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WHAT KEEPS LEADERS UP AT NIGHT
Recognizing and Resolving Your Most Troubling Management Issues
By NICOLE LIPKIN
AMACOMCopyright © 2013 Nicole Lipkin
All rights reserved.
I'm a Good Boss. So Why Do I Sometimes Act like a Bad One?
IN 1995, DUTCH MILLIONAIRE Jaap Kroese bought Swan Hunter, a famous but troubled shipbuilding company in the north of England. In 2000, Swan Hunter won the lead contract to design and build two landing ship docks for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. The contract specifications required Swan Hunter to build the ships for £210 million with delivery scheduled for 2004. However, by July 2006, Swan Hunter had finished only one ship and had exceeded its budget by millions of pounds. Britain's Ministry of Defense, upset by Swan Hunter's poor performance, pulled the contract for the second ship and awarded it to their competitor, BAE System Naval Ships. The loss of this contract, financially devastating, disqualified Swan Hunter from further work for the Ministry of Defense. By November, Jaap Kroese announced that his company, Swan Hunter, would need to sell significant assets to make up for these losses until new business began in 2008. When that new business never materialized, Swan Hunter was forced to sell its iconic riverside cranes to an Indian shipyard.
Simply said, this sad tale reveals a lapse in judgment. The story starts with fifteen-year-old Jaap Kroese working in the maritime shipping industry, and culminates in a successful career in the oil-rig industry. Kroese purchased Swan Hunter with the expectation that he could return this troubled company to world-class status. Immersing himself in the business with unflagging enthusiasm and boundless energy, he made the choice to live at the shipyard, away from his wife, monitoring the company and getting to know his workers. He was known for greeting all of them as they showed up for work. His efforts won him near-legendary status in the media as a no-nonsense, hands-on businessman. That strength became his weakness, though. Diving into the fray and getting his hands dirty making every small decision inspired the loyalty of his troops, but it came at a cost. Working so close to the ground, he was unable to see the big picture. He had a worm's-eye view, not a bird's-eye view. Toiling in the ship's hold with the welders may have inspired loyalty, but it caused him to lose sight of the project's costly management mistakes, budget overruns, and schedule failures. Adding insult to injury, BAE Systems finished both of their ships ahead of Swan Hunter, taking over Swan Hunter's work on the final vessel.
GOOD BOSS GONE BAD SYNDROME
By many measures, Jaap Kroese was a good boss. Those who worked side by side with him liked and respected him. What went wrong? His hard work at the worm's-eye/worker level eventually led to failure at the bird's-eye/ strategic level. Good bosses go bad for a lot of reasons.
Even the best boss in the world can have a bad day. No one escapes the occasional bad mood, irrational thought, angry outburst, nasty self-righteousness, bad decision, or mistrustful reaction; imperfections make us human. Most often we commit these missteps in private. But behave that way just once in the glare of the public spotlight, and you earn a reputation as being "that sort of person." Why? Because presiding over other people can give you celebrity power. In the 2011 Republican presidential debates, Texas Governor Rick Perry, who was elected governor near effortlessly for three terms, could not remember the third federal agency he proposed to abolish. From that moment on, he became the "dunce candidate."
No one deals perfectly with hormonal fluctuations (yes, they afflict men, too) or biological ups and downs. Ultimately, regarding leadership process and procedure, it all boils down to people. Good leadership requires dealing effectively with messy, quirky, unpredictable, confusing, irrational, and clumsy people. That is what makes the business of leadership so insanely difficult and complex.
When you take a close look at why good bosses go bad (temporarily versus the chronically horrible bosses that go bad every minute of the day), you usually find three overarching reasons:
Too busy to win.
Too proud to see.
Too afraid to lose.
Think of these root causes, not as cancers that can kill, but as common colds that anyone can easily and quickly cure with the right medicine. Once you understand why you sometimes display the symptoms of the good boss gone bad syndrome, you can use your newfound self-awareness to cure what ails you.
TOO BUSY TO WIN
On a recent business trip, I met a nice guy, Rob, sitting next to me on the plane. After a few minutes, Rob and I started chatting about his work. As my clients often do, he opened up and soon started sharing his unhappiness at work. Recently promoted to a management position, he found himself overwhelmed, falling behind on his assignments, and unable to keep up with the avalanche of emails and phone calls from his direct reports. He would wake up every morning with dread, his stomach in knots. "I feel like a one-armed juggler with ten balls in the air. My boss keeps piling on the work. He has no clue I'm in over my head." When I asked Rob why he didn't assign more work to his people, he said, "I want them to like and respect me. I worry that they will turn against me if I assign them stuff I could easily do myself." Ironically, he realized his people were actually losing respect for him as he became frantic and emotional. No one was hitting his or her numbers, and he felt himself losing ground every day. "I'm stuck," he admitted. "I'm just waiting for my boss to pull the plug and send me back to the trenches."
