If Your Way Isn’t Working, You Need to Stop Insisting on It

Many successful people assume that the way they behave is a substantial part of what helped them get to where they are. Whether or not that’s true, as leaders, we may neglect to take into account the peculiar needs and coincidences of the organizational environment, the market conditions, and a host of other factors that might have helped us — like knowing the right person or being at the right place at the right time.

Worse, we may not own up to — or even recognize — the ways in which we’ve gotten crucial things wrong or contributed to problems that never got resolved. And the more successful we get, the more likely we are to start thinking that our way is the only way — attributing our successes to our high standards, attention to detail, or willingness to stand our ground because that worked for us in the past.

Either My Way or No Way at All

Unfortunately, when leaders who insist on doing things their way find themselves under pressure or being challenged, they may fight for the wrong thing or even withdraw and go silent. It’s as if they’re sulking or afraid to try something new, rather than looking for new opportunities for collaboration and teamwork, trails to blaze, and ways to make things better. It’s also the equivalent of covering their eyes and ears and singing, “La, la, la, la, la, I can’t hear you!”

It isn’t so terrible when an exec reacts like this as a way to blow off steam — and then refocuses to concentrate thoughtfully on how to manage the immediate problem. But if the leader usually responds this way, using such behavior as a cover for deflecting or avoiding the problem, it’s immature and irresponsible, and not worthy of a leader.

Having It Your Way Can Mean Losing Engagement — and Reality

Some leaders who react badly to pressure and challenges think they’ll be excused for their bad behavior so long as they’re willing to express apparent self-criticism. They may say things like, “I know I can be annoying when I’m too much of a perfectionist, but look how well the work comes out.” Or: “Yes, I’m hard on the team, but the employees who are really dedicated don’t mind, and we’ve accomplished terrific things.”

But those are red flags: If the self-criticism doesn’t lead first to self-reflection and then to the self-management needed to work on the problem with others, it shouldn’t take a reactive exec off the hook.

These behaviors can damage both work teams and the general culture. When employees feel it’s not worth bringing up new approaches or confronting longstanding but ineffective practices, they begin to disengage and their thinking gets smaller. It’s not motivating to interact with leaders who seem judgmental, moralistic, and closed to alternatives. And very few people like working for micromanagers or leaders who express their own fear or anxiety through a refusal to engage with the on-the-ground reality.

How to Unfix Your Mindset

Luckily, if you’re a leader who realizes that you’re operating with a fixed mindset and have so far refused to shift even as events have shifted, there are two straightforward things you can you do to improve your interactions with others and increase your openness to change:

  1. Be introspective. Try to assess why you’re so triggered by the present problem and identify what you see as the real violation of your belief system or comfort zone. In particular, check to see where you’re experiencing a feeling of loss of control, which will help you become aware of what is disrupting you and encouraging you to close down.
  2. Ask for help, engage others in collaboration, and look for ways that everyone can be successful together. It helps to remind yourself consciously that you’re on the same side, that you’re secure enough to try to understand where someone else is coming from and what is important to them and why. It’s not necessary to agree. But if leaders could say, “Tell me more about that and let me think about how we could incorporate some of your ideas,” instead of avoiding the input, they would seem more mature, more self-assured, and more competent.

Onward and upward,

LK

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