Leadership Derailment

“Rampant Derailment!” “Your Career May Explode!” Many consultants and test publishers (and the general media today) would have you believe leadership derailment is this new thing that is just now happening and they are the only ones to understand it. But if you take a step back and review the research, you will see we have known about it for some time and a few firms have developed positive and successful coping strategies. Our team of licensed I/O psychologists help you better understand leadership derailment and what to do about it — take a deep breath, there’s no need to panic.

Leadership derailment is defined as the tendency to engage in a particular set of behaviors that can limit or undermine your effectiveness — in other words, doing things that screw up your own performance, screw up the performance of those around you or cause others to want to stay away from you — which likely decreases organizational performance. And while everyone shows derailment tendencies from time to time, our research indicates at any given time over 50-70% of your managers are the biggest cause of stress and pressure in the workplace. This is a real issue with impactful financial- and performance-based consequences.

Managers most often derail in novel situations, stressful situations and situations of uncertainty. In other words, when they are not sure how to act or forget how to act. While some derailing behaviors extend from nefarious circumstances, many often result from positive characteristics taken to the extreme — e.g., too much self-confidence can be perceived as arrogant or perhaps feedback resistant. Regardless, the outcome is often the same — lower performance.

“We all have derailment tendencies — leaders will react negatively under stress and pressure at some point in their careers. As such, your role is not to be the judge and jury, but instead understand these stress reactions and find a way to either mitigate the reaction or to work through the scenario to a more predictable conclusion,” says Dr. Jared D. Lock, founder and CEO of The JDL Group.

Where Derailers Come From 

While the MBTI, DISC, Strength Finders and other popular assessments would have you believe personality is quite simple to explain and define, it is rather complex for a few reasons. First, while some test publishers and “make-a buck” consultants would have you believe you can describe a whole person with four letters (e.g., ENTJ), there are over 15,000 human traits and characteristics interacting with each other and interacting differentially with each other in various situations, which all impact how others perceive us on a daily basis. Few organizations think in terms of assessing a “Whole Person” and any one specific assessment likely is not measuring it all.

Second, we often think of personality, traits, and characteristics as labels — e.g., he is ambitious, she is detail-oriented, he is tense; however, personality runs along a continuum and when compared to other people a person can have more or less of the characteristic.

Third, at different times, specific personality characteristics can become more “loud” or subdued — an ambitious person can become aggressive, an intelligent person can come across as a know it all, a tense person can have a melt-down, etc.

Finally, personality characteristics impact each other and not all of them can be displayed at the same time. For instance, while it is easy for a person to appear both calm and confident at the same time, it is much more difficult for a person to display both their introversion and strong passion towards an idea at the same time.

“Some would have you think derailers are a distinct and separate part of personality — a dark side that emerges, like Mr. Hyde from Dr. Jekyll. But in reality, most simply are extensions of normal personality, normal personality taken to the extreme or normal personality when the person just isn’t thinking about it,” explains Dr. Lock.

Why Derailers Emerge

Derailers actually manifest themselves out of our personalities in three distinct ways.

  1. Over-using a strong personality characteristic. Derailers can emerge from over-using a strong personality characteristic — an ambitious leader who becomes boastful and arrogant, or a talkative manager who becomes attention seeking and disruptive.
  2. Lack of personality characteristics. Derailers can manifest themselves based on a lack of a personality characteristic, whose absence in a scenario results in a negative characteristic — a quiet leader who quits leading and focuses on their own work without regards for the troops or a manager who lacks trust becoming antagonistic towards other groups or people.
  3. Extension of thoughts. Finally, derailers may extend from a person’s thoughts about others or rules in a way that works against societal norms — a nice employee who dutifully follows others without questioning their poor motives or direction, or a manager who leans on rules and procedures in an attempt to get others to behave and act “right”.

