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Common Leadership Anti-Patterns

Updated on April 20, 2017
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Introduction

If you're a leader in the software industry (team lead, manager, director, etc.), perhaps you pause every now and then to ask yourself whether or not you're a good one. If not, maybe you should start. You may have been tagged as a "natural leader" when you were young. Some people think they can spot "natural leaders" in much the same way you might spot a natural runner or a natural swimmer. Unfortunately, being a good leader is much more complicated than that. It requires effort and intentionality. In particular, good leaders evaluate their mistakes so they can learn from them.

We all make mistakes; we all choose the wrong path every now and then. No one I've ever met has had the ability to accurately predict the future. From my perspective, failure is less about the mistakes we make and more about our inability to learn from them. So maybe a good step to becoming a better leader is looking at some leadership "anti-patterns" (examples of what not to do). Let's take a stroll together and I'll paint a picture of actual leaders I've encountered in my travels. Maybe you'll recognize yourself somewhere in the tapestry.

Anti-Pattern #1: Zeus

Meet Zeus. He likes to keep his distance and not get his fingernails dirty. The team’s responsibility is to deliver on time with good quality, working through any issues that arise without his assistance. Zeus’s responsibility is to carry the lightning bolts, use them when necessary, make commitments for the team, and establish interim milestones (or hurdles) for the team to meet. Zeus may estimate projects himself rather than letting the team estimate their own work. This is unfortunate because, despite his God-status, Zeus really isn't very good at predicting the future. Sometimes, Zeus will actually ask the team to choose the date for the commitment, which is brilliant because then he can say “I thought you said you would have it done by this date.” Little to no effort is spent figuring out if commitments are reasonable or feasible. Zeus is often happy to make decisions that add additional complexity to the delivery, including agreeing to a fixed timeline before requirements have been defined. When the project eventually fails to be delivered as promised, the team must then be held accountable.

Turning the corner: This is the anti-pattern that I have seen most often, actually. Good leaders are "in it" with their team. They succeed together and they fail together. Zeus isn't close enough to what’s going on to know who is performing and who isn’t (although he probably thinks he has a good handle on it), how well the team is functioning, etc. Most leaders in the software industry got there after years of development experience. This means that they have valuable experience and insight that can be leveraged. Because Zeus is keeping his distance, he is essentially robbing the team of this insight.

It’s important for leaders to act like they have skin in the game (particularly since they really do). Collaborate, make suggestions, and offer ideas that the team has the freedom to use or not. The key to collaboration is not feeling threatened or taking it personally when someone disagrees with you as a leader. The team has to have the freedom to do that, or it’s not collaboration. When a project doesn’t go well, everyone needs to learn from it (including you). Lightning bolts are not necessary for that to occur. Because you were in it with them, you are able to have a post-mortem conversation with the team that is collaborative and not punitive. If you made decisions yourself that contributed to the failure, you need to own that. Make it clear at the start of the conversation that your decisions are fair game as well. The best and most valuable constructive feedback you will receive as a leader will likely come from your team, not those above you. Leverage it and the sky really is the limit for your career.

Anti-Pattern #2: The Buddy

The Buddy manager wants to be everyone's friend. Buddies are great people. Everyone loves to be around them, listen to them talk, etc. The Buddy always gets invited to lunch. None of this is bad, actually. Some of my favorite managers were like this, but there has to be a balance and that can be difficult without intentionality. Eventually, the Buddy manager’s authority will either be tested or completely ignored, because some people are already predisposed to go rogue. They'll just start doing whatever they want regardless of whether or not leadership believes it's in the company's best interest. Others simply don’t play well with others. The Buddy manager will then chat with them in his grandfatherly way and try to gently guide them down the right path. When this doesn’t work, what does he do? Keep trying? Maybe they’ll come around eventually? How this is handled is critical because the rest of the team is watching. It’s very likely that they know the problem exists and are desperately hoping someone will do something. Buddy managers can be naturally avoidant, which is a huge problem when leading a team.

Turning the corner: Whatever you do, make sure that you are comfortable exercising your authority when the situation requires it. Toxic people on the team will wreck a team’s effectiveness. The issue has to be resolved quickly so the team can move forward. This often means having uncomfortable conversations or making uncomfortable/difficult decisions. A good leader does what needs to be done to protect the team and guard the company’s interests.

Anti-Pattern #3: The Control Freak

Control freaks sincerely believe that the only way things will be done right is if they do it themselves. They will often end up modifying or rewriting someone else’s deliverable before it can be called done. They may funnel all decisions through them (even minor ones). They are essentially bottlenecks. In choosing not to collaborate and/or delegate, the control freak is essentially stunting the growth of the team. Opportunities for mentoring are ignored and the team learns nothing. What's worse, the control freak is doomed to have to fix whatever was wrong again somewhere else (perhaps repeatedly) because the issue was never actually addressed with the person who committed the foul. Ultimately, those around the control freak feel like they are not trusted or valued, which is very demotivating. Productivity declines sharply as people sense that their efforts have very little value.

