Beware of an encounter with the Destructive Leader, who harms himself and others by preventing effective management, thwarting results and damaging morale. Be especially careful of the destructive leader you may see in the mirror. Marshall Goldsmith discusses this in his book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There as Bad Habit #4 — “Making Destructive Comments”. The habit is a subtle one, for many comments which often seem to be constructive or witty are double edged, with an underlying intention to hurt others, put them down, or serve as a thinly veiled attempt for the leader to stroke her ego. It differs from Goldsmith’s Bad Habit #3 “Adding Too Much Value” because its intent is only destructive. Many leaders guilty of this habit defend their comments, saying that they are “only telling the truth.” But, as Goldsmith warns, “… candor can easily become a weapon.”
As a woman working in a highly technical field, I have been the victim of comments like this. When I reflect on these instances, it is important to note that they all came from the worst bosses or leaders I ever encountered. They were made to be intentionally harmful or with the false intention of being helpful. Here are some examples of destructive comments inflicted on me in my career as an IT executive and a US Government Chief Information Officer:
- Oh by the way, in a few weeks, we will be getting a real
- Did you know those shoes don’t match that dress?
- You’d be more effective if your nail polish matched your outfit.
- IT (information technology) isn’t that important – it’s like toilets.
Most of these comments happened a very long time ago, some decades ago, but I still remember them. The last one was more recent, but having matured as a professional, I responded instead of internalizing my victimhood. My response was, “IT isn’t funny. Why don’t you try working in an environment without toilets and see what you get. Oh, and by the way, that smartphone in your hand is now a toilet. Hope it flushes.”
As a leader, how do you know when you’re making undermining comments that could significantly set back the work of your team? Goldsmith recommends having your subordinates impose a fine on you whenever you do this. In other words, if it costs you, then you’ll change. Here are some other tips. You know you are making destructive and undermining comments if:
- You look around and notice you’re the only one laughing.
- Your 360˚ assessments universally note that you are a jerk.
- You’re saying these comments to your subordinates, but not your boss!
- You don’t get the response you’re expecting.
But would a leader guilty of this behavior be self-aware enough to take the revolutionary steps suggested by Goldsmith? In the examples I gave above, those leaders all fell from grace after those misguided and destructive comments. Some loss their position and were soon “reassigned” to other very important positions and others loss the critical support they needed to advance their career. The conundrum is that good leaders are self-aware, continually striving to learn and improve themselves and take the steps to avoid making destructive comments. Bad leaders may have to learn the hard way when they fall from grace or continually achieve poor results. “There are very few people who are going to look into the mirror and say, ‘That person I see is a savage monster;’” cautions American activist Noam Chomsky, “instead, they make up some construction that justifies what they do.” The message for leaders here is that they should strive to learn to gauge their comments the easy way through the reflection in the mirror, or they will learn the hard way through failure or public humiliation. Hint: Choose easy.
Sometimes leaders simply are not aware that they are making destructive comments. There are plenty of cases where the intentions aren’t necessary wrong, but the focus of the comment is not constructive to the quality of the work product being delivered by an individual. A good example of this is when one of my executives complemented one of our best female engineers on her hair. He told her that her hair looked nice. She got extremely angry and he was perplexed. He came to me incredulous, not understanding what had just happened. It was simple – she was wearing a wig and it wasn’t her hair. And besides, it did look pretty bad. She knew he was making an empty comment to get something he wanted. He thought he could get away with it.
It may be difficult for some to distinguish between destructive comments and well-intentioned stupidity. The key is to think before you speak. Here are some questions you can ask yourself, offered by Goldsmith:
- Will this comment help our customer?
- Will this comment help our company?
- Will this comment help the person I’m talking to?
- Will this comment help the person I’m talking about?
The young lady with the whacked hair was a NASA engineer. There was nothing helpful about the executive’s disingenuous complement. Misguided, he made the comment so she would like him. Instead, it backfired, and she hated him. She experienced pain by having her “bad hair day” called out publically. The good leader who made this blunder learned from it and adjusted his behavior accordingly, realizing that in this situation, a more professionally relevant comment would have passed the “Goldsmith test” above.
As leaders, we have a lot of positional power over our subordinates, and our words carry weight. “Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity,” says Yehuda Berg, an American clergyman. “We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy, and power, with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.” The weight of our words is an important thing to be aware of when dropping any casual comment to a member of our team. Our subordinates do things because they have to. An encouraging word could transform a mere task into a mission. A destructive comment could mean the difference between investment and resentment. Leaders need to be on guard against making complements to manipulate or insults to shame people into doing what they want them to do. The most effective leaders have personal power; they get their team to do things by inspiring them to achieve excellence as part of their own mission and lifework.
A habit is a behavior that is hard to give up and is unconscious. Stay tuned for future blog entries on how to change your bad habits and tap into your team’s passions, aligning their motivations through your Conscious Leadership.