Avoid the Loop of Doom

Posted 01.26.2009

This morning, I’m on my way to Chicago to kick off a new cohort of our group coaching program, Next Level Leadership™.   One of the things we do in the first session is review a case study of a newly promoted executive named Amy.  While she’s got a great track record, Amy pretty quickly runs into a number of problems after she’s promoted to vice president.   One of them is her relationship with Brian, a former peer and high performer himself, who is apparently acting out because Amy got the promotion instead of him.

It’s always interesting to me to hear the range of strategies that our group coaching clients come up with about how Amy should handle her relationship with Brian.  They range from “fire him immediately” to “ask him for his help.”  One thing I can count on is that our clients always relate to the Brian part of the case study because just about every newly promoted executive has to deal with quickly sizing up the members of their team and developing strategies for leading them.

In a recent article for the Harvard Management Update, IMD professors Jean-François Manzoni and Jean-Louis Barsoux, share some really useful lessons learned from research they’ve conducted on the best and worst practices that newly promoted leaders demonstrate when evaluating their teams.

Loopodoom The worst practices can basically be summed up as creating self fulfilling prophecies.  New leaders typically come to initial conclusions about whether their team members “get it” or “don’t get it” within five days of working with them.  These initial impressions are frequently wrong but the labels tend to stick.  Not surprisingly, those being labeled can intuitively sense  how they’ve been evaluated by the way the new leader behaves toward them.  The “get its” respond accordingly and live up to and frequently exceed expectations while the “don’t get it’s” lose their confidence and start doing things that people do when they feel threatened or unsure of themselves. The result  on both sides of the “get it” equation are self-reinforcing loops.  On the “don’t get it” side, you can easily end up with the loop of doom.

Fortunately, Manzoni and Barsoux provide some excellent advice for new leaders who want to make sure they give themselves and their teams the greatest opportunity for wide ranging success. You can boil it down to communicate, communicate, communicate.  What follows are the essence of four of their ideas with some editorial liberties taken by me:

1.  Clarify Expectations:  New leaders need to be intentional about quickly providing their team with background on how they operate.  Cover topics like management and communication styles, what they like and what drives them crazy.

2.  Get to Know Them:  Invest time on the front end to get to know your team members on a personal basis.  In doing so, you demonstrate that you recognize them as individuals and not just functions of production.

3.  Fight Your Biases:  It’s natural to come up with first impression labels.  Work to be aware of the labels your creating about your team members and look for behavior and actions that work against the labels.  One of my favorite questions for doing this is to ask yourself, “What else could it be?”

4.  Deal with It Sooner Rather Than Later:  If you see performance that troubles you, call it out early.  Focus on the issue rather than the person by asking, “What were you trying to accomplish in this case?”  More often than that, you’ll find that the disconnect is around unclear expectations than incompetence or malicious intent.

What about you?  What have you learned in establishing yourself with a new team?  What lessons learned would you add to this list?