Avoiding Managerial Self-Sabotage
Stop Being Your Own Worst Enemy
I hire people brighter than me, then I get out of their way.– Lee Iacocca, renowned U.S. business leader
Renata has just been promoted to manager of her department. She's always done a great job but now she doubts her confidence and ability. She's got several high-performing players on her team who are smart, creative, confident, and outspoken – and she feels threatened by their skills and experience.
Worried that her team members and her own manager will think that she's not up to the job, Renata feels that she has to show them who's boss. So, she's decisive and sets the rules. She downplays other people's ideas and double-checks their work. She feels in control. But two months later, half her team has left and she feels more anxious than ever.
Instead of relishing the fact that she had an outstanding team that she could have helped to excel even more, her fear of looking weak led her to taking a course of action that ended up destroying a great unit and reinforcing her anxieties. Not only did Renata's behavior wreck her team, it was self-destructive, as it severely damaged her previously good reputation.
In this article, we explore why and how some managers can unwittingly sabotage their own chances of success. We identify some common self-destructive habits, and look at ways to change them and become a leader other people admire.
Why Do Some Managers Self-Sabotage?
There are several reasons why you might unwittingly damage your own reputation or chances of success. For example, you might put your team members down or act in an overly authoritarian way because you had poor leadership role models in the past, or saw other people doing so in the workplace. Or, as we saw in our opening scenario, you may self-sabotage if you doubt your own abilities or feel anxious that a star performer on your team makes you look bad. In such cases, you might interpret a suggestion from him or her as a reflection on how you do your job.
But feelings of self-doubt and lack of self-confidence are commonplace. Research by the Institute for Leadership and Management among nearly 3,000 managers in the U.K. shows that half of the female managers surveyed, and almost a third of the male managers, regularly experience bouts of self-doubt. The experience is so widespread that there is a name for it: Impostor Syndrome. It describes feelings that you are inadequate, or that your success is somehow undeserved. You can learn more about this in our article, Overcoming Impostor Syndrome.
What Are the Signs of Self-Sabotage?
A study by U.S. academics Nathaniel J. Fast, Ethan R. Burris, and Caroline A. Bartel found that a manager who didn't feel competent was less likely than his more confident colleagues to accept or seek ideas and opinions from his team members. They also uncovered other behaviors that could damage the manager's reputation and impact negatively on his team and organization, including:
- Not asking for other people's opinions or expertise.
- Reprimanding team members for any expression of disagreement.
- Taking credit for other people's work.
- Not giving praise when it's due.
- Acting as though he is more important than his team members.
- Questioning other people's decisions and knowledge.
- Belittling his people's skills or accomplishments.
- Making important changes without telling anyone.
- Finding mistakes in everything his team members do.
- Putting his own needs ahead of the team's.
For more examples of behaviors that can derail your career, and how they can be a result of your personality type, see our article on The Hogan Development Survey.
The Consequences of Self-Sabotage
Even if you don't intend to diminish others, the consequences can be serious for you if you do, and for your team members and your organization.
On a personal level, you can spend a lot of energy trying not to look weak to your boss or team. And the more stressed and anxious you feel about your competence or performance, the more likely you are to make poor decisions or show poor judgment – it becomes a self-fulfilling circle of sabotage. Also, self-doubt could stop you going for a promotion or applying for new roles or responsibilities.
Your team will very likely suffer if you behave in any of the negative ways we've set out above. A productive, motivated team relies on you Building Good Work Relationships with your people, which can evaporate if you lose their respect and trust. If you disregard their ideas and input, they will quickly feel disengaged and unappreciated. Their enthusiasm and productivity will fall, and the only thing rising could be their stress levels.
If you continue to be dismissive, hostile or closed-minded, people will simply not want to work for you. They'll look for opportunities elsewhere, not just in another team but perhaps in a different organization altogether. And fearful managers often hire people who are less skilled, experienced and confident than themselves, which creates a mediocre workforce.
