Why do managers derail?

The reason is not so often a lack of performance. It’s psychology that trips the bosses up.

DIE ZEIT, Forum by Ulrich Jordan, September 17, 2015

Jürgen Großmann of RWE, Peter Löscher of Siemens, Thomas Middelhoff of Arcandor – these names are familiar to those who take an interest in business issues in Germany. Having enjoyed initial success as CEOs, they all derailed in the end. In the case of Middelhoff it had been foreseeable for a long time, in the case of Großmann and Löscher only briefly before. At least if you believe what the media said.

Reports about »Losers in pinstripes « (in German „Nieten in Nadelstreifen“, a book published in 1992) have been popular for years. The authors are, however, almost exclusively journalists who have never carried any business responsibility themselves. And who, even if they research thoroughly, can always describe only parts of a highly complex process at the end somebody has to resign.

Why do top managers once considered as promising, intelligent and well-versed derail? There is a whole set of causes. Let me give you some the Center for Creative Leadership in the US has examined and that I have seen in my function as HR executive and consultant.

The most obvious reason is easy to understand: lack of performance. Soccer coaches are fired when they fail to take their team to the desired league ranking and TV hosts are replaced when they don’t achieve the expected market shares. In the case of managers, it is all about costs, turnover and profits. They are fired when these performance indicators are amiss over a period of time that can vary from company to company. It is not unusual that this happens to senior managers once considered as high potentials - one reason why in some companies it can take some time before they pull the plug. Job rotations every two years, frequently changing supervisors and varying priorities are other reasons why action is not taken earlier.

I know a very intelligent marketing manager. He is very competent analyst and an excellent  presenter. He has, however, failed to achieve his goals in various positions he has held. It took five years for management to recognize this. Today, he works as a successful consultant.He is no longer responsible for implementation.

Another common reason for failure is poor people skills. »He is vain«, »uncommunicative«, »he doesn’t listen«, »is unreliable«, »tends to lose his nerve«, »isn‘t part of the team« – this is how managers who do much damage to their work environment are described by subordinates, colleagues and superiors. People only contact this type of manager, if they absolutely have to. This meansl: An organization is actually stronger without them than with them. Again, it almost always takes too long until senior management intervenes. There are organizations in which dysfunctional leadership behavior is tolerated as long as the results are as expected. These managers often do not receive any feedback on their behavior because management tends to avoid such difficult topics.

An inability to learn can also cause derailment. Some managers simply are not able to draw the right conclusions from their successes and failures – even when given constructive criticism. And so, they run the risk of repeating their mistakes.

»That simply isn’t me« – »I don’t want to lose my rough edges« – »I want to stay authentic« These are statements by managers who do not want to learn. One reason for their refusal is that it often hurts to challenge and change values and behaviors one has become attached to.

I have met managers who were not willing to plan more consistently, communicate more openly or treat their people better, although they knew their boss was considering to fire them. They did nothing even when they were offered support and they kept blaming the others – incapable subordinates, conniving colleagues, incompetent superiors. They did not want to assume responsibility for their own behavior.

Another problem is the inability to lead and form a team out of one’s subordinates. In Germany and abroad, companies are investing more into the development of managers than they used to. I have not noticed, though, that leadership behavior has much improved. The results of the 2014 Gallup Engagement Study show that only some 15 percent of employees in German companies are emotionally highly committed to their organization, another 15 percent has mentally resigned and 70 percent show only minor engagement.

This is often due to the manager´s behavior. They are not genuinely interested in their people, they do not listen to them, their communication lacks openness and reliability, they do not encourage and challenge enough, they give little constructive, fair feedback and hardly any active support or recognition. They avoid conflicts and do not create any team spirit. This list of bad behavior patterns could be continued. Employee surveys can reveal such problems.
Much is expected of bosses. They are supposed to be friendly, involve and understand their employees, be fair and highly competent. In reality, they tend to be just like all of us. They do not have unlimited time, nor encyclopedic recall or extrasensory perception and they are fallible. Still, some subordinates do not make much of an effort to get along well with their superiors.

Instead of thinking about how they can support their boss, how they could create a giving and taking relationship, they are irritated: by an inappropriate remark, too much supervision, unclear tasks or impatient inquiries. And instead of addressing this in an appropriate manner, some tend to react passive-aggressively. »If you think so, it’ll be that way – you’re the boss...« Conflicts arise. They are part of everyday life. Only if they aren’t tackled can they lead to a transfer or dismissal.

What can managers do to avoid failure? Emotional intelligence helps enormously. The American psychologist Daniel Goleman refined this term in the middle of the 90s. Meanwhile, numerous studies confirm that managers with EQ are more successful than those who rely solely on their IQ. Emotional intelligence consists of five elements:

  1. Self awareness: The ability to assess one's strengths and weaknesses, needs and values realistically. Managers with good self awareness seek constructive feedback from others – even and especially from their direct reports. They are honest with themselves and do not have to delude others.
  2. Self control : Involves controlling one's emotions and acting constructively even when frustrated or annoyed. Studies show that subordinates of managers who are often in a good mood are more productive than others.
  3. Motivation: Highly motivated managers demand alot. First and foremost from themselves, then from their teams. They develop real passion for what they do. And they stay confident even when faced with big challenges.
  4. Empathy: Understanding other people's feelings, even when they aren’t verbalized. This includes having a genuine interest in other people. Asking questions, listening, understanding what the other is saying.
  5. Social skills: Shaping relationships in a positive and manner, so that conflicts are solved and compromises are found.

Ulrich Jordan is a leadership consultant. Before, he worked for Citibank, later Targobank, as member of the German Management Board responsible for HR.