“Realize, the main time derailers surface is under stressful conditions, times of uncertainty or novel situations. In other words, when we either do not know how to act, we forget to act appropriately (or different than we naturally act because society indicates it is right to act a certain way in certain circumstances), and/or because our stress moves us into a “fight or flight” mode that can either cause us to come at others in a forceful manner or shirk away,” states Dr. Lock.

The Three Major Derailer Categories

Unlike normal personality where the characteristic typically is about the person, derailers more often than not have to do with how the person IMPACTS other people — how do they “take in” that person and his/her personality and what do they do about it. While the scientific and research world typically recognizes 11 derailers, for the purposes of focusing on “what to do about it”, realize derailers fall into three major categories. This is why leadership derailment (versus simply employee derailment) is so disastrous — typically the manager or leader impacts his/her team in such a way their performance also is impacted.

  1. Moving Against Derailers. Typically, Moving Against derailers are associated with strong, outward personality characteristics taken to the extreme. In “fight or flight” terminology, when an individual is feeling stress or pressure, he/she will Move Against others in an aggressive (or fighting) manner. An outgoing manager will become Attention Seeking, hog the stage and make things all about them in a disruptive way. An ambitious and confident manager may become boastful, perhaps arrogant, and unwilling to listen to feedback, especially from those considered inferior to them. Those who are independent, may literally not follow others’ rules and procedures causing them to decide whether to “fight” (and point out this usurping behavior) or “flight” (ignore it and complain to friends and family later). As the last example shows, when a leader’s derailing tendencies are associated with Moving Against, others have to decide to take on the aggressor or let the aggressor have their way — both poor choices for others who did not decide to be in the interaction in the first place.
  2. Moving Away Derailers. Typically, Moving Away derailers are associated with either less obvious personality characteristics, or a lack of a personality characteristic, that could be useful in a difficult scenario. By not having or putting this characteristic in the scenario, this causes the derailment to occur. A person lacking trust can make the whole world look like enemies and create an “us vs. them” mentality — pushing others “Away”. A manager who typically is tense (i.e., lacks even-temperedness) can start running around like a chicken with its head cut off. Managers who lack confidence or willingness to try and fail can become so “better safe than sorry” they become a bottleneck to progress.

In all of these scenarios, the derailing entity is putting up a wall which causes distance between them and others and causes others difficulty in their work. If a leader shows stress, others will avoid them. If the leader creates an “us vs. them” environment, there is a wall put up and others will have to choose to breach it or simply go away. If you are a bottleneck, others will have to move through you or simply go around you to get their way — hence, Moving Away.

  1. Moving Towards Derailers. These derailers have to do with creating a predictable environment and the people who display these characteristics have a strong need to lean on rules, procedures or hierarchy in order to try to get their way. While the Moving Against person relies on their own personality strengths, and the Moving Away person uses their own personality characteristics to either drive others away or distance themselves from others, the Moving Towards person leans on either their boss (e.g., “She told me to”, “Our leader said so”, “Hey boss, I am just checking in with my decision before I make it”, etc.) or rules and procedures (e.g., “there are rules”, “you didn’t follow the procedure”, etc.). While on the surface, these characteristics do not seem bad, they can become strong irritants in others who again will have to decide to follow their own path (flight) or address the scenario in a way that forces a confrontation (e.g., fight).

More Than Half of Your Managers Are Derailing Now 

At any given time, at least 50-70% of your managers are the number one cause of stress in your workplace. By acknowledging derailment and stress exist, you can create an open culture. Ask questions instead of making accusations (i.e., the stress levels seem to be high, can I help; when you do that, how do you think it impacts others?) and determine which type of derailer you are dealing with.  At several organizations we work in, they actively discuss “raging dark-sides” and say things like “are you monitoring your dark-side right now” to each other as ways to lessen the impact.

The point? Your company or some managers in it will always be derailing. Stress is everywhere. The research shows that between 40%-60% of all leaders have at least two derailing characteristics at such a level they are creating real stress and pressure in the workplace. The more you can bring this out, discuss it, make it part of your organization’s lexicon, the more likely people will realize when they are using their dark- versus bright-side personality characteristics.

