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"People" Mistakes Leaders Make

What really haunts leaders on a day-to-day basis is the mistakes that they make. The most common—and, not coincidentally, most damaging—mistakes involve interacting with people in the wrong way

Published: Oct 29, 2012 06:14:34 AM IST
Updated: Oct 30, 2012 04:28:26 PM IST

Much of today’s leadership writing focuses on what high performing leaders should do. Certainly, that material helps from a theoretical and aspirational point of view. Yet what really haunts leaders on a day-to-day basis is the mistakes that they make. They don’t trip up because they are bad people; they most often fumble because of a lack of knowledge, bad habits or too much stress. 

The most common—and, not coincidentally, most damaging—mistakes involve interacting with people in the wrong way. Here are 10 such People Mistakes that I see in the field, and I’m sure you witness, too:

1. Not taking time to bond with people. A leader who is not interested in people on a human level is off to a bad start. A leader who is conceptually interested in others but doesn’t make time to “bond” with people misses the mark as well, whether those people are employees, colleagues, customers, or other stakeholders. Bonding is a deep emotional connection that is different from simply liking someone. In fact, you do not have to like someone to bond with him. You do have to get to know him and understand what makes him tick. And that takes time above and beyond pure task-oriented work.

2. Being unavailable and inaccessible. Clearly, leaders need to delegate tasks. Yet delegation should not mean emotional detachment. Leaders who assign tasks and walk away with a completely hands off approach abandon their people. Good delegation relies on continued connection and accessibility. You can maintain a sense of connection by signaling that you are willing to be available. That doesn’t mean that you’re immediately responsive to every small request. It does mean that you’ve created channels for people to reach you as well as guidelines for using those channels.

3. Not focusing on developing talent.
Too often, leaders focus exclusively on driving the achievement of company goals and in that push deny the inherent human need to learn. People want to expand their skills and competencies while doing their work. Understand that learning is an integral part of achieving results. When you prioritize learning, you become a great leader who can spot and develop talent in people who might themselves be unaware of it. You become, quite simply, a talent hunter.

4. Not giving regular feedback about performance. People achieve high performance only if they know the truth about their effectiveness. Leaders often ignore this need and thereby rob people of the key to their future. While tough feedback can be painful, great leaders know how to deliver this pain in a way that transforms it into gain to such an extent that they say “thank you – give me more!” Talented people –those who want to learn—would rather be “slapped in the face with the truth than kissed on the cheek with a lie.” Develop your ability to convey hard truths about performance and unlock the door to higher performance.

5. Not taking emotions into account.
The strongest emotions are related to loss, disappointment, failure and separation. In fact, research clearly shows that loss and even the fear of anticipated loss drive people’s behavior much more strongly than potential benefits and rewards. Leaders who ignore the emotions of loss and disappointment make a major mistake that greatly reduces employee engagement. You can make a huge difference simply by being aware of these emotions and showing true interest in that part of a person’s experience.

6. Managing conflict ineffectively.
Conflicts that are not addressed block cooperation and alignment around common goals. Tension, negative emotions and polarization build up. Conflicts become “fish under the table:” even though everyone acts like they are not there, their abiding “smell” permeates the whole atmosphere. It’s up to you as a leader to put these fish on the table and “clean them” by solving the underlying conflict. Your reward: a great fish dinner at the end of the day—an environment that provides nourishing enjoyment and can build even better and stronger teams.

7. Not driving change. Without change, our organizations, like all organisms, wither and ultimately die. Leaders who don’t drive change put their companies in grave danger. Explain the benefits that changes will bring, and do so knowing that people do not naturally resist change: they resist the fear of the unknown or the pain that might come with the transition. Your job is to be a “secure base” who gives a sense of safety as well as the encouragement and energy to explore. In other words, you must care enough to encourage daring. This combination is crucial, and it’s why my new book about unleashing astonishing potential is called Care to Dare.

