The bad habit that makes leaders less effective

Shana Lebowitz

When you make a mistake at work, there's always the temptation to dodge the bullet by blaming someone else or explaining why factors outside your control contributed to your failure.

But researchers say that leaders who act this way are ultimately perceived as less effective than those who acknowledge their shortcomings and seek insights on how they can improve. It's called "defending," and involves being closed-minded when challenged or given critical feedback.

According to researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the Center for Creative Leadership, defending detracts from "learning agility," or a mindset that helps people develop as leaders and tackle the problems facing their organizations.

Learning agility includes practices such as evaluating your experiences and striving to do better; questioning the status quo; adopting new skills quickly; and taking on projects where success is not always a given. Studies have found that learning-agile executives are more successful, both in terms of company revenue and boss ratings.

Defensiveness, on the other hand, hinders leaders' ability to learn and, as a result, their success. The researchers looked at feedback that 134 leaders received from their managers and found that defensive leaders were generally rated as less effective on measures including self-awareness, communication, adaptability, and ability to meet business objectives.

Similarly, when it came to the traits that peers and direct reports valued in their leaders, the data showed that those who sought out feedback and tried to learn from their experiences (behaviors the researchers call "reflecting") were generally rated as more effective on measures including implementing change and managing teams.

So how can you minimize defensiveness and cultivate reflection in your management style? In terms of defensiveness, the researchers recommend that you resist the temptation to respond to feedback right away and thank the other person for his or her insights. That way, you remain open to the possibility of improvement, even if it feels uncomfortable.

And when it comes to reflection, the researchers suggest reviewing recent projects by asking what happened, why it happened, and what you can do to ensure success in the future.

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