Is Your Self-Serving Leadership Overtaking Creativity and Hard Work?

Although changes can start at the bottom with grass-root initiatives, self-serving leadership can quickly demoralize and derail even the most motivated teams.

A Cautionary Tale

A joint intelligence fusion cell was tasked with creating plans that were not urgent since there was no active crisis. However, the team recognized the importance of having plans on the shelf for rapid deployment. Not getting clear instructions or guidelines for the assignment from the absentee officer-in-charge (OIC), the team developed a strategy and systematically worked their plan. Team morale and engagement was high as the work progressed. Time passed and a visiting dignitary on tour wandered through the workspace guided by the OIC. Inquiries about the team’s activities quickly revealed the OIC’s lack of understanding and involvement with the work. The team lead stepped up to explain the need, the process, and the progress. The VIP was impressed and commended the team. The OIC’s embarrassment and envy metastasized into vengeance. After the incident, she became ‘involved’—micromanaging, repurposing, and redirecting resources and manpower until the project atrophied and eventually disbanded.

Sounds familiar? Unfortunately, this tale is all too common (I sorted through dozens of examples before I chose the one above). You probably have experienced having your efforts thwarted; or, let us be honest, you may be the one who has rained on someone else’s parade.

The story could have ended differently. The OIC could have shared the team’s success and been recognized for the good work coming out of her directorate. Instead, a fragile ego and spiteful nature caused an important project to fail. She suffered from a combination of psychological biases—envy and a scarcity mindset. She coveted the scarce praise given to her subordinates for their hard work. However, instead of recognizing her own failings of absentee management and responding with a renewed commitment to self-improvement, emulating the hard work of the team, she grew resentful of the team. The team leader, in particular. She used the power of her position not for the good of the agency but to its detriment.

Envy is nothing new. The biblical tale of Cane and Abel warns us of how envy leads to murder and exile. I do not see it going away any time soon, especially since our modern times have elevated envy from a vice to a powerful motivational lever pulled by advertisers and politicians. For those who seek to build high-performing organizations, envy is destructive to individuals, teams, and organizations. Here are some practical ways to minimize the corrosive effects of envy in the workplace.

1.      Create a shared value proposition and enabling metrics.

A value proposition justifies the total cost of the products, services, or even the mere existence of an entity. Defining how each team adds value aligns the organization towards its core mission and reduces interdepartmental conflicts. Departments pull together towards common goals. A well-defined value proposition minimizes self-serving behaviors by making the most advantageous behaviors of the individual aligned with the goals of the organization. Shared metrics and incentives that reward cooperation minimize self-serving behaviors and drive mutual success.

2.      Remain engaged and connected to the work.

Successful teams are never ‘fire and forget.’ You need to remain engaged and connected. If you find yourself in endless meetings discussing more meetings, there is a good chance that there is work going on and decisions being made that you are unaware of. Delegation is fine, but when it drifts into abdication, self-aggrandizing behaviors gain a footing. Being engaged requires you to know the strengths, limitations, and contributions of each team member. Ensure you remain connected enough to know who is paying their fare and who is a free-rider taking credit for the work of the team—including disengaged leaders.

3.      Incent engagement and achievement at the individual and team levels.

It would be easy to say that the OIC in the opening example was simply self-serving but placing blame does not fix the problem. Her behaviors are the result of complex internal and external drivers, rewards, and disincentives. She was promoting within the systems of an organization that rewarded and reinforced her own tendencies. Not to say she was innocent. She was not, but she was not absolutely corrupt either. Behavior is more complex than that. It is most productive to look at contributions. She too had a manager.

When you set up your systems, metrics, and rewards, look at individual contributions. Recognize those delivering the value proposition and courageously address those seeking to advance their own careers to the detriment of the mission. In the case study, if the OIC were measured on the autonomy and productivity of the team, she would have been clearly rewarded for her team’s advancement. That is only if her supervisor had specified clear goals for developing her team and asked her to present her plans and observable metrics for achieving those goals.

4.      Increase your self-awareness and be mindful of your own motives.

Finally, the most powerful deterrent to envy is your own candor, self-awareness, and a commitment to resist your own baser instincts. The desire for others to be brought down does not nurture high-performing teams, just as resentment of another’s achievements does not improve you one ounce. Helping each team member grow and encouraging them to help you recognize excellence in teams and team members promote excellence within individuals and the organization.

As you set up your teams for success, it is important to recognize both individual and team successes inspiring excellence at all levels. Be aware that striving for an organization where everyone is equal with no benefit over another has the opposite effect—incenting dysfunctional behaviors that breed mediocrity—not successes that others strive to emulate.

“The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.” -Winston Churchill

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