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Posted by on Oct 2, 2014

Giving Up on People: When Negative Leadership Attitudes Cause Poor Performance

footballAt a recent leadership consulting engagement with a Federal client, I spoke with a leader who said “I’m done.”

He talked at length about the incapability of much of the workforce, its lack of commitment and energy, and the fatalistic outlook he held for many on the team.

As I heard this dismissal of so many in the organization, it somehow came to my mind that very few people go into marriage counseling thinking they are the problem.

The fact is, in many agencies, there are leaders who have “given up” on the people. In their experience, you can’t really count on them for much, they need to be coddled, and for sure, they don’t understand what leadership is up against – what it is trying to get done, and what pressures it faces.

World-weary, fatalistic and pessimistic, these leaders have figured out “how things are around here” and they have pulled back.

Guess who feels this the most?

And guess what results?

There is a famous study in education in which two teachers working with a group of students were told different things about those students. One was told the kids were high-potential, bright and capable. The other was told not to expect much out of them.

Yes, you guessed right. The students’ performance under the first teacher was great. There was distinct drop in performance under the second teacher.

Same kids. Different teacher beliefs, and it’s just possible that those beliefs leaked out into behavior that set the stage for performance or failure.

I am not going to argue here that the only variable in performance is the view of leadership. There are people in the wrong jobs, people who wouldn’t want to be there even if Gandhi were the boss, and people who game the system. These are all legitimate subjects for inquiry.

But there’s something else along the way to inquire into, and that is whether the leader has created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sports coaches – in the domain where performance and winning and losing matter most – know that the real game is between the athlete’s ears. The way they think is often the single largest controlling variable in performance. Accordingly, coaches help them get into a frame of mind to win. This means things like:

  • Honestly appraising what just happened; learning from failure and leveraging strengths
  • Believing in self
  • Having a sense of optimism
  • Trying and caring

What’s the flip side? What happens when leaders send (usually non-verbal) messages that the people won’t amount to much?

  • A profound loss of confidence
  • Disappointment
  • Fatalism
  • Resentment toward leadership

The fact is, regardless of the intent, if these are the products of the view of leadership, no one can argue they are good in any way.

The hard question for leaders is whether their perspectives are actually at the root of some of the performance problems they wring their hands about. We all know the definition of insanity.

And they’ll never know until they try something new, like sharing the challenge and asking people to step up, showing confidence wherever it can be found, and giving positive feedback.

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