Teaching Leaders What To Stop: Playing Favorites

Peter Drucker said, “We spend a lot of
time teaching leaders what to do. We do not spend enough time teaching
leaders what to stop.” Explore what to stop in this series of Marshall’s
Thinkers50 video blogs.

Why do so many of leaders play favorites and why are we in denial about this tendency?

Watch the video here and/or read the accompanying blog below:

Teaching Leaders What to Stop

As a 10-year board member of the Peter Drucker Foundation, I had many
opportunities to listen to Peter Drucker, the world’s authority on
management. During this time, Peter taught me some very important
lessons about life and leadership.

One of the greatest lessons he taught me is this: “We spend a lot of
time helping leaders learn what to do. We do not spend enough time
teaching leaders what to stop. Half of the leaders I have met don’t need
to learn what to do. They need to learn what to stop.”

There are a lot of good reasons for this. Probably most prominent is the
fact that leaders and organizations focus on demonstrating commitment
to positive action to maintain forward momentum. For instance, using the
phrase, “We must begin to listen more attentively” rather than focusing
on what we can stop, “Playing with our iPhones while others are
talking.” Likewise, the recognition and reward systems in most
organizations are geared to acknowledge doing something. For instance,
we get credit for doing something good. We rarely get credit for ceasing
to do something bad.

How do you use “What to Stop” in coaching and leadership development?

The first step is to identify what behavior to stop. In my book What Got
You Here Won’t Get You There, I discuss the 20 bad habits of leaders.
Everyone I have met has exhibited one or more of these behaviors,
including me! Review the list. Do you identify with any of these bad
habits? If you are like the majority of people, the answer is yes, and
you are ready to start using “What to Stop.”

  1. Winning too much: The need to win at all costs and in all situations.
  2. Adding too much value: The overwhelming desire to add our two cents to every discussion.
  3. Passing judgment: The need to rate others and impose our standards on them.
  4. Making destructive comments: The needless sarcasm and cutting remarks that we think make us witty.
  5. Starting with “No,” “But,” or “However”: The overuse of these negative qualifiers which secretly say to everyone “I’m right and you’re wrong.”
  6. Telling the world how smart we are: The need to show people we’re smarter than they think we are.
  7. Speaking when angry: Using emotional volatility as a management tool.
  8. Negativity, or “Let me explain why that won’t work”: The need to share our negative thoughts even when we weren’t asked.
  9. Withholding information: The refusal to share information in order to maintain an advantage over others.
  10. Failing to give proper recognition: The inability to give praise and reward.
  11. Claiming credit that that we don’t deserve: The most annoying way to overestimate our contributions to any success.
  12. Making excuses: The need to reposition our annoying behavior as a permanent fixture so people excuse us for it.
  13. Clinging to the past: The need to deflect blame away from ourselves and onto events and people from our past; a subset of blaming everyone else.
  14. Playing favorites: Failing to see that we are treating someone unfairly.
  15. Refusing to express regret: The inability to take responsibility for our actions, admit we’re wrong, or recognize how our actions affect others.
  16. Not listening: The most passive-aggressive form of disrespect for colleagues.
  17. Failing to express gratitude: The most basic form of bad manners.
  18. Punishing the messenger: The misguided need to attack the innocent who are usually only trying to help us.
  19. Passing the buck: The need to blame everyone but ourselves.
  20. An excessive need to be “me”: Exalting our faults as virtues simply because they’re who we are.

After reviewing this list, for those of you who still aren’t sure what
to stop, there is one habit that I’ve seen take precedence over all of
the others. You may be part of the majority of people who partake of
this bad habit. What is the number one problem of the successful
executives I’ve coached over the years? It is Winning Too Much.

Playing Favorites

There’s a reason I devote so much time and energy to identifying
interpersonal challenges in successful people. It’s because the higher
up you go in the organization, the more your problems are behavioral.
You’re smart, you’re up-to-date, you know the technical aspects of your
job, but often you may lack some important people skills and it’s
hindering your success.

I’ve reviewed hundreds of custom-designed leadership profiles.
Typically, these documents describe leadership behaviors the
organization desires, and include such important items as “helps people
develop”, “values different opinion”, and “avoids playing favorites”. I
have never seen “effectively sucks up to management” on one profile.
Then why does so much sucking up go on?

The simple answer is: We can’t see in ourselves what we can see clearly
in others. You’re probably thinking, “It’s amazing how leaders send out
subtle signals that encourage subordinates not to critique and to
exaggerate their praise of themselves and the organization. But, of
course, this doesn’t apply to me.

You might be right: but how do you know you’re not in denial?

Here’s the litmus test. I’ve done this test with thousands of leaders
in groups worldwide and it’s nothing if not illuminating. How many of
you own a dog that you love? In the groups big smiles cross the
executives’ faces and they wave their hands in the air. They tell me
their dogs’ names, beaming with love. Then I ask them, “At home, who
gets the most attention when you get home? Is it (a) your husband,
wife, or partner; (b) your kids; or (c) your dog? More than 80 percent
of the time, the winner is the dog.

I then ask the executives if they love their dogs more than their family
members. The answer is always a resounding no. My follow up question:
“So why does the dog get most of your attention?”

The replies are all the same: “The dog is always happy to see me.” “She
never talks back.” “He gives me unconditional love, no matter what I
do.” In other words, the dog is a suck-up.

If we aren’t careful we can wind up treating people at work like our
dogs: rewarding those who heap unthinking, unconditional admiration on
us. What behavior do we get in return? A whole lot of people who know
how to suck up.

The problem with encouraging this behavior is twofold. 1) If everyone
is sucking up to you, who is doing the work? And 2) if there are people
doing the work, you’re favoring the wrong people! Leaders can stop
encouraging this behavior by first admitting that we all have the
tendency to favor those who favor us. To combat this, we should rank
our direct reports into four categories:

  1. How much do they like me?
  2. How much are they like me?
  3. What is their contribution to the company and its customers?
  4. How much positive personal recognition do I give them?

What we’re looking for is whether the correlation is stronger between 1,
2, and 4 or 3 and 4. If we’re honest with ourselves, our recognition of
people may be linked to how much they seem to like us rather than how
well they perform. This is the definition of playing favorites. This
quick self-analysis won’t solve the problem, but it does identify it.
And this is where change begins.


Dr. Marshall Goldsmith was selected as one of the 10 Most
Influential Management Thinkers in the World by Thinkers50 in both 2011
and 2013. He was also selected as the World’s Most Influential
Leadership Thinker in 2011. Marshall was the highest rated executive
coach on the Thinkers50 List in both 2011 and 2013. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There was listed as a top ten business bestseller for 2013 by INC Magazine / 800 CEO Read (for the seventh consecutive year). Marshall’s exciting new research on engagement will be published in his upcoming book Triggers (Crown, 2015).

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