Opinion

Check your behaviour: Have you unknowingly joined the dark side?

5 min read

27 September 2017

Research suggests that most leaders derail or fail by unknowingly "joining the dark side". Your behaviour, it seems, can become your kryptonite.

“Poor leadership in good times can be hidden, but poor leadership in bad times is a recipe for disaster.” It’s a quote from a Harvard Business Review article, written by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman. They were curious as to why leaders fail or derail – and found that behaviour had a large role to play.

Zenger and Folkman conducted two tests, one looking at the shared traits of Fortune 500 executives that had been fired over the span of three years. The other compared 11,000 leaders to find out which ten per cent had the least effective management style.

“We compared the ineffective leaders with the fired ones to come up with the most common shortcomings,” the pair explained. “Every bad leader had at least one, and most had several.”

Lack of clear vision, poor judgement, little enthusiasm, “underpromising and thus overdelivering” and an unwillingness to talk are but a few fatally deemed traits. A lack of interpersonal skills, resistance to new ideas and the inability to learn from mistakes also make the list.

This can have significant consequences. If anything, research has concluded that some behaviour, especially those with negative associations, can be passed down from the top of the hierarchy to the bottom like a common cold. Poor management, some claim, is in part to blame for staff demotivation and poor productivity.

It was a point raised by Andy Hale, chief economist at the Bank of England, this year: “The tale of productivity disappointment, in forecasting and in performance, has been extensively debated and analysed over recent years. Some have called it the ‘productivity puzzle’.

“With each year that passes, and as each new turning point in productivity has failed to materialise, this mystery has deepened. Looked at quantitatively though, there is a statistically significant link between the quality of firms’ management and staff productivity. And the effect is large.

“A one standard deviation improvement in the quality of management raises productivity by, on average, around ten per cent. This suggests potentially high returns to policies which improve the quality of management within companies.”

With such an emphasis on management, one would believe the behaviours highlighted by Folkman and Zenger would be addressed, especially given figures recently highlighted by Hogan Assessments. It noted that some 70 per cent of leaders failed or derailed due to, what the company founder Robert Hogan has nicknamed them, “dark side” personality traits.

However, it’s also come to light that management is often unaware they exhibit such behaviour. During their own study, Folkman and Zinger went so far as to say “those who were rated most negatively rated themselves substantially more positively.”

Leaders stray into the dark side without knowing, and sometimes they struggle to get back to the other side. Hogan explained ones personality is like a coin – it has two side.

The dark side comprises irritating, counterproductive behaviours that interfere with a leader’s ability to build cohesive, goal orientated teams. And given the complexity of most leadership positions these days, there seems to be plenty of opportunity for these dark side traits to appear – and stay.”

No one said running a business was going to be easy, and the stresses of the day-day can easily make anyone agitated and embrace the “dark side” that much more. But when you’re the head of a company, the pressure is on for you to set the stage for staff.

As Hogan suggested: “The world was in need of a new breed of leader, one which needs to be supremely mentally agile, able to cope with constant ambiguity and adapt if they and their organisation are to survive.”