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The Most Annoying Habits of Clueless Leaders

Self-awareness is a critical meta-skill to lead. Unfortunately, most leaders are clueless about how unaware they are.

By Gustavo Razzetti

February 10, 2021

Self-awareness is more apparent when it’s absent –  clueless leaders fail to realize the harm they cause to their teams and organizations.

Self-awareness has become critical in leadership development. Leaders are tasked with inspiring and engaging their teams, so it’s vital that they understand how their behavior impacts other people.

Unfortunately, self-awareness is most apparent when it’s absent.

If you're thinking, “I don’t have that issue,” think twice before you stop reading. 90% of leaders believe they are self-aware but only 4-5% truly are, according to a global study.

Self-awareness lets us deliberately focus on all the routines that we follow without thinking.

In this article, I will share why self-awareness is a critical meta-skill, the science behind what makes us clueless, the annoying behaviors it creates, and what to do about it.

Self-Awareness Is a Critical Leadership Meta-Skill

Helping organizations design agile, innovative workplace cultures, I deal with many CEOs and team leaders. One of the biggest obstacles of any culture transformation is not “the people” but those at the top.

I’m not speaking from a place of moral superiority. I was a CEO myself for over 10 years and was clueless too. It took a lot of candid feedback, coaching, and learning to realize what I was missing – and I still have a long way to go.

Increasing self-awareness has become a critical component of our work with teams. So, what do we mean by this meta-skill that amplifies our competencies?

Self-awareness refers to the perception of yourself and how accurately it reflects the perceptions of others. It’s about knowing yourself. Not just your strengths and weaknesses but, most importantly, your blind spots – the things about yourself that others see, but you're missing.

Increased self-awareness shines a light on your leadership style, gaining clarity and perspective.

Self-awareness is not the cure for all organizational troubles, but it’s not a fad either. Research shows that high self-awareness improves team performance in key areas such as collaboration, decision-making, and conflict management.

Self-aware leaders monitor their behaviors more effectively, keeping their annoying habits in check. If you work for a leader who’s not self-aware, you’ll notice the opposite – they're overconfident, make reckless decisions, ignore feedback, and want to dominate meetings.

The good news is that self-awareness can be developed.

Why Most Leaders Are Not Self-Aware

Knowing yourself is a never-ending journey – the same way you make progress, you can regress. I’ve seen several smart leaders who lost wisdom and perspective as they made progress in their careers.

Organizational Psychologist Tasha Eurich coined the phrase "CEO’s Disease" to refer to how executives become more clueless as they get promoted. As they work their way up the corporate ladder, they receive less and less candid feedback, thus decreasing their self-awareness.

Feedback is not only critical to developing self-awareness, but also to telling truth to power. When people withhold essential information or avoid unpleasant conversations, they create an information vacuum, leaving leaders out of touch. That’s how they become clueless.

Clueless leaders harm collaboration, communication, and learning – they aren't aware of how they’re seen by others.

To avoid CEO’s disease, Urich suggests fostering a safe working environment and for leaders to find one person they trust who will tell them "the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

Having candid conversations with clueless leaders isn't easy; they tend to filter feedback through the lens of politics and power. Rather than focusing on the company, they make every conversation about them.

Being clueless isn't a personality thing; the real culprit is “skilled incompetence,” according to Dr. Chris Argyris. He coined this term to refer to how unaware leaders use routine behavior (skill) to produce something they don’t intend to (incompetence).

Consider the average meeting where nothing gets done – a new meeting must be scheduled to solve what wasn’t addressed in the one that just finished. Everyone’s skilled behaviors – the spontaneous and automatic responses – are used to avoid friction and conflict, filling the space with avoidance.

The byproduct of that skill is incompetence – because people don’t say what they really mean, they never get to tackle the root cause of the problem.

Skilled incompetence quickly permeates an organization, creating a vicious cycle:

- Agree with your superiors

- Provide information, but don’t create conflict

- Don’t change the course of action

Those unwritten rules become ingrained in the company culture. If people resist orders, they will be seen as disloyal. However, if they go along, it’s the company that will suffer.

