Common Leadership Errors: Focusing on What You Don’t Want

The role of leadership inside organizations is to help achieve the mission, vision, and business objectives. Leaders define what winning looks like. They then are responsible for creating momentum, building commitment, clarifying expectations, and developing their people to help reach the goal. In the book, Measure of a Leader, the authors say that ‘leadership is all about behavior”: the behavior of the leader(s) to create a compelling work environment, and the behaviors of the followers, whose behaviors lead to the organization reaching its goals. The selection and energy leaders put into the behavior of others is where this common leadership error occurs.

The focusing on what you don’t want error occurs when leaders focus a significant amount of time and energy on identifying and dealing with behaviors the leader defines as undesired. While decreasing an undesired behavior has its merits, focusing only on decreasing behavior is unhelpful in the long run. And in many instances, the undesired behavior a leader wants to focus on (e.g., arriving a few minutes late to work) has little or no direct impact on business results. This error assumes that by the deliberate decreasing of an undesired behavior, the desired behaviors will magically take its place. This is simply not true. Typically, focusing on suppressing behavior leads to performers getting better at hiding that behavior. Take for example, the classic, “No running in the halls” from school. When many of us challenged that rule and ran past the windowed door of a classroom, it quickly led to the teacher sticking their head out and shouting, “No running!” Did this teach children to walk? No. It taught children to walk past windows and to run between them.

Instead of focusing on what you don’t want, leaders should spend their time and energy on designing a work environment that actively supports (positively reinforces) desired behaviors within the organization. To do this, leaders must actively define the critical behaviors they need in the organization to drive business results. Then a deliberate focus on improving the systems, processes, work as designed, peer influences, and leadership practices to support the desired behaviors is needed. A frequent benefit to purposefully increasing desired behaviors is decreasing the undesired behavior by default. Performers can’t do both the desired and undesired behaviors at the same time.

Moving towards focusing on what you do want might seem overwhelming for some; however, it’s better than being ineffective. Organizations and leaders that focus on what they don’t want will find that they are always playing whack-a-mole. If organizations and leaders want to create meaningful organizational impact, then focusing on what they do want is necessary. Organizations should be looking for ways to increase behavior, not decrease it. Building positive reinforcement systems that support those behaviors will not only target the right behaviors, but it will also create a culture that earns discretionary effort. Doing so will produce a more desired culture and drive organizational success.

Posted by Bryan Shelton

Bryan applies his knowledge and expertise in strategic planning to help organizations align employee performance with company goals. Bryan helps clients create improvement across a variety of business metrics including company growth, profitability, customer service, vision alignment, leadership development, and culture change. He also helps clients implement process improvement initiatives, improve sales results and using performance-pay systems to help drive company results. His behavior-based approaches and applications have supported clients’ improvement initiatives, leadership development, and the design and implementation of performance pay systems.