May 2012: “Bad Eggs” or Cultural Mismatches: Can Leaders Learn From High-Risk Teens?May 1, 2012
Many organizational leaders experience challenges with “the next management level down.” Maybe there’s a troublemaker, a weak contributor, or someone who’s overwhelmed. Keeping a “misfit” in a leadership role doesn’t usually make sense. A lot of headaches, time and money can be wasted trying to “develop” the wrong person.
When a high-potential manager doesn’t work out, it’s financially and emotionally costly to the organization. There’s the consternation of having to cut losses, the emotional difficulty of letting someone go, and the pressure to find a replacement. The learning curve for a new hire is often steep.
But the biggest problem might be bewilderment: Why did this relationship fail? Though it’s tempting to blame the individual, mismatches involve two parties.
Research on Teenagers
Dr. Bruce Ellis discovered some clues about such mismatches in an unconventional way: studying teenagers who get into trouble.
I met Dr. Ellis last week at a conference where he presented his ideas. His boyish face and hip understanding of the teenage world can’t quite mask his impressive intellect. A Professor of Family Studies at the University of Arizona, Dr. Ellis has been studying the relationship between “father presence” and the onset of puberty in girls. His research has shown that girls who grow up with more biological father presence experience later puberty and engage in less risky sexual behavior as teenagers. Bruce Ellis Research.
“High-risk behaviors in adolescence do not occur in isolation,” Dr. Ellis says. “Children’s brains and bodies tend to respond to dangerous or unpredictable environments by growing up fast and living for the here and now. This ‘get it while you can’ strategy often translates into risky behaviors such as violent competition for status, breaking rules, consuming drugs, gang membership, early and unprotected sex, and teen pregnancy.”
Based on his research, Dr. Ellis believes that growing up in environments where people live fast and die young, where there are high levels of illness and premature aging (e.g., 30 year-olds look like 50 year-olds), and where home environments frequently change (through repeated parental divorce and re-partnering) reliably provokes risk-taking behavior in adolescence.
For example, because of harsh family environments, Dr. Ellis reports, “many girls complete puberty by age 12 and attract attention from older males. Because their self-regulatory capacities do not fully mature until early adulthood, these young girls are generally not socially or cognitively equipped to deal with this attention. The result is elevated levels of risky sexual behavior among early bloomers.”
In other words, when young girls bloom early, they are adapting to environments that don’t fit what they need.
The possibility that destructive behaviors thrive in poor environments raises questions about “misfits” in the workplace. How much of the “bad fit” is about the poor performer, how much is about the environment and how much is about the interaction between the two?
It might turn out that high-risk teens and under-performing leaders share a common nemesis: people environments that impede their growth.
Questions for Leaders
Dr. Ellis’ research triggered questions in me that presidents, parents, partners and principals might find useful:
- How do organizations best adapt to new talent? What are the implications for families with newborns, owners taking on an equity partner, or nations welcoming immigrants?
- How might a perspective leader gain greater intelligence about an organization prior to entering?
- What can leaders do to communicate to a high-potential hire what the newcomer is “getting into?”
- Once a high potential new leader is on board, how does an organization figure out what that person needs to succeed? How common is it for such important discussions to get bypassed because top management is too busy?
Dr. Ellis hasn’t looked closely at whether the presence of an adult mentor such as a grandparent, teacher or religious leader could lessen the effects of a harsh family environment for the teenage girls he studies.
I’ve seen reliable studies that suggest the active presence of a trusted, non-parent adult lowers childhood stress. I’ll take that up in another blog.
My wager is that bosses who mentor offer a similar, potentially game-changing advantage to emerging leaders.
In any case, leaders would be well-served to get beyond, “She just wasn’t a good fit,” and look more carefully about how their cultures promote or discourage success for young talent.