Disruptive leadership: how increased strain can derail leaders

Insight shared by:

Kiddy & Partners

Today’s leaders are facing a significant and evolving shift in their personal and professional lives. This is undoubtedly adding pressure on already-pressured individuals which, in turn, will have a notable impact on their teams and businesses.

Much is known about the risks of stress and disruption on leaders’ performance and behaviour and therefore we can anticipate what may materialise during this time as a result of the increased strain but also the uncertainty and isolation. What are the possible dark qualities and derailers of leaders under pressure and how can they be managed?

Poor Decision Making

Despite being more vital, leadership is rarely more tested than it is during times of significant stress. This pressure can be a catalyst for poor decision making due to decreased cognitive functioning, increased assumptions made and fewer alternative solutions considered [1]. This means leaders are at risk of making potentially disastrous choices around your customers, people and strategy.

Look out for: 

The individuals who may ordinarily be on the right side of risk-taking who start making reckless choices. Likewise, the leaders who are typically consultative who become paralysed by consensus-seeking, or those independent decision-makers who stop listening to experts’ input. 

Manage it by: 

  • Blending intuition and analysis: not led by gut-feeling but not disregarding the instincts developed through experience and our expertise [2].
  • Using available data appropriately: drawing on more than one source to corroborate and find patterns and not taking information at face value (is it too good to be true?).
  • Analysing information shrewdly: determining what factors are most important (e.g. time or quality?) and staying alert to bias clouding our judgement (are we choosing the best person for the job or are we favouring the person who we share a similar background with?).  
  • Drawing accurate conclusions: working through different possibilities and using honest and diverse colleagues to sound out the merits of the available options. 

Of course, especially in crises, creative problem solving is required to resolve novel issues with novel solutions [3]. Encouraging creative thinking skills and idea generation is a key ingredient to sound decision making in the rapidly changing landscape of 2020. 

Invisible leadership

Absent leadership is not often emphasised as a harmful disruptor despite research indicating it is one of the most prevalent forms of derailing leadership [4]. It is characterised by passivity and the avoidance of meaningful participation in their team’s work. Of course, the predominantly home-working current environment makes it really easy for leaders to be invisible as we have to actively seek contact to stay connected with our teams and colleagues. However, this leaves people without direction and support which could leave the business aimless and focusing on the wrong priorities. Furthermore, it risks creating the damaging impression that these leaders do not care about their people.

Look out for: 

Leaders who no longer make time for one to ones and team meetings – perhaps under the guise of being too busy or getting distracted by pet projects or preferred activities. Similarly, look for those who now offer empty praise (“you’re doing great”) and platitudes over substantive support and direction [5]. 

Manage it by:

  • Coaxing such leaders to stay connected: creating a distance between themselves and others is a coping strategy to increased pressure for some leaders, particularly those who are typically more reserved in nature [5]. Often these leaders are responding to their own needs and are unaware of the negative impact their absence can have on their teams. 
  • Agreeing boundaries: respect the leader’s need for space yet provide clarity for the team around when they can regularly access support, advice and feedback. 
  • Developing people leadership skills: leaders need to build the necessary skills to manage people from a distance .

Destructive leadership

Similar to absent leadership, destructive leadership can have derailing implications on a business. This kind of leader behaves in a way that the team find to be hostile or obstructive over time. For example, this could look like intimidating others, taking credit for the team’s successes, or blocking interaction between colleagues. As you can probably predict, over time this kind of damaging leadership goes hand in hand with follower resistance (the challenge of getting followers to follow) [6]. 

Look out for:

Leaders who start giving people the silent treatment, abusing their position of authority or are impeding collaboration. Leaders who are typically able to engage their team in their plans who suddenly have people unwilling to follow their direction. 

Manage it by:

  • Starting with honest conversations: speak to the leader in question, have they noticed this shift in their followership? Asking the team, what’s going on for them?
  • Giving feedback to the leader: being specific and based on observed behaviours are key to effective feedback. What did you see or hear and what impact did this have? 
  • Humility: under high levels of stress, leaders have been known to lash-out and act destructively towards their teams [1]. If this has happened, apologising and being open about the fallibility of leaders when frustrated can help to repair damaged trust.

Overall, the effects of derailing leadership can be costly to a business. Pressure and uncertainty (such as that brought about by a global pandemic) brings real risks in amplifying detrimental leadership qualities that can hamper the performance of their teams [6]. Developing individuals’ personal insight to their likely derailers through a robust assessment will enable them to self-regulate their behaviours under pressure and recognise when their actions turn disruptive. Such self-aware and agile leaders are best placed to lead through these volatile and complex times.   

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[1] Harms, P.D., Credé, M., Tynan, M., Leon, M., and Jeung, W.; (2017); Leadership and stress: A meta-analytic review; The Leadership Quarterly

[2] Klein, G.; (1999); Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions; The MIT Press

[3] Mumford, M., and Higgs, C., (2020); Leader Thinking Skills: Capacities for Contemporary Leadership; Routledge

[4]Aasland, M.S., Skogstad, A., Notelaers, G., Nielsen, M.B. and Einarsen, S. (2010), The Prevalence of Destructive Leadership Behaviour. British Journal of Management 

[5] Gregory, S.; (2018); The Most Common Type of Incompetent Leader; Harvard Business Review

[6] Schyns, B., and Schilling, J.; (2013); How bad are the effects of bad leaders? A meta-analysis of destructive leadership and its outcomes; The Leadership Quarterly

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