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Leadership: the hidden failure

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Do you ever wonder why, despite your best efforts, certain negative behaviours persist in your organisation?  Leaders may feel like they’re doing their best, but their leadership style may actually be inviting failure, not guarding against it.

It’s why people

  • lack motivation
  • don’t step up and take responsibility
  • whose potential is high, deliver performance that remains frustratingly low

It’s why low-retention figures are costing your organisation significant amounts of unnecessary time and money

We’re privileged to work closely with leaders 1-1, and in small, exclusive and confidential groups.  We get close to the issues they face, day to day.

And sometimes recurring patterns emerge and demand our attention.

The latest issue has been the role of leaders in actively de-motivating their teams.Are your leaders supporting leadership success or failure?

Here’s a flavour

It started with a UK client, working on a global communications campaign.  My role is as independent communications expert – as coach, consultant and her mentor.

One of her emails sounded different.  Distracted.  Distraught even.  I sent a quick message of support and then, as soon as I could, picked up the phone to check in.

Despite my hunch and concerns, I was still surprised by the deluge of disappointment and de-motivation that hit me when we spoke.

A once-ambitious and motivated individual was re-considering her place in the organisation to which she was once so committed.

A few days later, a similar conversation took place with another client.  And then it happened a third time.  I received an email from a senior executive in New Zealand, who graphically described the emerging trend and its impact on him.

  1. Shifting goals and deadlines: when direct reports hear this, they feel uncertain and unable to act
  2. Everything is a priority: when everything appears urgent and important, people feel stressed and unable to deliver one thing well – let alone everything.
  3. People pass on negative comments from the top team: when team members hear that those above them in the hierarchy feel ‘disappointed’ or ‘unhappy’ with the way things are going, colleagues feel instantly deflated.
  4. Leaders pass on opinion as fact: when team members discover that one person’s opinion is circulated as fact, it creates cynicism and mistrust.

So now we have people who mistrust their leadership, feel stressed, uncertain and deflated. 

Not exactly a recipe for success.

The common theme is a lack of emotionally-intelligent communications.  The failure is hidden because the negative impact is primarily emotional.  It strikes on the inside and is unlikely to reveal itself.

If this sounds familiar to your organisation, and these conversations remain unchallenged, you are sowing the seeds of failure – even if it’s not you that’s personally responsible.

It’s time to challenge these communications, using these tips. 

  1. If the goal-posts move, explain the purpose of the move.  Understanding why something is happening helps people prepare.  On the alert for more change.  Sharing understanding of why something needs doing is fundamental, and needs to come before the call to action.
  2. When everything appears to be a priority, show which is the number 1 priority.  The meaning of ‘priority’ is the one thing “regarded or treated as more important than others”.  Getting the priority into focus, is half-way to getting that task done and dusted.
  3. When people pass on negative messages, there are two key steps.  People need constructive and specific feedback – without which no-one can improve.
    1. Ask for specifics – get the negativity into a clear context.
    2. Ask what success does look like – so that improvements are made.
    3. When opinion is passed off as fact – invite the technical experts to comment.

Sometimes, asking experts to “re-state the issue in lay terms” helps clarify misunderstandings.

It also defuses egos – by helping leaders save face if they’ve mis-spoken.

The emotionally-intelligent response. 

In one-to-one conversations it’s also worth practicing the emotionally-intelligent response.  This requires you to take ownership of how you feel and not try to pass the ‘emotional blame’ on someone else.

You’re reporting in how you feel in a neutral, no-blame way.  “When you say X I feel Y”

Very different from saying “You make me feel”.

It shows the impact of someone’s words on you.

The speaker may still choose to say the same thing, but at least they’re now aware of the impact they’re having.

It allows the speaker to have emotions too.

We don’t leave our emotions at the front door when we come to work.  And nor can we get our communications right every time.  What we can do as leaders, and professionals who support leadership development in others, is encourage emotionally-intelligent conversations that support success.  Not invite failure.  If you want to support leadership success, do get in touch at


Author: Helen Caton Hughes

Leadership and Team Coach based on inspirational and practical tools. Works with leaders around the world; trains coaches to International Coach Federation standards. Passionate about finding best ways for leaders to inspire themselves and get the best from their teams

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