Argyris refers to the lack of awareness of our own skilled incompetence as skilled unawareness – a phenomenon that creates defensive mechanisms within the system. By creating policies designed to avoid surprise, embarrassment, or threats companies hinder their ability to solve problems.

The 7 Worst Habits of Unaware Leaders

The following are some of the most common – and annoying – habits of clueless leaders. Review these seven behavior patterns and reflect on yourself (or your boss). Are you an unaware leader?

1. They want to feel appreciated

The ability to get along with others feels like an asset, but it’s not always that way. According to Argyris, leaders who like to be liked tend to avoid conflict, hampering development and growth.

The role of a leader is to do what’s right, not what will make them look good. Unfortunately, clueless leaders tend to be people-pleasers – they care more about their self-image than making the right decision.

There’s nothing wrong with the desire to be liked by others. Wanting to make people happy is not a negative quality – the problem is the presence of inappropriate self-interest.

As Finkelstein, Whitehead, and Campbell wrote on Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions, leaders apply unconscious processes to make quick, effective decisions. However, self-interest, emotional attachment, and misleading memories can distort the decision-making process. The authors refer to these three elements as red flags – even the best leaders can fall into their trap.

2. They send ambiguous messages

“I want my team to innovate but to do it profitably,” the CEO of a global manufacturing company told me a few days ago. It wasn’t the first time that I’ve been exposed to ambiguous corporate messages – nor will it be the last.

Expecting people to develop new solutions and turn a profit from the start is like wanting them to experiment without making mistakes. Clueless leaders set their teams up for failure with contradictory messages.

The problem with ambiguity is that it seeds more distrust, making managers suspicious of their bosses’ intentions. So, they explain the message to themselves and their subordinates in their own terms: “He never really meant more innovative.”

Professor Argys believed that ambiguous messages are the perfect example of skilled incompetence. Not only do leaders create confusion, but they make ambiguity and inconsistency undiscussable – they leave no room for debate.

3. They Interrupt others

Cutting in on someone’s conversation is a bad habit that we all do from time to time. However, clueless leaders interrupt their teams often; they can’t wait for their turn or simply don’t care about other people’s thoughts.

Clueless leaders believe that power gives them permission to do anything – they feel entitled to talk whenever they want. It’s no surprise, then, that 80% of conversations in meetings are dominated by just 20% of participants.

Male leaders are even more entitled and interrupt more. Research shows that out of 48 interruptions, 46 were instigated by the man. Even the three female judges in the US Supreme court are battling for equal air space; they get interrupted more often than their male colleagues.

4. They really don’t regret hurting others  

Toxic leaders don’t exist in a vacuum – a permissive culture allows them to reign freely. Abusive bosses are clueless. A new study reveals that they care more about their social image than actually changing– they deceive their victims by looking regretful, not doing anything differently.

Abusive bosses just want to cover up their tracks, not correct their bad behavior.

As this HBR article brilliantly puts it, “Some bosses are skilled at looking good after an episode, leading employees and higher-ups to forgive and forget — until the next tirade occurs and the cycle continues."

Clueless leaders want to get away with crime and think no one will notice.

5. They want to hear only good news

My team was surprised when debriefing stakeholder interviews from a large food business in the US. We were about to kick off a culture design project and the biggest obstacle was the person leading the project.

Promoting psychological safety is critical to address team issues and solve cultural tensions. However, when the head of HR instructs all employees that she doesn’t want to hear any bad news, how can you transform a culture if there’s no room for candor?

No company is perfect. Self-aware leaders focus on both what’s working and what’s not. Understanding what’s working provides a strong foundation for growth. Acknowledging what’s not working helps correct the course. The first is about what needs to continue happening; the latter is about what needs to stop or start happening.  

Clueless leaders don’t know what they don’t know. They are oblivious to what’s not working because they don’t want to do the inner work.

6. They always want to play a role

A few months ago, I had to facilitate a team culture session with a new team. They have been working remotely and experiencing a lack of clarity and psychological safety.

The workshop was initially planned for three hours. The day before, I was told that the CEO would be joining, too. This required the session to be shortened to two hours, but also that we block time for her to address the team at both the beginning and end.

Adjusting to last-minute changes is never a problem. However, this session was initially designed to help the team deal with a toxic leader, but now the CEO wanted to dominate the room.