Like Jaap Kroese, Rob had gotten himself mired in a classic "too busy to win" situation. Every successful manager treads a fine line between productive and unproductive busyness. It's easy to cross the line and become just another good boss gone bad. Thankfully, though, you can take a few sure steps to get back on the right side of the line.
Before we consider those steps, let's dispel one myth right off the bat. Busyness is not necessarily bad. It proves that you are an active, productive, engaged, and successful person, assuming that you are not busy for busy's sake. In fact, people who wallow in a state of unbusyness often suffer from the effects of social isolation, depression, withdrawal, and anxiety, to name a few results.
We know that people feel better when they stay busy. In 2010, researchers Christopher Hsee, Adelle Yang, and Liangyan Wang designed an experiment to test that theory. They instructed students to fill out a survey, then choose one of two options: either to stand around and wait for 15 minutes before completing another survey or to walk about 15 minutes to another location where they would drop off the survey before returning to take the next survey. In each case, students received candy as a reward. Still, more students chose to walk, to be active and not be idle.
When the researchers measured the participants' sense of well-being, they found a higher degree of happiness among the walkers. Next, they repeated the experiment but did not give the students a choice. They told some students to walk and the others to stay put. Even when some of the "idlers" were forced to do busywork, the walkers felt happier.
Suppose, however, that the researchers had ordered half of the students to run a mile to the drop-off point while juggling those ten balls that made my seatmate Rob so unhappy. Keeping busy may make you happy, but at some point excessive busyness can overwhelm your coping capabilities. That's when we become too busy to win. Excessive busyness can impair performance and productivity, making you increasingly forgetful, fatigued, and prone to poor decision making and problem solving. Feelings of isolation abound as communication with others breaks down. The resulting frustration, anger, and impatience can lead to physical ailments, job loss, and, in some cases, mental health problems.
It all depends on a person's personal threshold. Some people can naturally take on a heavier workload than others. A higher threshold doesn't make you a better person; it just makes you different. If you ever find yourself succumbing to the too-busy-to-win variation of the good boss gone bad syndrome, you should pause to examine the situation and try to gain a little self-awareness. Only then can you consider solving the problem. Start by asking yourself three questions:
1. Have I gotten so lost in the trees that I can no longer see the forest?
2. Have I taken on extra work thinking I can do it better or because I don't want to waste time telling someone else how to do it?
3. Have I resisted delegating work because I want my people to like and respect me?
If you answer yes to any or all of these questions, you may have become too busy to win. Before we consider cures for this syndrome, let's take a look at why it happens.
Our investigation starts 10,000 years ago. Our Cro Magnon ancestors competed so strenuously for such scarce resources that they needed to conserve energy whenever possible in order to survive. Today, however, living has gotten a lot easier. Acquiring food, water, and shelter requires effort, but technology has reduced much of that backbreaking effort. Has our brain, born in Cro Magnon times, fully adjusted to this fact? Not quite. Rather than making life a big bowl of cherries, technology has handed us a big pile of pits. Instead of allowing us to relax, it has made us busier. A poignant article by Pico Iyer in the New York Times (December 29, 2011) discusses the impact of technology on humans and how much people will willingly risk financially and emotionally to find stillness. He describes the continual interruptions coming through as phone calls, emails, alerts, messages, and so on that seem to inundate our lives. As Iyer states, there are more ways to communicate, "but less and less to say—we're rushing to meet so many deadlines that we hardly register that what we need most are lifelines."
The avalanche of information not only overwhelms our personal lives, it also smothers us at work. Difficult personalities, worrisome downsizing, red-tape entangled bureaucracy, and complicated workplace politics quickly deluge us. It should only come as a surprise if you don't get too busy to win. Although you may love to hate this state of affairs, you probably secretly take a certain amount of pride in the fact that you have way too much on your plate, especially if you're the boss. If you don't believe that, ask yourself:
When I'm busy, do I make that fact known to others?
When people see how busy I am, do I think I gain more respect?
When I hear other people complain about being too busy, do I feel superior or, on the other hand, a little jealous?
When I am idle am I uncomfortable? Do I fill my downtime with a lot of activity?
Positive answers reflect a tendency to get too busy to win. It happens to a lot of people. Many cultures, particularly Anglo-Saxon (think Protestant work ethic), reward busy people and define not-so-busy people as lazy good-for-nothings. We often feel superior to the "lazy" (though secretly envy their idleness). At the same time, we naturally desire the affection and respect of others. We may, therefore, find it hard to get off the busyness bandwagon so we stuff lots of activity, often unproductive, into the idle spaces.
