Leadership Derailment: A risk for new managers

What is Leadership Derailment?

Leadership Derailment is the process by which high potential managers develop maladaptive behaviours and fail to reach their full potential as a result. Many of us have experienced the frustration of watching a new manager who has demonstrated all of the right skills, knowledge and experience prior to being selected as a manager, only to experience derailment due to the pressure of their new appointment.

Although derailment can sometimes occur with more established managers, it does appear that this is a unique challenge for less experienced leaders within the business. While derailment occurs for different reasons for each impacted individual, research has identified the four most common symptoms: (Van Velsor & Leslie, 1995)

1. Poor Interpersonal Relationships

2. Failing to meet business objectives

3. Difficulty change to new circumstances

4. Failure to build and effective team

When does it occur?

Some experts in the field have estimated that up to 25% of high-potential individuals experience derailment, and that most of us have the potential to derail at some point in time. So when should we be on the look-out? The most common situations for derailment to occur are as follows (MacKie, 2008):

  • Creating new ventures and business opportunities
  • Managing change and innovation
  • Dealing with acquisitions and mergers
  • Addressing competitive issues and pressures

These are all high pressure situations where it is easy to become absorbed (even obsessed) with the work that you are doing; losing perspective in relation to anything or anyone else. In addition, in each of these situations, there are a number of external factors influencing the outcome of the work. This results in the individual concerned being less likely to feel “in control” of their own circumstances.

Each manager experiences derailment for different reasons. That is why it’s so critical to address the situation on a case-by case basis. However, if you are noticing a pattern of derailment in your business, then you may need to address the situation at both an individual and organisational level.

What can we do about it?

At an individual level it is important to identify derailment early. The process is possible to prevent provided you identify what is happening, discuss the matter with the leader conce

ed and develop an appropriate action plan. It could be that the individual has been given too much responsibility too early or that they need some specific skills training.

Unfortunately, once the maladaptive behaviours that characterise leadership derailment take hold and become habitual, it becomes exponentially more difficult to prevent. In such situations, tools like 360 degree assessments and even engagement of specialist coaches might be required.

From an organisational perspective, it would be rare that a patte

of leadership derailment has occurred without it being caused by a significant cultural issue in the business. Although cultural change initiatives must always be tailored to the specific needs of the business, it is reasonable to assume that a multipronged approach would form the basis of any successful intervention:

  • Measurement – Introduction of 360 degree ssessments and exit interviews could prove ritical tools in identifying derailment and easuring its impact. A cultural assessment tool or employee opinion survey may also bebeneficial.
  • Process improvement – Misaligned processes that increase the likelihood of derailment must be identified and improved.
  • Mindset challenge – Specific symbolic actions will usually be required to challenge existing paradigms about what it is to be a leader at the business in question.
  • Behavioural realignment – Development programs that teach the managerial skills needed to take on leadership roles will also be required. More complex cultural issues (such as a lack of accountability) may also need to be addressed with appropriate experiential learning interventions. Such programs should target not just the current batch of new managers but also the “leaders of tomorrow”.

For Further Reading:

MacKie, D. (2008). Leadership derailment and psychological harm. InPsych: The Bulletin of the Australian Psychological Society, 30 (2), 12-13

Van Velsor, E., & Leslie, J. B. (1995). Why executives derail: perspectives across time and cultures. Academy of Management Executive, 9 (4), 62-72

At an individual level it is important to identify derailment early. The process is possible to prevent provided you identify what is happening, discuss the matter with the leader concerned and develop an appropriate action plan. It could be that the individual has been given too much responsibility too early or that they need some specific skills training.

Unfortunately, once the maladaptive behaviours that characterise leadership derailment take hold and become habitual, it becomes exponentially more difficult to prevent. In such situations, tools like 360 degree assessments and even engagement of specialist coaches might be required.

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