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A prom­i­nent Sil­i­con Val­ley psy­chol­o­gist de­scribes the drivers and de­rail­ers of lead­er­ship.

Rotman Management Magazine - - CONTENTS - In­ter­view by Karen Chris­tensen

Ronald A. War­ren

You have at­trib­uted lead­ers’ per­son­al­i­ties to some ma­jor cor­po­rate catas­tro­phes, in­clud­ing the down­fall of AIG and is­sues at Ap­ple. How does this hap­pen?

The ac­tions and in­ter­ac­tions be­tween in­di­vid­u­als have a huge im­pact on out­comes in the work­place, and this is played out ev­ery day, in ev­ery pro­fes­sion—some­times with ex­tra­or­di­nary re­sults and other times with dis­as­trous re­sults. We have found that per­son­al­ity style has a greater im­pact on lead­er­ship ef­fec­tive­ness than IQ or ed­u­ca­tional achieve­ment.

It’s never about one in­di­vid­ual trait; it’s about com­bi­na­tions of per­son­al­ity traits. We have iden­ti­fied the 13 most im­por­tant traits, and it is the dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tions of them that can be won­der­ful or dan­ger­ous.

Tell us what hap­pened at AIG.

The AIG story is con­sis­tent with what we know about ‘why planes crash’ and ‘why med­i­cal er­rors oc­cur’: In 75 per cent of cases, it’s hu­man er­ror. There are break­downs of lead­er­ship, team­work and com­mu­ni­ca­tion that stress peo­ple and sys­tems — and we see the same pat­terns in the fi­nan­cial arena. Be­fore the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis hit, a guy named

Joe Cas­sano was over­see­ing AIG’S Fi­nan­cial Prod­ucts group, selling hun­dreds of bil­lions in credit pro­tec­tion in the form of CDS’S [credit de­fault swaps]. He was a real worka­holic and known to be very ag­gres­sive, stub­born and self­ab­sorbed. In our frame­work he would rank high on Rigid­ity, Hos­til­ity and Need to Con­trol.

Peo­ple around Cas­sano could see that AIG was in­vested too much in these risky mort­gages, and they re­peat­edly asked him to stop. But he was con­vinced he was right. He ac­tu­ally be­rated peo­ple when they chal­lenged him. ‘Look how many peo­ple are get­ting houses!’, he would say; ‘Now, even a jan­i­tor can buy a $500,000 house’ — which ob­vi­ously didn’t make much sense.

When AIG needed a bailout from the U.S. gov­ern­ment — to the tune of $182 bil­lion — it wasn’t be­cause the en­tire com­pany went south. Some ar­eas of AIG were ac­tu­ally do­ing well. The is­sue was that the head of this key di­vi­sion re­fused to lis­ten to feed­back from his team and failed to rec­og­nize the power of col­lec­tive in­tel­li­gence.

Your frame­work groups the 13 per­son­al­ity traits into four cat­e­gories or ‘di­men­sions’. Please de­scribe them.

There are two di­men­sions that gen­er­ate high per­for­mance. The first is So­cial In­tel­li­gence and Team­work. Traits that fall un­der this di­men­sion in­clude Open­ness to Feed­back, Help­ful­ness and So­cia­bil­ity. These peo­ple value the in­put of oth­ers and have de­cent in­ter­per­sonal skills. The sec­ond di­men­sion as­so­ci­ate with high per­for­mance is Grit and Task Mas­tery. This is a com­bi­na­tion of three traits: Achieve­ment Drive, Con­sci­en­tious­ness and In­no­va­tion. Peo­ple who rank high on these di­men­sions will be­come bored if they don’t have chal­leng­ing work. At their core, they are driven to achieve and in­no­vate.

We also iden­ti­fied some be­hav­iours that lower per­for­mance, and they fall un­der two di­men­sions: Dom­i­nance and Def­er­ence. Peo­ple who rank high on Dom­i­nance tend to be in­flex­i­ble, self-ab­sorbed, con­trol­ling and com­pet­i­tive. Some — like Joe Cas­sano — have a high de­gree of Hos­til­ity as well, which is the ul­ti­mate self-ab­sorp­tion trait and the trait most highly cor­re­lated with low per­for­mance. When those who rank high on Hos­til­ity see that the world isn’t be­hav­ing the way they want it too, they get ag­gra­vated and blame the world.