The Benefits of Encouraging Your Team Members
Although top-performing team members can feel like a threat to your position, there are many benefits to encouraging people to do their best. In an article for Harvard Business Review, consultant Ron Ashkenas says hiring and retaining people who are smarter than you will give you a team that exceeds performance expectations.
Instead of looking nervous and unsure, you'll become recognized as a talent developer and someone who is essential to the organization. Your star performers will stay put and other gifted people will seek you out.
When you have top-notch team members, you can count on them to deliver results. Intelligent and creative people think about what needs to be done, and get on with tasks without having to be told. They are usually self-motivated and driven individuals, who don't need constant reminding and pushing to complete tasks.
Remember your role is to manage your team members, not to know more than them or be more skilled at everything than them.
You might be worried about your boss's opinion of you, as well as what your team thinks. Read our articles on Managing Your Boss, Managing High Achievers, Now You're the Boss, Getting a New Boss, Seven Surprises for New Managers, and Emotional Intelligence for some great tips on how to deal with this anxiety.
How to Stop Self-Sabotaging
When people feel good about themselves, they don't question their ability to succeed and they don't behave inappropriately. They have faith in themselves to do a good job and they treat others with respect. Fortunately, you can stop self-sabotaging and become a confident leader who values her talented team members.
Anything you do to avoid facing your fears, such as bullying your team, can actually reinforce them. If you continue in this pattern, you will feel more anxious, act more threatened, and become less confident. If you face your fears and challenge them, you will likely learn to appreciate the positive aspects of leading a talented team, and discover the benefits of getting the best from your people.
To learn more about how counterproductive thoughts become embedded in the mind and reinforce behavior, listen to our Book Insight, "You! The Positive Force in Change."
And that means changing both your thoughts and your behavior. Here are some tactics you could try:
- Be assertive. Being assertive doesn't mean being aggressive. It's about working with people rather than against them. If you reach out to them and ask questions, you'll build credibility with them.
- Communicate. Speak and listen with respect to show you value other people's input and opinions. Invite and acknowledge their ideas, even if you don't act on them.
- Become proficient at something. When you regularly do things that you're good at and that you enjoy, you'll gain a sense of pride and confidence in your abilities.
- Write down your accomplishments. List everything you've done that you feel proud of. Remind yourself of your skills, talents and positive qualities. This can help you at times when you experience doubts or negative thoughts.
- Find your own identity. When you validate your own identity, it protects you from feeling threatened by other people's opinions. Our articles on affirmations and Success Programming can help you with this.
- Focus on your goals. Working toward meaningful goals will give you a sense of purpose and fulfillment, and will encourage others to do the same.
- Learn from your mistakes. Instead of seeing mistakes as evidence of incompetence, see them as opportunities to learn. Listen to our Book Insight, Black Box Thinking, to find examples of leaders who learned from their mistakes, and those who didn't.
Feeling anxious isn't always a sign that there's a problem with the way you are managing your people – sometimes other people do, genuinely, behave badly. Check your feelings and your physical responses, and ask yourself, "Am I feeling insecure or is this a real threat? Is this person's behavior a real issue?" Our articles, Bad Behavior at Work, Understanding the Dark Triad, Managing Dominant People, and Managing "Rebels", might help you out – and don't be afraid to ask your manager or HR department for help.
High-performing team members are a great asset to an organization, but you may feel threatened by their intelligence, creativity and talent. You might worry that, in comparison, you appear incompetent, ineffectual and incapable of leadership.
In your efforts to reduce your anxiety, you might take credit for other people's work, fail to offer them praise, and dismiss their ideas and opinions. This self-sabotaging behavior is damaging to the team, the organization and to you.
You can become more confident and feel less threatened by your star performers when you alter your thoughts and your behavior. Challenge negative thoughts, assert yourself and try to view mistakes as opportunities to learn. You can boost your self-assurance and become a great manager.
Apply This to Your Life:
Perhaps you have a friend or family member who excels at his job, bakes perfect cakes, or always wins trophies on the golf course. If you sense that you feel threatened by him, remember that your anxiety is caused by your fear that you're not good enough. Make a list of your own talents and try writing about your values in a journal. You'll soon discover how much you have to offer.