What happens if the leader can’t change?

Many leaders sign up to change and attempt to lead from the front by demonstrating new behaviours. All too often, however, the end result is that nothing changes. Why?

For a leader to change the way he or she behaves is far easier said than done. The problem is that leaders don’t see themselves as part of the problem. So, in spite of their desire to show others the way, leaders may not sincerely believe that they need to change as well. If you lead a team that is low on trust, would you admit that as a leader you are not trustworthy? The answer is probably “no” and yet as leader, you’ve had the greatest impact to that point on how the group behaves.

Most leaders are well-intentioned but are also unduly optimistic about how their own behaviour is seen by others. This isn’t just a problem for leaders: it is human nature and evident beyond the workplace. A recent survey asked 1 million students how good they were at getting along with others: 85% rated themselves “above average” while 25% put themselves in the top 1%. Similarly far more than 50% of people rank themselves in the top50% of driving ability. In psychology, this is known as a “self-serving bias”.

So when it comes to change management, leaders assume too easily they can just model good behaviour through willpower, but the truth is that often as leaders they don’t know how to change. So how do they? The only way is to ask for a leader to ask for and swallow even difficult feedback.

Leadership change can only be created by submitting to the bravery of concrete 360° feedback techniques via surveys, conversations or both. They must regularly ask their peers and their team “What should I do differently?” “Or where can I improve?” Such an approach may feel odd for many leaders, but these types of techniques can help correct the “self-serving bias” that inhibits the well-intentioned leader from making it a real difference.

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