From Loner to Leader

Reprinted from “Training & Development”
The Magazine of the American Society for Training and Development
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 1, 1991
Management Skills

BY STEVEN LURIE, PH.D.


Making the transition from an individual, technical contributor in an organization to a leader and team player can be difficult. A new manager must redefine personal and professional effectiveness to include not only technical excellence, but also the ability to motivate, assess, develop, and influence people individually and collectively.

Careers of some of the most technically gifted and individually effective managers are sidelined indefinitely by the challenge of developing “people skills”.

People with such qualities as competitiveness, independence, aggression, dominance, and the need for control – some of the very traits traditionally associated with individual corporate success – seem especially vulnerable.

From the point of view of the company, the fallout can be heavy if a manager’s people-handling skills are underdeveloped. It can mean high turnover, disaffection, and low productivity for staff members – and burnout for the manager.

In spite of these costs, the number of managers with poor people skills remains high. Why is this so common a trap for U.S. managers? What are some of the critical barriers that impede their development into more effective supervisors?

An “impossible” manager

To address those questions, let’s look at the experience of Roger Strong, a hypothetical product manager at a Fortune 500 company. Roger was in many ways a fairly typical middle manager. He made his way up to just shy of general manager through hard work, unmatched business knowledge, unflinching competitiveness, and a quick, intuitive, “steel trap” mind.

Roger usually worked independently or supervised a small hand picked staff of “clones”. His accomplishments had earned him a reputation as someone who could get things done. With his highly competitive and aggressive style, he soon became a favorite of the president, clearing the way for a fast trek up the ladder of success.

But behind the scenes, Roger was developing a reputation for being impossible to work with. He was generous and available to those who needed his help, but hid his vulnerabilities behind a mask of total self-reliance, confidence, and control. A “black-and-white thinker”, he showed little patience for opinions, approaches, or work styles that differed from his own. There was his way and the wrong way.

The competitive, aggressive style for which Roger had been so well rewarded was seen by subordinates as insensitivity, defensiveness, and over control. His intimidating style compelled others to agree with him, avoid him, or keep their differences to themselves. That pattern, along with his tendency to recruit like-style executives as his closest subordinates, enabled Roger to maintain an unrealistically positive view of himself as a manager. In the meantime, he had created a highly repressive atmosphere in which most team members felt devalued and underutilized.

In time, disaffection and turnover increased among his staff, as did complaints to the human resource manager. Morale was low, and with it loyalty, creativity, and innovation.

Encouraged by his human resource manager, Roger tried to practice a more participatory style of management. He attended a variety of management training activities. They were helpful in identifying many of his weaknesses and some alternative management approaches, but Roger’s trouble was in applying that new knowledge in the high-pressure work world for more than a few weeks.

For example, he tried delegating more responsibility to subordinates, but he was too anxious about giving up control to allow his people to take different approaches than the ones he preferred. Rather than truly allowing autonomy, he continued to rescue, control, and second-guess his employees – in effect, undermining their confidence and authority. This pressure brought out the worst in his people and reinforced his excuse for not being more participative: “They are not ready for it”.

A successful transformation

Over the next four years, Roger was passed up several times for promotions and transferred laterally to other areas. Then the roof caved in. A peer steadfastly refused to work with him, and his mentor, the president, retired.

Now Roger was read the riot act: “We value you, need you, and want you, but your career now depends on your ability to work effectively with people. People-handling skills are now the bottom line.”

Roger was given the support of an intensive, assessment-based, one-on-one management development program with 10 follow-up coaching and counseling interventions over a six-month period.

Much to the surprise of everyone, including Roger, he made a lot of progress in the developmental objectives judged critical to his success (improved skills in listening, conflict resolution, assertion, and consensus building). He became more sharply aware of his blind spots and the effect of his behavior on others. His personality did not change dramatically, but he was able to modify enough of the dysfunctional behaviors to make a difference in his effectiveness.

Success was measured on the basis of his self-perceptions and those of his superiors and subordinates. It was also assessed by observing others’ reactions to him.

Subordinates actually began asking to work for him to learn from his valuable business knowledge. His staff’s turnover decreased. Co-workers became comfortable enough to seek his input, actively, and sometimes even to disagree with him. Perhaps most important was the fact that Roger felt more relaxed and comfortable with himself.

So why did it take so much time for Roger to get to that point? What prevented him from developing years earlier, before so many opportunities were lost, so many bridges were burned, and so much talent was squandered?

