Three Longs & Three Shorts

Why Capable People Are Reluctant to Lead

Author: Chen Zhang, Jennifer D. Nahrgang, Susan J. Ashford, and D. Scott DeRue
Source: Harvard Business Review ( )

We all know people who we believe would make great leaders but have failed to grab leadership opportunities that were theirs for the taking. Arguably, their reluctance itself could make them less worthy of the leadership role despite all other qualities being in place but this piece from HBR tries to address the former – what drives this reluctance? Can organisations help them get rid of their apprehensions and develop them into capable leaders which most organisations so desperately need to manage growth?
The article is based on extensive qualitative and quantitative studies conducted by the authors. The authors identified three types of risks these unwilling potential leaders perceive:
1. Interpersonal Risk: The first concern people mentioned over and over again was that acts of leadership might hurt their relationships with their colleagues. For example, when asked why they were hesitant to step up to lead, one respondent explained that “sometimes you don’t want to risk that friendship and hurt other people’s feelings.” Another said they were afraid that if they stepped up, other people could “start to dislike you and talk about you behind your back.” The fear of leadership harming interpersonal relationships was one of the most consistent themes we found throughout our interviews and surveys.
2. Image Risk: The second common concern people described was that leading might make others think badly of them. For example, one respondent said they were reluctant to lead because “I don’t want to seem like a know-it-all.” Similarly, another interviewee worried that “it can come across as a little bit aggressive, maybe, to the rest of the team members.” Despite the fact that both organizations and employees generally claim to admire leadership, people worry that actually engaging in leadership acts might make them look bad in the eyes of their peers.
3. Risk of Being Blamed: Finally, we found that many people were afraid that if they stepped up to lead, they would be held personally responsible if the group failed. They worried that they would be blamed for the collective failure, and that that could cost them a coveted promotion or future leadership opportunities. As one respondent explained, “If I were to dictate the work, then the potential bad results could be pinned onto me.” Another respondent expressed a similar sentiment: “If the project we were working on did not go well…as the leader, I would be blamed.” Fear of being associated with and blamed for failure is a powerful deterrent that keeps people from taking on opportunities to lead.”
The article then goes onto provide three tangible steps an organisation can take to mitigate these risks:
“1. Go the extra mile to support your more risk-sensitive colleagues. Our interviews suggest that employees who are earlier in their careers, newer to their teams, and/or of lower rank in the organization’s structure may be particularly sensitive to leadership risks. In addition, prior research has shown that minority gender or ethnic groups are also likely to be more risk-sensitive in many professional leadership contexts. To encourage these employees to push past the additional challenges they face, managers can proactively reach out to them when opportunities arise, explicitly seek their input in key meetings and projects, and publicly praise their leadership contributions in front of senior colleagues.
2. Manage conflict — and how people interpret it. Conflict inevitably arises within teams. But we found that people are particularly likely to become discouraged by the perceived risks of leading when working on teams whose disagreements stem from relationship conflict (i.e., conflict due to differences in personality or values), rather than differences of opinion about the tasks or work processes at hand. So when conflicts arise, managers should help the group address their specific disagreements and ensure those disagreements remain about the work, instead of letting productive conflict escalate into attacks on people’s personal styles or values. When people see conflict as a search for the best idea rather than a fight between people, they are less likely to shy away from leading those people.
3. Find low-stakes opportunities for people to try out leadership. Finally, we found that people are more risk-averse when major career consequences are at stake. For example, when asked to take on highly visible leadership responsibilities, less-experienced leaders may worry that poor performance could damage their credibility with influential colleagues with whom they might need to work in the future, or cause them to lose out on upcoming opportunities for advancement. In cases like these, the high stakes involved can make people less willing to take on leadership opportunities.”