Successful people can be a potent mix of stubbornness, pride, and defensiveness. Owning up to a flawed behavior can be difficult. After all, if the successful person weren’t doing things right, they wouldn't be so successful.
In coaching hundreds of leaders, we often see that the more successful individuals become, the more reluctant they are to change. That’s because:
Past success reinforces that the successful person is doing things right – Consider Kathryn. She attributed her career success to her command and control leadership style and “do whatever it takes” philosophy. It earned her high praise when her responsibilities were turning around failing business divisions in need of strong leadership and direction. When Kathryn’s role changed, and her success depended on her ability to work with a group of talented peers, her commanding style was disastrous. Kathryn saw her peer group and their lack of responsiveness as the problem. What she couldn't see was that her style was alienating her peers. In Kathryn’s mind her style was what drove results and was the basis for her success.
What was once a winning trait when taken to the extreme becomes a fatal flaw – Evan was a prime example. His quest for improvement and need for personal involvement in every aspect of his company enabled him to build an impressive business quickly. So as the business grew large, Evan worked harder than ever to remain the company’s “chief problem solver.” His obsession to keep his hands in the details of every major initiative was making progress impossible.
See the flaw as an integral part of their identity – Some successful people openly admit their flaws. Without any apology, they’ll confess to not being a detail person, having a bad temper or being impatient. They chalk off their inexcusably bad behavior as if it is a genetic flaw that they can’t change. Liza, for example, rationalized that her hot temper was part and parcel of her passionate nature and creative temperament. The problem was people didn't buy that for a second. In their hearts, they believed that if Liza cared enough, she could change her behavior.
Think the flaw is inconsequential – People who acknowledge their flaws commonly rationalize that they’re so important or good at the “real work” that they don’t need to worry about a small shortcoming. Josh illustrates the point. He viewed himself as the deal-maker and driving force of the company. His time was far more valuable than anyone else’s, and he felt that others should respect that they needed to wait for his attention. What Josh couldn't see was that he was making people feel like their contribution wasn’t valuable and that his behavior was a critical factor in the company’s plummeting level of engagement.
The Value of Feedback
The higher people climb in an organization and the more power they gain, the harder it is to come by honest feedback. It’s compounded by the fact that successful people often live under the assumption that they are successful because they behave a certain way. But sometimes there is no causal connection between a specific behavior and success. In fact, the opposite may be true – success may be in spite of the behavior. The key is recognizing the difference.
Successful professionals can be tone deaf to feedback. How do you crack the protective shell they have around them and help them separate the behaviors that truly make them successful from those that are holding them back? Feedback is the answer, but in order for it to be heard it must come from multiple sources and it must be from people the individual respects. When it comes to feedback on a person’s flaws, the initial reaction is almost always denial. That is why it is so important that the person hears it from multiple sources.
Well-designed and administered “360 Assessments” are a powerful tool for providing needed feedback in a way that it can be internalized and acted upon. It’s one thing to hear in conversation that you’re very hands-on. But it’s another thing to read a feedback report that shows seven of your eight direct reports feel that your tendency to micromanage is a major obstacle to achieving their goals.