Sunday, January 13, 2008

Avoiding Vicious Cycles

If you're a new leader, how do you know if you're working on the right things and keeping your balance?  What are your key gauges to make sure you're not falling into personal traps?   In The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels, Michael Watkins writes about the traps you can fall into, and the questions to help you stay self-aware.

Watkins provides a set of self-check questions.  When you ask yourself the following questions, pay particular attention to where you agree or strongly agree:

  • Am I very busy but not finding time for the most important things I ought to be doing?
  • Am I doing things I should not be doing at the request of others (e.g. my boss, my direct reports)?
  • Am I frustrated that I cannot get things done the way I want them to be done?
  • Do I feel isolated in the organization?
  • Does my judgement seems off these days?
  • Am I avoiding making tough decisions on key issues (e.g. personnel)?
  • Do I have less energy for work than I usually do?

Where you agree or strongly agree, these are potential flags.

Personal Traps
Watkins identifies seven personal traps that correspond to the self-check questions above:

  • Riding off in all directions.
  • Undefended boundaries.
  • Brittleness.
  • Isolation.
  • Biased judgement.
  • Work avoidance.
  • Going over the top.

Riding Off in all Directions
Watkins writes:

"You can't hope to focus others if you can't focus yourself.  You can be busy and still fail every single day.  Why? Because there is an infinite number of tasks you could do during your transition, but only a few that are vital.  Perhaps you tell yourself, "If I get enough things going, something has to click," and dissipate your efforts.  Perhaps you over-estimate your capacity to keep all the balls in the air.  Every new leader has to do some parallel processing.  But it is easy to reach the point of mental lock-up, where you find yourself pulled form task to task faster than you can refocus on each new one.  Whatever the explanation, if important problems remain unaddressed, they could explode and suck up more of your time, leaving you even less time, and so on.  The result is a vicious cycle of firefighting."

Undefended Boundaries
Watkins writes:

"If you fail to establish solid boundaries defining what you are willing and not willing to do, the people around you -- bosses, peers, and direct reports -- will take whatever you have to give.  The more you give, the less they will respect you and the more they will ask of you -- another vicious cycle.  Eventually you will feel angry and resentful that you are being nibbled to death, but you will have no one to blame but yourself.  If you cannot establish boundaries for yourself, you cannot expect others to do it for you."

Watkins writes:

"The uncertainty inherent in transitions breeds rigidity and defensiveness, especially in new leaders with a high need for control.  The likely result: overcommitment to a failing course of action.  You make a call prematurely and then feel unable to back away from it without losing credibility.  The longer you wait, the harder it is to admit you were wrong and the more calamitous the consequences.  Or perhaps you decide that your way of accomplishing a particular goal is the only way.  as a result your rigidity disempowers people who have equally valid ideas about how to achieve the same goal."

Watkins writes:

"To be effective, you have to be connected to the people who make action happen and to the subterranean flow of information.  It is surprisingly easy for new leaders to end up isolated, and isolation can creep up on you.  It happens because you don't take the time to make the right connections, perhaps by relying overmuch on a few people or on "official" information.  It also happens if you unintentionally discourage people from sharing critical information with you.  Perhaps they fear your reaction to bad news, or see you as having been captured by competing interests.  whatever the reason, isolation breeds uninformed decision making, which damages your credibility and further reinforces your isolation."

Biased Judgement
Watkins writes:

"Biased judgement -- a loss of perspective because of well recognized weaknesses in human decision making -- can take several forms.  Overcommitment to a failing course of action because of ego and credibility is one version.  Others include confirmation bias, the tendency to focus on information that confirms your beliefs and filter out what does not; self-serving illusions, a tendency for your personal stake in a situation to cloud your judgement; and optimize overconfidence, or underestimation of the difficulties associated with your preferred course of action.  Vulnerability to these biases is a constant, but you are particularly at risk when the stakes get higher, uncertainty and ambiguity increase, and emotions run high."

Work Avoidance
Watkins writes:

"You will have to make tough calls early in your new job.  Perhaps you have to make major decisions about the direction of the business based on incomplete information.  Or perhaps your personnel decisions will have a profound impact on people's lives.  Consciously or unconsciously, you may choose to delay by burying yourself in other work or fooling yourself that the time isn't ripe to make the call.  Ron Heifetz uses the term work avoidance to characterize this tendency to avoid taking the bull by the horns, which results in tough problems becoming even tougher."

Going Over the Top
Watkins writes:

"All of these traps can generate dangerous levels of stress.  Not all stress is bad.  In fact, there is a well-documented relationship between stress and performance known as the Yerkes-Dodson curve."

Key Take Aways
This is a gem.  Watkins did a great job outlining, but I'll summarize this to say that focus, boundaries, flexibility, and balance are key.  So is knowing your capacity, building a great personal sounding board for your decisions, and making sure that you grow your network where you need to.

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