It happened again. Donald, a senior manager with a mid-sized pharmaceutical company in Nebraska, didn’t step in to supervise a leader who was acting inappropriately by giving yet another plum project to a friend. The recipient, of course, would receive more points with the project.
This blatant favouritism irked the other staff, who knew the leader was a friend and former colleague of Donald’s. The result: another grievance was filed against the company. The complainant accused the leader of failing to treat all staff equally. Donald could have prevented the suit with timely supervision, but he didn’t. It wasn’t the first time.
What was preventing Donald from taking action when he saw a leader who required disciplining? After all, it was his job.
Donald explained it this way: “Once they were all my friends. Now I’m supposed to go around telling them what to do and how to do it. I can’t do that.”
Having left middle management to take on his current role, Donald wasn’t one of the team anymore and it was making him uncomfortable. More important, it was making him an ineffective leader. He behaved as if favouring his friend was more important than giving him direction.
In our practice, we have observed leaders -although this phenomenon is not limited to leaders alone – sometimes make unreasonable assumptions about how they should act at work, and hobbling their ability to get the job done in the process.
There are ten basic myths identified by renowned American psychologist Albert Ellis that can get in the way of leader effectiveness. Donald had bought into the first myth:
Myth#1: I must be loved and approved of by almost everyone for virtually everything I do.
People who subscribe to this myth can have difficulty carrying out supervisory roles, or making hard personnel calls. There is a tendency to soft peddle ideas or have trouble being frank or honest. They may avoid or delay having difficult conversations with subordinates and feel hurt after receiving unappreciative feedback.
Myth#2: I should be thoroughly competent, adequate and achieving in all possible respects.
Holding this assumption may mean a difficulty completing tasks, making decisions and perfectionism. It signals a fear of making mistakes and a tendency to drive oneself into the ground. Leaders often don’t take critical feedback well as it goes against their unconscious beliefs about themselves.
Myth#3: I believe certain of my staff are bad, wicked, or villainous and they should be severely blamed and punished.
When this myth goes unanalyzed, vindictive behaviour can result. Leaders and staff who “demonize” others can engage in finger pointing when under stress.
Myth#4: It is terrible, horrible and catastrophic when things are not going the way that I would like them to.
Individuals suffering from this type of thinking can appear bullying, arrogant and pushy. They may engage in temper tantrums, shout or pout. Scratching the surface of these kinds of behaviours often reveals a need for over-control.
Myth#5: I have little or no ability to control my emotions or rid myself of negative feelings.
This kind of thinking can lead to permanent victimhood on the part of the thinker. Unable to soothe or calm themselves, and lacking emotional discipline, leaders who engage in these thoughts can appear self-pitying, pessimistic and complacent when challenged.
Myth#6: If something is, or may be, dangerous or fear provoking, I should be terribly preoccupied and upset by it.
Individuals who believe this myth appear lost in the details and panicky. A sense of “high alert” permeates their interactions with subordinates when things go wrong or seem to be going wrong. These people rush around getting everybody acting as if there is an impending emergency, rather than assessing the actual degree of danger or challenge.
Myth#7: It is easier to avoid facing many life difficulties and self-responsibilities than to undertake more rewarding forms of self-discipline.
This myth is a recipe for disaster when a duck and cover mentality takes over during times stress. Many excuses for bad work habits (e.g., procrastination, lack of follow-through) or more seriously overeating or addiction can find a haven in this type of thinking.
Myth#8: The past is all-important and because something once strongly affected my life, it will do so indefinitely.
Overcoming past adversity is not easy but thinking a past difficulty or wrong is a life sentence makes improving oneself impossible. Leaders who fall prey to this thought stay in the past and hamper their ability to catch up and move forward.
Myth#9: People and things should be different from the way they are, and it is catastrophic if perfect solutions to the grim realities of life are not immediately found.
This myth taps into the crusader mentality. Leaders falling into this mental trap can appear impatient, strident and somewhat self-righteous. They want to make the work environment a better place but insist on perfect solutions designed to remove all suffering forever. This is unrealistic and a recipe for burnout.
Myth#10: Maximum human happiness can be achieved by inertia and inaction, or by passively and uncommitedly enjoying oneself.
Hedonistic thinking and a lack of commitment often go hand in hand. Leaders who have trouble making a commitment and sticking to it, whether it is a new strategy, business model or leadership style, often secretly believe this myth.
Donald’s favourite, Myth #1 – I have to be loved for everything and by everyone – clouded his judgement and threatened and weakened his leadership abilities. Once it was identified, the thinking habit and the behaviour that went with it was de-activated.
Unfortunately, Donald realized too late that his thinking was holding him back. He was offered a less responsible position elsewhere in the company.
On a more positive note, he refused to subscribe to Myth #8 and continued to work hard to develop his leadership talents.
Everyone subscribes to one or more of these myths at some time in their lives, especially when stressed. The key is to know the myth you tend to subscribe to and notice when you are falling for it.
Once you catch yourself, you have a choice about how to react. Until then, you’re stuck in the old way of thinking – and doing the same old thing. And that serves neither you nor your staff.
Dr. Jennifer Newman is a registered psychologiss and director of Newman Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org