The sec­ond de­rail­ing di­men­sion is Def­er­ence, which en­tails be­ing ap­proval-seek­ing, pas­sive, avoid­ing con­flict and hav­ing a low-risk ori­en­ta­tion. A high de­gree of Def­er­ence is neg­a­tively cor­re­lated to lead­er­ship ef­fec­tive­ness, but there are pos­i­tive as­pects to it, too. While these in­di­vid­u­als pre­fer that oth­ers take the lead, they also show high lev­els of hu­mil­ity and loy­alty.

How preva­lent are these di­men­sions, and how do they fit to­gether?

I want to be clear that this is not about be­ing smart. All of the peo­ple we stud­ied in de­vel­op­ing the frame­work were highly in­tel­li­gent. They were all pro­gram par­tic­i­pants from ei­ther Har­vard Busi­ness School ex­ec­u­tive pro­grams or Yale’s CEO Col­lege. These peo­ple didn’t get to the top of their or­ga­ni­za­tions by not be­ing too sharp. The is­sue is that many of them tended to be­lieve that be­ing smart was enough of a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage for them — which is a com­mon false no­tion, by the way.

We have found that about 75 per cent of pro­fes­sion­als have one or more de­rail­ers to con­tend with, and only 20 per cent have that highly-de­sired ‘top-heavy’ com­bi­na­tion of high grit and high EQ, with­out any prom­i­nent de­rail­ers. These in­di­vid­u­als are rated in the top 10 per cent of

Peo­ple who rank high on Dom­i­nance tend to be in­flex­i­ble, self-ab­sorbed, con­trol­ling and com­pet­i­tive.

lead­er­ship due to ex­cep­tional abil­i­ties to drive pro­jects and re­sults and they work well with oth­ers. Their feed­back raters say things like, ‘The best boss I’ve had in my ca­reer’; ‘A real role model’; and ‘She re­ally is that good and han­dles it all with ease and grace.’

What does it mean to have a ‘mixed ef­fec­tive­ness pro­file’?

These peo­ple have prom­i­nent Grit or So­cial In­tel­li­gence and prom­i­nent Def­er­ence and/or Dom­i­nance traits. We call them ‘right siders’ and ‘left siders’, and in terms of lead­er­ship ef­fec­tive­ness, they can be de­scribed as one di­men­sional. They ex­cel with ei­ther peo­ple or pro­jects, but not both.

The traits on the left side of the frame­work are re­lated to Grit and Dom­i­nance. When these are com­bined, you get a hard-driv­ing con­fi­dent, some­times ar­ro­gant per­son with a lot of be­lief in them­selves and poor so­cial skills. A clas­sic left sider would be Steve Jobs. When I was de­vel­op­ing my first as­sess­ment, we were in­vited to use it on Ap­ple’s ex­ec­u­tive team. Every­one did the as­sess­ment — ex­cept for Jobs. He re­fused to par­tic­i­pate or make any ef­fort to re­solve some of the team’ and firm’s is­sues — many of which were a ge­n­e­sis of who he was as a per­son, as a per­son­al­ity.

We jux­ta­pose Jobs with Steve Woz­niak, a clas­sic ‘right sider’. Woz­niak was a high-grit guy, but also high on Def­er­ence. He was in­no­va­tive and achieve­ment ori­en­tated in terms of prod­ucts, but he never em­braced the cap­i­tal­ist model like Jobs — which in busi­ness, is pretty im­por­tant. Woz­niak was very def­er­en­tial. His fa­ther was an en­gi­neer, and the mind­set was that ‘en­gi­neers do great things in the world, and lead­ers are suits — they just take ad­van­tage of what en­gi­neers do’. He didn’t want to be in a lead­er­ship role, so he never con­fronted Jobs when he was be­ing re­ally dom­i­neer­ing and hos­tile with peo­ple.

You cre­ated the LMAP 360 as­sess­ment tool to in­clude both self-rat­ings and rat­ings from mul­ti­ple col­leagues. Why was that so im­por­tant?

Self-rat­ings are no­to­ri­ously du­bi­ous, due to a range of self­assess­ment bi­ases. Peo­ple over­es­ti­mate their own qual­i­ties and abil­i­ties in re­la­tion to the same qual­i­ties and abil­i­ties of oth­ers. For in­stance, the vast ma­jor­ity of us be­lieve that we are ex­cel­lent drivers and have great so­cial skills; clearly, that is not the case.

