December 2012: Diagnostic Deceptions in Leadership

Standard procedures have been developed by modern medicine to diagnose a broken bone, a bladder infection or a blocked artery.

In a similar way, technical problems in organizations – a malfunctioning machine, a compliance problem, or a design glitch – can often be remedied with prescribed processes.

While routine challenges can often be addressed decisively creating only temporary disruption, that’s not the case with more complicated problems.

No physician can certify whether early childhood stress influences adult heart disease, how much functioning a stroke victim can recover, or why some lifelong chain smokers don’t get lung cancer.

When I talk with seasoned health care professionals about complicated symptoms, I hear phrases like, “It depends,” and “We’re working on it.” They say there are many variables, many possibilities, and no easy answers. Patients might not like to hear uncertainty, but the physicians wise enough to admit ignorance show more integrity than those who pretend to know all.

Business leaders often lack that humility. Their presumptuous rush to advise, solve and fix reveals a belief that complex problems can be quickly and accurately diagnosed. Note these examples:

  • “Our central problem as a team is that we don’t communicate.”

  • “You know what you need? You need to go back to school and get your MBA.”

  • “My boss has no clue what is really going on around here.”

  • “I hate to say it, but she’s spoiled. She’s always gotten what she wanted and now that she’s a partner, she thinks it’s always going to go her way…”

Every day, I hear diagnostic statements like these flowing from the tongues of parents, presidents, principals, partners and philanthropists. When leaders evaluate the motives and behaviors of others, what criteria do they use, and how thorough is their thinking?

Problems with diagnosis

I am skeptical about the diagnostic conclusions most leaders peddle. Knee-jerk assessments usually reveal three flaws:

  1. A failure to distinguish between my evaluation of the other and my emotional response to the other. Because I am upset about something another says, or irked by their action or idea, does not necessarily mean they have a problem. Leaders are typically too quick to bypass self-scrutiny while jumping directly to blame. One of the emotional benefits of blame is its false conveyance of certitude: “I feel a lot better now that I’ve discovered what the problem is.”

  2. A superficial reading of the problem that lacks contextual understanding. During my work with a financial services firm in Nashville, one of the partners, Miguel, made a practice of never lunching one-on-one with a female colleague or client. His partners viewed him as uptight and old-fashioned, and expressed that his stubbornness was costing the firm good opportunities. What they didn’t know was what after an affair almost ended his marriage, Miguel vowed to not put himself in situations that would jeopardize his marital commitment. What was mystifying to his colleagues made perfect sense to Miguel though he chose (appropriately, in my view) not to share his rationale.

  3. Premature judgments drown out other possibilities. I might think that a boss who challenges me is too critical and doesn’t have my back. There’s another way to look at it: a challenging boss who helps me grow might deliver more value than one who over-compliments. Another example: My view of my partner as “egotistical” carries a negative spin. How do I tell the difference between egotistical and confident? Or between rigid beliefs and well-thought-out convictions? It’s rare for diagnostic leaders – hell-bent on being right – to consider alternate, equally plausible possibilities.

A range of contributing factors

Rather than prematurely draw a conclusion, it’s more productive, in most cases, for leaders to expand their awareness about the range of factors influencing a situation.

Awareness expands when leaders reflect on “What is really going on here?” This can be done alone, or with trusted others. Creating the space for such “noodle time” can bring new questions, deeper insight and a broader view of what might be going on.

Consider these real-life outcomes:

  • The CEO of a family-owned manufacturing company was continually challenged by the inability of the VP of Sales and the VP of Operations to work well together or even speak to each other. Reflecting with a trusted advisor, it occurred to him how disconnected he was from his own two siblings. He speculated that the “not speaking” tendency in his family unwittingly promoted emotional distance within the business. He devised a relationship connection plan within his extended family that eventually transferred to the culture of the company. In time, it simply became unacceptable for managers to ignore one another.

  • An executive assistant thought her job was on the line every time her boss corrected her work. In a moment of uncommon clarity, she decided to ask him about this instead of assuming. He expressed appreciation for her, and stated that his corrections expressed his “faith in your ability to get to the next level.”

  • The owner of a car dealership, accustomed to his directives being obeyed, asked his teenage daughter to stop dating a boy he judged to be “of suspect character.” Her daughter refused, saying, “I don’t tell you who to hang around with.” Just before grounding her, he called a friend who asked him what his most mature response would sound like. The friend’s question got him thinking about his rush to judgment. The next evening, he pulled aside his daughter to say, “I was mistaken to butt in – you are perfectly capable of making smart choices about who you date.” Two months later, she broke up with her boyfriend.

The biggest advantages of reflecting instead of quickly diagnosing are deeper understanding and greater accuracy. Who wouldn’t want more of those leadership boosters?

One Response to “December 2012: Diagnostic Deceptions in Leadership”

  1. December 01, 2012 at 1:57 pm, rob Schachter said:

Kerr once wrote that tunnel vision was concluding too much with too little information. A hazard of life, a variable of life on the planet. Indicative of a level of anxiety in the ‘concluder’ best attended to as a pathway to a more thoughtful assessment and to prevent yet another rush to judgment and the attendant quick fixes.

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