We live in a fast-paced world where executives are expected to be available 24/7. It’s no surprise that relentless professional and personal responsibilities can cause the pressure to build to the point of crisis. In his book Secrets of an Executive Coach: Proven Methods for Helping Leaders Excel Under Pressure (AMACOM, 2002) psychologist and executive coach Alan Downs outlines the main crises that cause people to fail. Managers and leaders should be aware of these behaviors so that the person in crisis can get the help he or she needs to function more effectively.
In athletics, as well as in the workplace, some people perform below their proven ability when the pressure is high. They become tense and self-conscious, almost as if they are deliberately trying to sabotage their own success. The term for this kind of self-sabotage is choking, and it refers to the process of becoming so restrictive and uptight about performance that the person actually diminishes his chances of success. An executive who repeatedly suffers from choking is an executive in crisis.
On an everyday basis, these executives can handle the job well, but when the spotlight is placed squarely on them, they fail miserably. It's not that they can't handle the performance, it's that they sabotage themselves every time their performance is critical.
2. Lack of Focus
The executive who suffers from a short attention span and never seems to stick with a project or job long enough to be successful is in crisis. The unfocused executive bounces from project to project, always busy but never accomplishing much of value. This executive may appear to bore easily or be afraid of commitment. He often appears tired and frazzled from working long hours. For all of this executive’s work, however, very little seems to come out of the effort. Then, for unexplained reasons, he begins to slack off and becomes noticeably disinterested in work.
The bored executive’s on-again, off-again approach to his job is characteristic of an executive in crisis. Although he may blame his problems on the job and believe that the next one will be different, close examination shows that he is stuck in a repeating pattern. Until he is willing to confront and resolve the crisis, he will likely continue this pattern no matter what job he takes.
3. The Promise Breaker
This executive makes commitments, sign contracts, and then, if it suits his purpose, breaks them without much warning. His word is essentially meaningless as his commitment always shifts to the highest bidder. Of course, promise breaking will ultimately be disastrous to an executive's career, but in the short term, if he keeps moving from job to job, he can survive. The most damaging aspect of the promise breaker's behavior is that his peers lose respect and trust for him. The promise-breaking executive is generally unaware that he has lost the support of others, and he may even be perplexed at why others have distanced themselves from him.
Promise breakers often think they are constantly "trading up," but more often than not they are only hurting their reputations and chances for advancement. One of the most essential ingredients to advancement is trust, and when that is broken, an executive, no matter how talented, has little to offer.
4. The Loner
The loner executive tries to accomplish his job completely independent of others. While this characteristic is often associated with the crisis of isolation, it can also be a component of other crises. The loner executive has stopped trying to network within his company or his field, and often expresses a subtle mistrust and cynicism about working with others. He expects employees to cheat, be lazy, or be unreliable. He thinks his peers are only concerned about their own welfare and will do whatever is necessary to further their own careers.
The loner may produce results, but his unwillingness to cooperate makes his life extremely difficult. He is often full of blame toward everyone who doesn't support him, isn't competent, and so on. He sees himself as always getting a raw deal. His isolation and blame are defense mechanisms he uses to avoid dealing with his own crisis, and he shifts the anxiety he feels about himself onto others.
5. Giving in to Irresistible Impulse
This executive in crisis does something that is blatantly inappropriate for unexplained reasons. Years ago, when I was managing a corporate organizational development staff, I had a boss who engaged in the irresistible impulse. Although he knew very well that sexual references in conversations with employees was strictly off-limits (he had even led programs on sexual harassment), he couldn't help but do so whenever he was with employees in a casual setting. The irresistible impulse that kept him going was the unconscious desire to sabotage his own success. Like my boss, executives who engage in the irresistible impulse are trying to suppress a crisis, and the irresistible impulse becomes a vent for all the pent-up angst inside them. The thrill of spending petty cash on lottery tickets, cheating on the expense account, or stealing company property is nothing more than a defense mechanism that helps some executives avoid the crisis that is really troubling them.
6. Extreme Denial
The executive who refuses to acknowledge a serious problem that everyone around him sees is engaged in extreme denial. He may persist in saying that it isn't as bad as everyone else says it is, or worse, he may simply ignore the problem.
Why would any executive engage in such dangerous behavior? Because acknowledging the problem situation and dealing with it may also require him to deal with a crisis that he is actively and persistently suppressing. Dealing with the problem is just too threatening to him personally, so he chooses to ignore it, and hopes that the situation will somehow take care of itself. He may just stick his head in the sand and hope that he won’t have to change.
Unexplained and persistent moodiness is a sure sign of an executive in crisis. One employee described the moodiness of his boss this way: I can't remember exactly when it started, but we all started to notice it last fall. Amy would come into the office in a good mood—I mean, a really good mood. She'd laugh and joke and congratulate us all on a job well done. Then, by afternoon or the next day, she'd be furious over something. We were never sure what would set her off. Without any notice, she'd declare that nothing we did was right, and she'd be stomping around the office, going from one desk to the next telling us how to do our jobs. I know this sounds crazy, but in a few hours she'd be her old self again, pleasant and friendly.
Frequent and noticeable shifts in mood are usually expressions of anxiety that is troubling an executive. Fits of anger followed by compensating periods of ingratiating pleasantness is a cycle that some executives who are suffering from an inflamed crisis find themselves repeating. The result is that the executive begins to appear unpredictable and others begin to lose trust in his ability to lead.
Another clear expression of the anxiety of an executive in crisis is persistent indecisiveness. Overwhelming anxiety can block the executive's otherwise rational decision processes and cause him to avoid making needed decisions. In severe cases, the executive becomes so incapacitated that even the most basic, everyday decisions become excruciatingly difficult. An executive’s descent into indecisiveness can be a symptom of something more troubling in his life. While on the surface it may appear that the person just needs help organizing his work and with decision making, the real issue may be an unresolved crisis, a far more personal and complex problem that would benefit greatly from coaching.
This article was adapted from Secrets of an Executive Coach: Proven Methods for Helping Leaders Excel Under Pressure, by Alan Downs (AMACOM, 2002).
© 2002 Alan Downs
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Published by AMACOM Books
Division of American Management Association
New York, NY 10019