Humans tend to take everything too far. Give us a resource—anything from Godiva chocolates and Jack Daniels, to Twitter and Facebook—and we can easily overdo it until it becomes a problem. The same holds true for busyness. If you overuse your energy, talent, and mental or physical prowess, you can quickly turn an asset into a liability.
These days busyness can easily seduce you. In fact, in today's wired world, people can so easily connect with others that they find it almost impossible to remain "unbusy." While people rely on the Internet, social media, mobile phones, and other instant communication to keep them connected, many feel more emotionally detached. In the workplace, all of your networks can absorb you completely. Soon, keeping on top of all those "friends," "followers," "connections," and "buddies" can become a full-time job in itself.
According to Victor González and Gloria Mark, the average worker today spends no more than three minutes before they are interrupted or before another task is initiated. When your job involves overseeing the performance of other people, you may not enjoy a single uninterrupted second during the workday. No wonder your head starts hurting before noon and you become irritable with the first person who walks in the door. So let's see what's going on in your brain.
Quite often we do not even recognize that we have come down with a case of too-busy-to-win. No sane frog would willingly hop into a pot of boiling water. But place it in a pot of cold water on the stove and it doesn't feel the slowly rising temperature until it boils to death. In much the same way, the brain gradually adjusts to increasing busyness until it starts to fry. This explains how you can so easily get caught up in the good boss gone bad syndrome.
Our brains and bodies, naturally processing sensory information, use our eyes, ears, and skin to accomplish that task. Millisecond by millisecond, our sensory organs receive information, taking in important signals while filtering out the extraneous noise. Without this mental filter all the input of modern life would completely overload our minds and render us incapable of processing anything. Since busy bosses receive more signals than the typical worker, it should come as no surprise that they fall prey to sensory overload.
How do you know when you have reached a state of super-saturation? Well, it's not so easy because, unlike machines, our bodies and minds can cope with an incredible amount of sensory data, especially during periods of short-term stress. However, we find it almost impossible to function effectively when afflicted with prolonged stress or sensory overload (see Chapter 3 for more on this subject). Imagine a plastic shelf on which you keep piling books. It might support fifty-four books; but when you add the fifty-fifth, it suddenly snaps in two. If you had been paying attention, however, you would have seen it start to sag at book thirty-nine. In much the same way, you can deal with an increasing number of tasks and responsibilities, but at some point, you begin to bend under the pressure. If you're not paying close attention, you do not feel the bend until you snap under the final addition to your workload. Think about your current workload or the last time you felt overloaded, and ask yourself if you:
Lose your temper more quickly?
Regularly seem more anxious?
Get more impatient than usual?
See and solve new problems more slowly?
Lose your focus more frequently?
Suffer more memory lapses?
Perform meaningless tasks repeatedly?
Find yourself preoccupied with making to-do lists?
These symptoms signal that you are forcing your brain to operate in too many places at once, and you will almost surely find your productivity slipping. Do you fancy yourself a good multitasker? Recent studies (such as by Harold Pashler in 1994 or Rachel Adler and Raquel Benbunan-Fich in 2012) indicate that effective multitasking is as rare as a truly photographic memory. Those who think they do it well actually perform every task less well than they would if they focused on it. The human brain simply cannot concentrate on more than one, or in rare cases, two, cognitive tasks at once. Sensory overload will cause the brain to focus on one immediate task at the expense of others, or it will prompt it to take on a set of mindless tasks that soothe it the way rocking soothes a cranky baby. That explains why super busy people love making lists.
Bosses who become too busy to win can easily fall into a cycle of self-sabotage. When your workload grows too heavy to bear, you get mired in the little stuff and lose sight of the big stuff. The forest (managing others) disappears as you wander among the trees. Without enough of your skillful management, your people start making more mistakes, adding even more to your workload because you must now devote time to fixing those mistakes. It becomes a vicious cycle. The more you mess up, the more your people mess up, and the more your people mess up, the more you mess up. How in the world do you get out of this downward spiral?
Excerpted from WHAT KEEPS LEADERS UP AT NIGHT by NICOLE LIPKIN. Copyright © 2013 by Nicole Lipkin. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S
I N T R O D U C T I O N
What Was I Thinking?
C H A P T E R 1
I’m a Good Boss. So Why Do I Sometimes Act Like a Bad One?
C H A P T E R 2
Why Don’t People Heed My Sage Advice?
C H A P T E R 3
Why Do I Lose My Cool in Hot Situations?
C H A P T E R 4
Why Does a Good Fight Sometimes Go Bad?
C H A P T E R 5
Why Can Ambition Sabotage Success?
C H A P T E R 6
Why Do People Resist Change?
C H A P T E R 7
Why Do Good Teams Go Bad?
C H A P T E R 8
What Causes a Star to Fade?
C O N C L U S I O N
The Aha Moment
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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