How Sensitivities Throw Off Performance in Executives

Robert E. Kaplan & Robert B. Kaiser

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When an executive’s performance is off, it is often the case that he or she has overdone it. We are all familiar with the tendency for intense, driven people to go overboard. To be forceful is necessary but it is not unusual for executives to come on too strong or be overly controlling. To empower is good, but individuals inclined in that direction tend to empower to a fault. To be strategic is indispensable to anyone holding a senior line job, but visionary leaders often place too much weight on the strategic part of their jobs. To be operationally adept is highly desirable, yet it is so easy for executives with this gift to get bogged down in operational detail.

Executives are just as prone to go the other way—to underdo things—though that may seem counterintuitive given how aggressively they respond to problems. Some senior people have trouble making tough calls. Others struggle with giving subordinates the latitude they need to do their jobs. Some executives unaccountably give short shrift to the strategic part of their jobs, while others stay at 50,000 feet and neglect the managerial blocking and tackling needed for their organization to execute.

If this is how an executive’s performance is off-kilter, then what throws it off in the first place? As with any athlete, it can be something as simple as fatigue or illness. Low on energy, it is harder to be sharp, one’s threshold for frustration is lower, one is more likely to overreact. But in addition to circumstantial factors like these, we have also found that an individual’s “baggage” comes into play. Acutely concerned with doing well, senior people may go overboard in trying to get a result. They fall prey to the irony of undermining their performance by trying too hard. Or afraid they won’t do well at some part of their job, they gravitate away from it.

Either way a sensitivity to failure lurks beneath the surface. The sensitivity predisposes the individual to read certain situations as more threatening than is objectively the case. The distorted perception then distorts their leadership. What further complicates the dynamic is that people generally don’t see the distortions and in fact tend to justify their actions.

The point is that improving one’s performance involves not just modifying behavior but also getting at the distorted beliefs and fears that throw off behavior in the first place. It is only practical then to work not only at a behavioral level but also at a deeper level that connects directly to behavior. This paper lays out strategies for doing both.