1,279 workers polled worldwide by DDI indicated their managers at least sometimes damage their self-esteem, while a third said their managers don't remain calm and constructive when discussing a problem.
Stats from that study -- 49 percent say their managers sometimes or never ask for their ideas to help solve problems, 47 percent say they sometimes or never help them solve problems without simply solving the problems for them and 45 percent sometimes or never get sufficient feedback on their performance -- offer pretty convincing proof that "leaders simply are not good enough when it comes to their interaction skills," DDI's report says.
Worse yet, many leaders exhibit one or more of the characteristics identified in the report as the 11 key derailers of effective and interactive leadership: being approval-dependent, argumentative, arrogant, attention-seeking, avoidant, eccentric, imperceptive, impulsive, perfectionistic, risk-averse and volatile.
The good news, says Wellins, is that some of the desired skills "are trainable," such as ways to open discussions, clarify the information you're after, develop ideas by asking questions and including others in the process, agree on plans of action, and close by checking to make sure everyone is clear on agreements and committed to following through. Core behaviors might be harder to teach, he says, but there are many steps such as these that are highly learnable.
"I challenge HR leaders to take a look at their leadership-development programs and see if they actually address these core behaviors and interactive skills, and provide ways of working toward them," he says. "I challenge that many would find them lacking and that alone would lead to [some very necessary] change.
"The question you have to ask is, if a first-time front-line leader isn't getting the right kind of training, then who's going to set the stage and lead the way?" Wellins says.
Leadership expert Roxana (Roxi) Hewertson, CEO of Trumansburg, N.Y.-based Highland Consulting Group Inc. and creator of the AskRoxi.com website, agrees business leaders are sorely lacking in effective interactive and conversational guidance. And it all comes down to how they're being hired, developed, promoted and rewarded.
"What happens is people get hired [and selected for leadership development] based on their technical expertise," she says. "Business leaders do not get hired for their leadership skills, but for their results. So they're not rewarded, in most organizations, for leadership skills. So it's up to employers to figure out hiring and reward programs that actually encourage" these skills.
"If you don't hire right, train right, develop right and reward right, you will not be putting effective leaders in place to achieve optimum performance," Hewertson says. "Those pieces all need to be done well, and HR should be a huge business partner with top [C-suite and executive-team] leaders to make that happen.
"I tell my clients, 'What you reward is what you will get,' and 'If you're not listening, you're not leading,' " she says. Developing leaders who are adept at really listening to employees and conducting effective and empowering conversations must be a goal from the top down.
Wellins and Hewertson both say most CEOs have yet to buy in to that notion. Many CEOs, they say, consider these types of skills to be the "soft stuff."
Which is sad and very mistaken, says Hewertson, because as any CEO worth his or her salt should know, "everything in business is about relationships."
Wellins would further submit that, with employee engagement becoming a far-more-recognized element of performance success, their minds can be swayed, and HR can play a significant role in doing that.
"I think what can be done is to make that connection between engagement scores and effective leadership," Wellins says. "Studies have been doing this already, showing failed leadership's connection to increased turnover cost. That's the material the CEO will get."