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The Top 3 Signs You are Managing a Reluctant Leader

by Thuy Sindell, PhD. and Milo Sindell, MS.

It’s not surprising to notice that some people you work with never step up to fully embrace their leadership role. It’s not that these individuals are not productive employees; they just never seem to go the extra mile. We call these individuals “reluctant leaders.” To identify reluctant leaders within your organization or on the team you’re managing, there are three main indicators to look for:

1. You ask the members of your team for constructive feedback in an area outside of their expertise or about the performance of another department or peer, and you find the reluctant leaders will refrain from answering the question. They will give excuses, albeit plausible ones, for doing so. Reluctant leaders may state that they don’t want to step on the toes of another individual or department; they don’t feel they have the authority to offer a critique; or they don’t feel their critique is warranted given the shortcomings within their department or themselves.

2. Reluctant leaders are often uncomfortable with recognition, whether at the individual or team level. These individuals believe they or their team has received due credit and that any extra accolades would reflect poorly on the team and cast them as boastful and vying for resources. Reluctant leaders consider it normal and efficient for one person to do the job of three, for example, and will likely not advocate for additional personnel to help balance the workload. Ironically, managers of this kind of reluctant leaders often provide these individuals with even more resources because their conservative efforts are ultimately ineffective.

3. Reluctant leaders may be eager to take on additional work, but once they are asked to do more, they will likely display concern about whether their current responsibilities will be neglected as a result or how they will allocate their time. Their focus is ultimately on what will not get done rather than what will get done. Reluctant leaders then view these new responsibilities as burdensome, and managers feel they need to sell these individuals on taking on more.

Within organizations, leaders who are reluctant to step out of their comfort zones come at a significant cost. One study shows that leaders who are on track to rise within an organization but hold themselves back cost organizations $12 million/leader and up to $50 million for a C-suite leader.1 Imagine a CFO of a company, for example, who is unwilling to state his or her opinion on the product. The CFO is in a position that requires him or her to step up, so this reluctance hinders the entire organization and sets a weak precedent for the rest of the company. This kind of behavior across business sectors can cost the economy upwards of $13 billion, according to Chief Executive magazine.

So what can you do if you have a reluctant leader on your team? The following list provides some solutions for confronting and correcting the behavior of reluctant leaders.

1. Reframe - Help these individuals shift their mindset to one of ownership. Regardless of where they rank in an organization, show these individuals how their role fits more broadly across multiple parts of the organization. Taking ownership of their role within the company at large is indicative of strong leadership.

2. Attitude - Help these individuals shift their attitude from one of criticism to one of contribution. Let them know that providing an opinion or insight is about caring for another person, department, or the organization. These insights are not critiques or criticisms; rather they are important to the shaping of the big picture and helping the company achieve its goals. Indeed, these individuals know their departments and processes better than anyone in the company. Therefore, their insights about how processes or products could improve are invaluable to the company.

3. Behaviors - Coach these individuals to develop the skills to be diplomatic and to focus on solutions rather than problems. A conversation about what’s possible instead of an argument about data and past shortcomings will be more constructive and result in new ideas and action items that will ultimately benefit the company instead of assigning blame.

There is a science and art to providing one’s opinion, which takes time and practice, and not all employees have been given the necessary tools or training. It is therefore extremely important to be able to recognize reluctant leadership on your team and provide helpful feedback and clear requests for the individual to change the behaviors. When your leaders hold back, other people notice. These differences are often meted out in performance reviews and promotion conversations, during which others conclude that the leaders on your team are not ready for more senior positions within the organization. Don’t let reluctant leaders on your team hold themselves or your team back. Do your part and start those feedback conversations.

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