We’re most in­ter­ested in how be­hav­iours — whether they be drivers or de­rail­ers — af­fect per­for­mance. When I started out in the field, I felt it was crit­i­cal to know about how other peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence you, and how it im­pacts job per­for­mance. I’m not say­ing that self-con­cept doesn’t mat­ter, but it isn’t any­where near as re­lated to out­comes and per­for­mance. Some lead­ers do have in­sight into how their be­hav­iour is per­ceived by oth­ers, but many do not. That’s why we ob­tain feed­back from 15 col­leagues of the leader be­ing as­sessed.

How do you ad­vise peo­ple to re­act if they get bad news from an as­sess­ment?

We don’t ac­tu­ally po­si­tion feed­back as be­ing good or bad. In­stead, we po­si­tion it as ‘what is ef­fec­tive and what is in­ef­fec­tive.’ Peo­ple go through all kinds of tri­als and tribu­la­tions on their way to be­com­ing an ex­ec­u­tive, and cer­tain habits de­velop. They don’t make you a good or bad per­son — but they are more or less ef­fec­tive for the job you’re in. We’ve stud­ied avi­a­tion ac­ci­dents closely, and there are of­ten mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tions and cases of peo­ple be­ing of­fended or not re­spond­ing to direct ques­tions. These are things you see in meet­ings ev­ery day, in ev­ery or­ga­ni­za­tion, but when it adds up in the realm of avi­a­tion, it can lead to a catas­tro­phe. We have also stud­ied how this leads to med­i­cal er­rors, in­dus­trial ac­ci­dents and turnover in or­ga­ni­za­tions.

If you don’t have a per­fect pro­file, you’re what we call nor­mal. Some­times I show my pro­file to a group but I don’t tell peo­ple it’s me. I’ll say, ‘Okay, what do you think of this in­di­vid­ual’s pro­file?’ Af­ter they’ve torn me to shreds, I put up my face up on the screen with my eyes blacked out. The fact is, hu­man be­ings are built with de­rail­ers. Some of them are prob­a­bly ge­net­i­cally driven and some re­sult from our ex­pe­ri­ences.

Of course, I also have some as­sets, but like most peo­ple, I’m mud­dling through life. When peo­ple ap­pre­ci­ate that, it builds up their propen­sity for hu­mil­ity, and then they can look at their feed­back more openly.

Do you find that most peo­ple are open to the feed­back and want to get bet­ter?

It’s chal­leng­ing to hear about what we’re not good at, and peo­ple aren’t great at giv­ing neg­a­tive feed­back, ei­ther. That’s why we try to ex­plain to peo­ple why they should care. How is this be­hav­iour im­pact­ing how you ex­e­cute on your job? We ap­peal to peo­ple’s in­sight and in­tel­lect around, ‘Hey there is an up­side for me in ad­dress­ing this; it’s not in­tended as pun­ish­ment’. Most peo­ple are in­ter­ested in im­prov­ing their per­for­mance, and if you’re like most peo­ple, there’s room to im­prove.

When an en­tire or­ga­ni­za­tional cul­ture em­braces im­prove­ment, we’ve seen it lead to a sig­nif­i­cant morale change. The goal is not to be­come a master of be­hav­iours that do not come nat­u­rally, but to im­prove enough to not be work­ing from a deficit po­si­tion.

How change­able are we?

Many 20th cen­tury psy­chol­o­gists be­lieved that per­son­al­ity was ‘hard wired’ and un­change­able. Lay peo­ple who adopt this per­spec­tive do so to their detri­ment, as the be­lief pro­vides a ready ex­cuse for not manag­ing one’s ex­ter­nal­ized be­hav­iour. Even if you can’t stop feel­ing the urge to in­ter­rupt, stop the be­hav­iour, please. We com­pare mod­i­fy­ing such be­hav­iours to pick­ing low hang­ing fruit, be­cause they are the most eas­ily mod­i­fied and con­trolled.

Ad­vo­cates of strengths-based train­ing dis­count the value of im­prov­ing be­havioural weak­nesses. They ar­gue that, at best, im­prove­ment leads to av­er­age per­for­mance in that par­tic­u­lar be­hav­iour. But be­hav­iours in­ter­act, so re­plac­ing a deficit with even av­er­age skills can have a huge syn­er­gis­tic im­pact. Psy­chol­o­gist Ronald A. War­ren is the au­thor of Per­son­al­ity at Work: The Drivers and De­rail­ers of Lead­er­ship (Mcgraw Hill Ed­u­ca­tion, 2017). He de­vel­oped the LMAP 360 as­sess­ment used by Har­vard Busi­ness School, Yale Univer­sity and other lead­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions.

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