I recently attended a networking event and got talking about the link between organisational transformation and good leadership. I was asked “What do organisations do if leaders can’t see that they are a barrier to transformation and success therefore unwilling to change?” It’s a good question. As Manfred Kets de Vries says in The Leader on the Couch, “Organizations the world over are full of people who are unable to recognize repetitive behavior patterns that have become dysfunctional.”
For leaders to succeed in leading organisational transformations, they must begin with their personal transformation. A leader’s ability to affect change across the organisation depends on their ability to affect change within themselves. Unfortunately, many leaders don’t see the need to change, Marshall Goldsmith calls it ‘The Success Delusion’.
Any human will tend to repeat behaviour that is followed by positive reinforcement. The more successful we become, the more positive reinforcement we get – and the more likely we are to experience the success delusion.
I behave this way. I am successful. Therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way.
Our belief in ourselves helps us become successful. It can also make it very hard for us to change. Although our self-confident delusions can help us achieve, they can make it difficult for us to change. In fact, when others suggest that we may need to change, we may view them with unadulterated bafflement. Most of us overrate our skills and talents, we tend to assume that we are better than we are (just ask anyone if they are a good driver!) This also goes for job performance, which explains why leaders tend to have trouble receiving negative feedback. Daniel Kahneman stated that “we are generally overconfident in our opinions, impressions and judgements”. To illustrate this point, solve the famous riddle:
A bat and ball cost $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
If you have answered ten cents, you are wrong. The correct answer is 5 cents. However, we are so confident in our intuition that we don’t even bother checking whether our answer is right, if we don’t check our logic in simple tasks why would we check our decisions when it comes to other problems?
What are the benefits of overconfidence? It boosts or maintains our self-esteem; we have an inherent need to view ourselves positively. In almost 90% of scientific studies, people showed a consistent tendency to interpret events in a self-serving way (e.g. you get turned down for a promotion or you get a parking ticket, do you question your own actions or look for someone/something to blame?)
Overconfidence can have self-fulfilling effects. The very fact of your being a leader can convince your followers that you are more competent than you are. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic (Why do so many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?) refers to a number of highly significant mistakes that leaders have made due to overconfidence. One reason overconfident leaders are more prone to reckless decisions is that they are immune to negative feedback. We all tend to accept feedback from others that is consistent with the way we see ourselves. We all tend to reject or deny feedback from others that is inconsistent with the way we see ourselves.
Going back to the original question: “What do organisations do if leaders can’t see that they are a barrier to transformation and success therefore unwilling to change?” We need to encourage leaders to become aware of their limitations, persuading them to replace their dysfunctional habits with more effective ones, and linking those habits to critical business performance metrics. The most common intervention to improve the performance of leaders is coaching. Coaching brings about a greater sense of self-awareness, research suggests that greater self-awareness is a defining feature of high-performing leaders. However, leaders need to be open to coaching and change, as the joke goes:
It only takes one psychologist to change a light bulb, as long as the light bulb really wants to change.
Even if leaders want to change, they will need a great deal of will power and persistence to sustain the behaviours that create more effective habits and a more favourable reputation – and all these qualities are determined by leaders’ personalities.
Bad leaders are unlikely to turn into talented, inspirational, or high-performing leaders. A more effective strategy is to select talented people into leadership roles, for organisations to focus their efforts on identifying what ‘good leaders’ look like in their business and developing those that display these traits, qualities and behaviours in the first place. Unfortunately, many organisations find themselves with overconfident, incompetent, self-serving leaders that are unwilling to change and are ultimately a disaster for the transformation and success of the organisation.
If you would like to discuss how you can change the behaviours of your leaders, please contact me on 01332 527144 or firstname.lastname@example.org