The JDL Group Organizational Agility

Mitigating Leadership Derailment 

While all adults have derailing characteristics (they’re part of one’s personality), some derailers create more problems than others and hinder performance. Identifying your derailers and becoming aware of what triggers them doesn’t mean dwelling on how bad you are. When you learn to manage and work through your self-destructive traits, it allows you and others to work at optimum performance levels.

When coaching executives, and discussing how to mitigate the dark-side, we typically talk about the crossroads of where normal characteristics and derailment characteristics meet — this gives us an opportunity to understand impact. Our research suggests when dark-side characteristics are an extension of positive characteristics, the impact is smaller. If Susie pays attention to details under normal conditions, but micromanages under stress, when Susie is under stress her employees will feel, “ahh, Susie must be a bit stressed out today.  She’s paying a bit more attention to the details than usual” (i.e., it is more of the same).

But when your derailment characteristics diverge from your normal characteristics, impact is great(er). If Bob is quiet and demure under normal conditions, but then becomes outwardly emotional and loud under stressful conditions, then his employees will have higher levels of stress because they will not know which “Bob” is coming to work today. Our research shows, when a person displays incompatible bright- and dark-side characteristics in similar situations, the greatest damage occurs.

“After 25 years of studying, researching, working with executives and helping them maximize performance, we have found the juxtaposition of Bright- and Dark-Side characteristics is a very large and significant moderator of the leader’s derailment impact on the culture and performance,” explains Dr. Lock.

If you are an executive, HR professional or coach and want to help an employee who is derailing, we simply suggest you use your tools and practices in the following manner (The JDL Group has a full complement of Guerilla Business Training tools we use to help our clients).

If an employee is Moving Against others in a direct and aggressive manner, your focus will be on curbing the overuse of the personality characteristic — “putting a leash on it” comes to mind. You do not want to extinguish the positive behavior — e.g., push/drive, outgoing, get it done no matter what — but instead want to limit the negative aspects of it, or where it is being taken too far. Training associated with letting others speak, asking more questions, creating service level agreements with peers, and other tools are helpful here.

While not the same, you can use similar tools and practices with Moving Towards, with an external focus. If an employee is micromanaging, you do not want to kill the attention to detail, but instead refocus the attention to a higher level. And while “checking in” can be helpful in some situations, explaining to the employee when you expect her to make her own decisions and when she should come to you prevents over-use. So, your delegation and decision-making tools will help in this scenario — anything to make the manager feel like she has tools in place to address the issue will lower the stress and therefore reduce the derailment tendency.

When an employee exhibits Moving Away tendencies, these are a bit more difficult to “curb” because it’s often the result of the absence of a personality characteristic. Making introverts (lacking social push) into extroverts (leading from the front) is not a simple task because you have to “add” something to the scenario. It is difficult to add “anxious-free” or “tension-free” to an employee who has and shows a great deal of stress. Your tools, which are associated with personal growth and fulfillment will be helpful here. In most of these scenarios, we have found helping the employee link the current scenario to past scenarios (e.g., you have already seen this situation before) can often reduce some of these concerns or issues. Running “game plans” before scenarios and reviewing “game film” after interactions also work well in these scenarios.

Derailment is not a new thing and it also is not going away. But putting some thought into where the derailer is coming from, how your environment is allowing it to thrive, and who it impacts can have a great deal of influence over how much derailment will cost your company this year.  Actively working to reduce stress levels goes a long way toward reducing derailment.

The JDL Group Difference

The JDL Group’s Whole Person Assessment is one of only a handful of well-validated, pre-employment assessments on the market that allow employers to take proactive measures of derailment. The Whole Person Assessment also is one of only a few in the world that provides separate and highly accurate measures of both positive and derailing characteristics. It is critical to gain this complete data review early in the hiring or development process because derailers rarely show up during the interview process. For more information, please contact The JDL Group at information@thejdlgroup.com.