MT Expert's Ten Top Tips: Spot (and deal with) a derailing leader

A previously top-notch boss losing the plot is rare, but terribly damaging when it does happen.

When times are tough, the importance of a strong and trusted leader can't be over-emphasised. But by the same token, if an organisation has the wrong leader in place, it can find itself in seriously dire straits. MT asked OPP's Ameet Thakkar for his top tips on how to spot - and deal with - a leader who isn't up to the task.

1. Aim for prevention, not cure
Spotting the problem before it becomes a problem is vital. Don’t wait for your leaders to be put into high pressure situations and watch them crumble; work to spot the leaders that are likely to derail, and take steps to avoid it happening.

2. Deal with the causes, not the symptoms
It’s easy to deal with a derailing leader by helping them fight the fires they create. That will contain the problem in the short term, but it won’t stop it happening again. Finding the root causes of any derailment and attacking them will deliver much greater benefits.

3. Beware the over-vigilant
Spotting the personality factors that can lead to derailment is a crucial first step. Using psychometric tools (like the 16 Personality Factors test) can help spot someone’s tendency to be overly vigilant - that is, how likely they are not to trust others/ believe most people have a hidden agenda. Being ‘more vigilant’, or in other words less trusting of others, has been linked to leaders who have a higher potential for derailing.

4. Beware the over-theoretical
Another personality factor positively linked to derailment is abstractedness – the tendency to take a conceptual approach to things. In the most extreme cases, this can look like absent-mindedness and a lack of groundedness, and research indicates that managers with a higher potential for derailment are more likely to be more abstract.

5. Beware the indiscreet
A tendency for being too open about personal matters and revealing too much information is the third key characteristic of leaders who are likely to go off the rails. Such people can be seen as naïve in their interactions with others. Spotting those people that are overly open in the workplace, perhaps exposing information in areas where they needn’t, will be a key indicator when looking to spot derailers. It’s worth noting that all three traits above have positive aspects – it’s when strengths are overplayed that problems arise.

6. Bring in a 'neutral' voice
Identifying leaders who are susceptible to derailment is just the first step. Next you need to approach them about it. Bringing in a third party to help with assessment and development needs can provide a much-needed neutral voice in what can be an incredibly difficult conversation.

7. Seek long-term solutions
Finding long-term, sustainable solutions for these potential derailers is an important step. Help leaders and managers become aware of the traits that make them more likely to derail. Additionally, find specific ways to help them develop strategies to ensure they don’t overplay their current approach.

8. Manage the environment
It’s important to ensure your leaders are not exposed to the kinds of situations that could push them over the edge before they are equipped to deal with them. Setting them up for success is key. This is often a case of helping leaders with that all important area of self-awareness.

9. Educate and communicate
Careful thought needs to be put into how you develop and promote your people. Using a psychometric assessment as part of your selection processes – even if it’s ‘just’ internal recruitment – will help you gather valuable information on people and check whether the risk factors are too great for a particular person to move into a particular role.

10. Grasp the nettle
If the worst happens and your leader is failing, but you’re not able to spot and help them, it’s important to understand why it happened and plot a useful course forward. Sometimes, it’s best for all involved to part ways. For individuals who are open to development, with a bit of careful analysis and development, you can pick the pieces up and put measures in place to ensure your leaders are set up for success.

Ameet Thakkar is a consultant at business psychologists OPP


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