8. Not encouraging others to take risks.
The human brain is, by default, defensive and risk averse. Yet with intention, practice and, most importantly, positive role models, people can shift their mind to embrace risks. Too many leaders encourage people to stay in the safety zone, or, as I like to say, “play not to lose.” But the best leaders create enough trust so that others feel safe and supported to take risks and “play to win.” This is an active, positive way of behaving that fuels change and ultimately achievement.

9. Misunderstanding motivation. Most people are driven by “intrinsic motivators” like being challenged, learning something new, making an important difference or developing their talents. Too many leaders miss the opportunity to capitalize on this internal guidance system and instead focus on “extrinsic motivators” like bonuses, promotions, money and artificial rewards. Sure, you need to pay people fairly. Keep in mind, however, that such external carrots and sticks distort the internal motivation system. You will be a better leader when you focus on inspiring people and tap into what they truly desire to achieve in terms of growth and contribution.  

10. Managing activities rather than leading people. People hate it when they are treated like cogs in a machine. Yet so much of management is about controlling, administering and planning activities, and, by extension, people. Leadership, on the other hand, involves inspiring, encouraging and bringing out the very best in people by building a sense of trust and by challenging them to take positive risks. To be a leader and not just a manager, you need to focus, therefore, on people as people. That takes time and attention, and takes us back to the basic of bonding—the antidote to People Mistake number 1.

George Kohlrieser is a Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD, a former hostage negotiator, and author of the award-winning bestseller Hostage at the Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others and Raise Performance. His new book is Care to Dare: Unleashing Astonishing Potential through Secure Base Leadership.

[This article has been reproduced with permission from IMD, a leading business school based in Switzerland.]

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  • Arthur Lewin

    Very good advice. I am a teacher. And I see where I can readily use this in the classroom to motivate my students to excel and for me to over time change, modify and improve my teaching style.

    on Dec 24, 2012
  • Shashikantdabral

    I would like to add 2 more points: 1) Leaders need to know how much to communicate and the level of communication with the various levels should vary. 2) Leaders need to be aware that Leadership is a 24X7 job and not a 9 to 5 job, very often leaders tend to do the mistake of giving contradicting versions in and out of office. A Leader maybe interacting with team members outside the work but it still has to be in line with his / her philosophy and the opportunity to communicate outside work should be valued and utilised positively.

    on Oct 31, 2012
  • Dipankar

    All the above is true and that is I try to follow. But when you look around quite a few leaders around who have fast growth don\'t follow this in spirit. But that is life, so one sometimes tend to think, is this kind of ideal behaviour is really being encouraged in corporate world, or used only in trainings and leadership books. But all said and done I follow this because this is good thing to do and you build genuine admirers who respect without compliance.

    on Oct 31, 2012
    • Shashikant Dabral

      Dipankar, Agreed that few leaders do not follow this in spirit. If you take a look at this in the long run, such leaders are neither valued by the team nor the Organisation but in short term they get away and at times are even rewarded unreasonably. For a Leader it is more important to follow this to ensure that the team grows and i would only consider a leader successful if and only their teams reflect positive traits and a part of the leader. A Leader has to ensure growth not only in terms of designation for his team but in terms of preparing the team members as better professionals.

      on Oct 31, 2012
  • Rathna

    Leaders are there because they should take care of the followers.\"People\"Leadership\" abstractly means Leading People, Managing people and Guiding People.Therefore if a leader doesn\'t have time for anything related to his people, he/she surely don\'t deserves to be a leader. He /She is like another person next door.

    on Oct 29, 2012
    • Shashikant Dabral

      True Rathna but it is possible if the leader is not doing the job of the Manager because most of the times Managers end up giving 100 % of their time to routine work and issues. Leader need to move from the concept of \"Open Door Policy\" to a \"No Door Policy\" where team members can walk in anytime.

      on Oct 31, 2012
      • Rathna

        Thank you for responding to my comment

        on Nov 1, 2012