Self-aware leaders know when to step back and when to jump in. On the contrary, clueless ones always want to play a key role, even when they're the problem.

7. They assume everyone shares their views

Leaders see things differently. They usually bring in a broader perspective because they see problems from a distance. However, that same detachment can mean they confuse their perspectives with reality.

The Iceberg of Ignorance shows that, while frontline employees are exposed to all the company problems, senior leaders only get to see 5%. The gap is not an issue if organizations are smart enough to distribute authority to those closest to the problem. The issue, however, is with clueless leaders who believe everyone shares their views.

Leaders suffer from 80/20 vision, as I wrote here. For them, 80% of completion means that their vision for the company is almost there. For everyone else, 20% left to be completed means that there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Illustration by Andy de Vale – https://www.workvisible.com/

Clueless Leadership: What to Do About It

Increasing self-awareness is a never-ending job. It requires acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers. It’s smarter to realize that we're unaware than putting our effort into convincing ourselves or others that we're self-aware.

Here are some key steps to get you started.

Build Psychological safety

Building a safe work environment is no easy task. It’s not something that the leader can provide but something that the entire team must promote.

Go slow to go fast. Check out these simple practices to increase participation in virtual meetings, from turn-taking to addressing silence. Make space to address what makes your team anxious or what everyone’s thinking, but no one is saying.

Create a culture of feedback

One of the biggest shifts in building a culture of regular feedback is training managers to request feedback rather than provide it. Getting candid input from coworkers illuminates our blind spots – but, most importantly – it can turn clueless leaders into more self-aware ones.

Most managers were trained to tell people what they need to do. This not only builds a superiority mindset, but also focuses their energy on the outside rather than the inside. By requesting, rather than giving feedback, executives become more reflective and open to learning and growing. Even better, the practice of being humble and open will inspire others to follow their example.

Complete The Johari Window Exercise

This simple tool is an effective way to increase self-awareness at both an individual and team level. The Johari Window exercise compares what we think about ourselves with what other people see. It helps uncover our blind spots by highlighting what’s unknown to ourselves but known to others.

The Johari window also increases awareness of our “mask” – the things that are known to us, but we hide from others. Expanding what we share with others is critical for effective collaboration.

Check out how to facilitate the Johari Window exercise with your team.

Build an accountability partnership

As the saying goes, “If you want to go fast, travel alone; if you want to go far, travel together.” Fearless leaders know they need to surround themselves with the right people; those who will speak truth to power.

Find a person with your best interests at heart and whom will share the good, the bad, and the ugly about your behavior. Most importantly, an accountability partner will help you identify growth areas and increase your chances of success.

Check out the tool and process to build an effective accountability partnership.

Address defense mechanisms

Ambiguous messages confuse people, igniting a defense mechanism to protect them from a leader that is neither clear nor trusting.

Facilitate a session to ask team members to unload skilled incompetence that gets in the way. Start by describing the key issue. Have people work on their own to identify strategies to discuss this problem with anyone.

Use the following structure to design an effective conversation:

• How do you feel about the issue?? To whom do you want to talk ?

• Write what you would say. In the other column, what would the other say? Write potential reactions.

• Capture the emotions or thoughts that you usually hide or don’t want to share with your colleagues (for whatever reason).

• Identify the repetitive patterns you observe (skilled incompetence) that prevent your team from having candid conversations

Dealing with Leaders Who Aren't Self-Aware

Self-awareness is a powerful meta-skill that amplifies our skills. Unfortunately, its absence is more evident than its practice – clueless leaders don’t know what they don’t know.

Increasing self-awareness is a never-ending journey. If you halt working on knowing yourself better, you not only stop growing, but will default back to bothersome behaviors.

The annoying habits of clueless leaders are always noticeable to others, creating unnecessary confusion and frustration. Feedback is crucial to uncover your blind spots. Creating a safe workplace environment is necessary for people to ask questions, address tensions, and push back – self-aware leaders like being kept on their feet.

Experiment with different tools and exercises to see which one works for you or your team. Surround yourself with people who will speak truth to power. Clueless leaders feed off ignorance and silence. Self-aware leaders are fearless – they promote courageous conversations.

What do you think?

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