Personal barriers

Part of the answer lies within Roger. During the management development program, several personal barriers emerged that were preventing his development as a people manager.

One barrier had to do with his fear of giving up control. Although he hated feeling unpopular and rejected, it was safer than risking a more participatory management style that would mean giving up control, trusting and depending on others, and feeling vulnerable.

Another important resistance was his reluctance to give up the baton of technical star. As a highly pragmatic and concrete individual, he was afraid that relinquishing the tangible role of hands-on contributor – in exchange for the softer, more intangible role of “catalyst”, “galvanizer”, or “developer” – would lessen his value to the company. On another level, it meant giving up a proven skill for an unproven one. For Roger, who was actually rather unsure of his self-worth outside of his narrow expertise, the thought of taking such a risk created enormous anxiety.

Organizational barriers

Roger would never have addressed these personal barriers had the organization not forced him to do so. The company created a personal crisis for Roger. Top managers confronted him with the realities of his effect on other people and the business, and with their intolerance of his dysfunctional style.

Personal development of this magnitude is, in most cases, only possible against the backdrop of an organization that demands such development, communicates that demand unequivocally, and provides incentives for achieving it.

It was only after the organization itself changed that it was able to take that step. Before that, organizational barriers kept Roger from addressing and overcoming his management deficiencies.

One such barrier was denial. Almost the entire organization knew that Roger had a dysfunctional management style that had to be addressed. But senior managers unconsciously conspired with Roger to avoid seeing the impact of his dysfunctional management style on the organization and its people. Their denial was evident in their continuing to reward him largely on the basis of bottom-line performance, in their avoidance of direct confrontation about his style, and in their failure to follow up with him when he participated in earlier management development efforts.

Several common – but mistaken – beliefs supported this denial.

Equating bottom-line success with management success. Roger and senior management made the mistake of attributing his success to his approach to management.

“After all, with these profits, how bad could he be?” asked the president to himself. Of course, several factors contributed to Roger’s productivity. An objective analysis would have shown that his bottom line was strong in spite of his style.

It was only after market conditions became increasingly competitive that the negative effects of Roger’s management behavior upon the company’s profits became evident.

Believing that Roger was incapable of changing his management style. The company’s and Roger’s own denial was fueled by a belief that he could not change. People avoided talking about Roger’s dysfunctional style rather than bringing something out into the open that they thought no one could do anything about anyway.

Believing that they were protecting Roger’s self-esteem and repaying him for his loyalty by not confronting him with the real implications of his style. In fact, by avoiding the issue, they were ultimately paving Roger’s way to failure.

Believing that strong interpersonal skills are important, but not essential to management effectiveness and productivity.

This belief was communicated through the private conversations and over-controlling, autocratic management behavior of several senior executives, despite the organizational “party line” that emphasized strong people-management skills.

In fact, it is likely that some senior managers feared having to confront dysfunctional aspects of their own management style if they confronted Roger’s problems. Those fears may have contributed to their denial of his deficiencies.

Developing people skills

Roger may have had more than his share of dysfunctional management traits, but all managers have weaknesses. In the right (or more accurately, wrong) situations, those weaknesses may compromise their effectiveness. Over time, they can create silent fallout.

As an organization changes (business gets worse, mentors leave, or the wrong toes get stepped on), previously overlooked weaknesses can become a focus. Such attention can result in a second chance for the manager in question (if he or she is lucky) or, in many cases, termination.

Don’t wait for problems to develop.

Some suggestions for managers and those who are helping them to manage people more effectively:

  • Remember that for managers, people-handling skills are “bottom-line” in the long run. Business success and technical competence may diminish; strong relationships and people skills can sustain success.
  • Don’t assume that senior managers will accurately gauge the impact of a manager’s style on long-term management effectiveness. They are often unaware of the negatives, because the effects are not immediate, because they are protected from them, or because they deny them.
  • Listen carefully to subordinates and peers. Good listening skills are essential in enabling a manager to receive and pay attention to feedback – direct or indirect – from those who count.
  • Find and meet regularly with a person whose interpersonal skills you respect and whom you can trust to be honest with you about your style and your impact on others.
  • Make full use of the company’s training and development opportunities on your own initiative, rather than in reaction to a bad situation or in an effort to fulfill requirements.
  • Make accurate self-assessment, with special emphasis on people skills, an ongoing objective for yourself and your subordinates.