When Strength Becomes Weakness

When kept in balance, stylistic strengths can be key assets during stages of change; productivity is maintained as people contribute their unique value to the organization. The problem is that periods of extreme stress often cause senior executives to inadvertently swing the pendulum too far back to what they know best. Unaware, they become trapped in former management styles. This loss of perspective in even a few key executives has a cascading effect, generating disruption throughout senior teams and entire organizations.

Following are illustrations of four common executive styles. While not exhaustive, the list is meant to facilitate thinking about individual leadership profiles and how they operate when things are going well versus during stressful times.

Finisher: Results Orientation
Finishers are known for their tenacity and their comfort with taking risks. They thrive on healthy challenges and prefer to be in charge to execute a plan. As results-oriented people, they are fast-paced and are known for a get-it-done-at-all-costs attitude.

When times get tough, Finishers still want things accomplished now. Delegating becomes difficult. Executives in this category get impatient, and in their eagerness, they bulldoze right over others, typically under-communicating as they do so. Peers may see them as domineering, aggressive, and tactical to a fault.

Peacemaker: Collaboration Orientation
Peacemakers are team players and nurturers who focus on how things get done. They like to find common ground. Associates see them as warm, inclusive people who are very trusting of others, concerned with fairness, and very aware of people’s feelings. Peacemakers avoid conflict and prefer to smooth things over rather than to address issues head-on.

Tension causes Peacemakers to worry excessively about what everyone thinks. They fear honest dialogue will spin out of control and lead to conflict. This leads them to give in too quickly. Peacemakers may become martyrs, taking on a heavy workload in order to be accommodating. They are also rescuers—saving people even when they do not want help.

Visionary: Creation Orientation
These leaders are divergent thinkers, easily bringing new ideas together to arrive at a future big picture. They are change-oriented people who are driven by what can be, and they explore options energetically. By freely promoting their ideas for the future, they often project a sense of optimism and possibility on the team.

When under stress, these individuals typically think that their vision will be enough to carry through. Follow-through on mundane matters wanes. They are too busy trying to score a goal from midfield. When the perfection of their vision is challenged, they can become overly emotional and reactive, lashing out at others or withdrawing altogether.

Analyst: Rational Orientation
Analysts base their actions on facts, logic, and bringing order to chaos. Their approach is careful, methodical, and deeply introspective. For them to accept a plan or a new idea, it must have a practical payoff and be supported by solid data. They are pragmatic in dealing with others. These executives are seen as solid and not easily ruffled.

Pressure can cause Analysts to become hypercritical of others and their work. Problems are examined in minute detail, with a resulting reluctance to make a decision. They believe that more data will alleviate the stress by providing more certainty. Paradoxically, once having taken a position, Analysts frequently become stubborn and unwilling to move.

Recognize, Reflect, and Refocus
CEOs should look for signs of stress and regression on the part of their senior leaders. Taking even a small amount of time to talk through how team members need to treat one another, function as a team, and come to alignment on decisions can be enormously helpful in shifting people’s behaviors. No person who has tasted success wants to be seen as falling behind. If an executive is failing and is offered help to find a way forward, he or she is highly likely to put in a sustained effort to improve.

Simple techniques, such as changing the way issues are introduced, drawing out opinions from those who have stepped back, and containing those who tend to dominate can all lead to improved effectiveness. Checking in with individuals and the team on how the group dialogue is working for them also makes it clear that the process, as well as the result, is important.

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