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Beware the ‘Dark Side’ when Recruiting Leaders

Monday, October 19th, 2015

When recruiting to key leadership roles in an organisation isn’t it important to know how an individual will act when the pressure’s on? It’s all well and good knowing how a leader will behave most of the time, but in times of crisis isn’t that when they really earn their money and when their response determines the success or otherwise of their team?

Unfortunately many assessments I’ve seen focus only on ‘typical’ behaviour; the way an individual is likely to act most of the time. Yet what if their responses to pressure are significantly different? What if the typically collaborative manager suddenly becomes riddled with self-doubt and unable to make decisions? What if the decisive leader suddenly becomes autocratic and ignorant of the valid concerns raised by others? Isn’t it more valuable to know about a person’s ‘dark side’ before you hire them?

A common refrain is ‘people join organisations, but leave managers.’ A 2005 Workplace Survey for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that nearly 60% of workers identified poor management as the biggest obstacle to productivity.

Common ‘Dark Sides’

Research conducted by PCL into the ‘dark side’ characteristics of the UK workforce found that the most common one was the appeasement and accommodation of others. The risks associated with this type of personality include an inability to make decisions independently, and an overwhelming consideration of the needs of others even when it might be more appropriate to focus on task objectives. Such people will tend to have a strong desire to please their managers, to comply and to conform to what is being asked of them. They are uncomfortable disagreeing, confronting or speaking out and this can mean existing bad practices are left unchallenged- just think ‘banking crisis’ for evidence of the potential implications of this behaviour.

The second most common tendency was for managers to withdraw from situations, particularly when under pressure. They become remote, uncommunicative and unaware of their impact upon others. Such people may appear to be quite socially skilled (and therefore may interview well) until they come under pressure. That only amplifies the change in their persona and will leave team members confused and lacking in direction at the very time they need it most.

Why Leaders Fail

In their book ‘Why CEOs Fail’ Dotlich & Cairo claim that “two-thirds of people currently in leadership positions will fail.” So how do they end up as leaders in the first place? Perhaps in their early career an individual’s ‘dark sides’ are less apparent. They have less responsibility and less influence and so on the occasions when their ‘dark side’ does emerge it has less impact on business performance and the people around them. It’s only once they begin to climb to corporate ladder and to experience success that these ‘dark sides’ become more obvious to others. It is also likely that the situations they find themselves in are more stressful because the consequences become much greater, and so their ‘dark side’ behaviour may become more extreme. This is because when we are feeling under pressure, we tend to make ‘reactive’, rather than ‘proactive’ decisions. We are also likely to make decisions prematurely, without full consideration of other, better, alternatives that might be available.

So What Can An Organisation Do?

The best way to support your managers is to help them to understand their stress triggers and ‘dark sides’ better. The latest research from Robertson Cooper shows bank workers reporting better wellbeing are over 30% more productive than their peers. The government-sponsored Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project (2008) put the cost of stress and lack of wellbeing to the UK economy at £25.9bn per annum. It concluded that businesses that introduce wellbeing programmes will achieve a return of up to £4 on every £1 spent by reducing absenteeism and increasing productivity.

When recruiting to senior roles, an organisation needs to identify that person’s likely ‘dark sides.’ Armed with this knowledge they can then decide whether to hire that individual, and crucially if they do, they can build in appropriate support. Such support could be anything from individual coaching to targeted development programmes to provide leaders with strategies to better manage their inner ‘Darth’.