Sometimes, control freaks are hiding their own weakness. Maybe they are behind on the latest technologies or methodologies and would be at a disadvantage in a conversation that would require them to defend their position. They say things like "just trust that I know what I'm doing" to avoid an actual discussion. There is nothing healthy about this dynamic.

Turning the corner: Control freaks need to collaborate effectively (even with people who have less experience). Good ideas can come from anywhere. Sometimes inexperienced people with fresh eyes see things that others don't. They also need to remember the importance of mentoring those around them. Resist the urge to do it or fix it yourself, unless you need to do it yourself to provide a reference implementation to better facilitate the learning process. People tend to learn better by doing, so do your best to not take that away from them.

Anti-Pattern #4: The Survivor

The goal of this person is to be the smartest person on the team. He or she is deeply afraid of looking incompetent, being challenged, etc. Survivors are constantly evaluating people to see if they are a threat. They will sometimes lie (repeatedly) to their superiors about perceived threats in hopes that the threat will be removed. They will refuse to hire people smarter than them. In short, their best interest is more important than the best interest of the company. Survivors love to have confidential conversations about other people. While they're talking negatively about them to you, they're probably talking about you the same way to someone else.

Turning the corner: The Survivor needs to relax and recognize that the office isn't a reality TV show. Their longevity will be primarily determined by their ability to contribute to the company and not by their ability to play the game. In actuality, treating it like a game is likely to shorten their stay.

As an aside, a good practice in general is to discourage "confidential conversations" about other people. You could refuse to get involved and tell them to go deal with the person directly, but I don't think this deals with the triangulation at play here. In my experience, it's more effective to pull both people into a room with you and have them sort it out with you there as a mediator. If lies have been told, you're pretty much guaranteed to discover it that way. This experience might create incentive for Survivors to keep it honest.

Anti-Pattern #5: The Bully

The bully may have no filter, or he may have anger management issues. The most important thing to the bully is "getting the job done right" (the right architecture, the right design, the right implementation). It doesn't really matter how many bodies are left in his wake as long as he gets his way. The end justifies the means. He sincerely believes that he is doing the right thing for the company. In reality, this person is a cancer within the organization. The rest of the team has probably stopped offering their own opinions for fear of the backlash that may come their way. Code reviews can be particularly painful, especially if their work is severely criticized out in the open (at their desk, for example). The bully's response to opinions he disagrees with may be condescending, disrespectful, or rude. He may not realize that his response is being perceived that way (and he may not care). At the end of the day, he's doing the right thing and protecting the company's interests. "If that's the best idea Steve can come up with, he probably shouldn't be here."

Turning the corner: In my opinion, this person should be put on performance plan and moved out the door as quickly as possible. It doesn't matter how productive or smart they are. Sweeping bad behavior under the rug only reinforces it. It simply makes things worse. Often, bullies are unable to turn the corner, particularly if they're unable to recognize that they did something wrong. No one on the team should be considered indispensable, including the manager. The most important thing is to protect and heal the team so they can reach their full potential.

Conclusion

These anti-patterns are real examples of leaders in the software industry. Each one is damaging to the team (and to the company) in it’s own way. Zeus values accountability, which is an important part of managing resources, but he leverages it in an extreme way. The Buddy Manager values relationships, which is equally as important. Unfortunately he is often not good at accountability when the situation calls for it. What’s needed desperately is balance. It’s usually not good to lean hard to one side of an issue. While we often want life to be black and white, the right path is usually somewhere in the middle. While accountability is sometimes necessary, what we’re really after is influence which requires trust. Influence requires a relationship that can be leveraged. If influence fails then accountability is probably necessary to get things turned around.

The other common thread we see in these anti-patterns is a strong focus on the leaders themselves: their ideas, their needs, their abilities. The Survivor is actively trying to protect himself. Control Freaks and Bullies believe they’re the smartest people around and can’t trust those around them. Zeus is more interested in making sure nothing sticks to him than he is in actually helping the project be successful. The Buddy manager seems to be more interested in avoiding discomfort than in protecting the company’s interests. They all put themselves first. Shouldn’t employers be able to expect that employees are putting the needs of the company ahead of their vanity, comfort, anxiety, etc.? If the company has entrusted a team to you, maximizing that team’s effectiveness should be at the top of your to-do list. If you’re a leader, be a good one. Everything else you worry about will fall into place if you get that right.

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