Myth busters #5, Part 2: There's no right way to make promotion decisions

April 25, 2017

Thomas F. Hilton, PhD

In Myth busters #5, Part 1, guest blogger Tom Hilton talked about the importance of leadership competencies in improving organizational performance. Part 2 continues the discussion

Why do leadership competencies matter? 

Researcher and Harvard psychology professor David McClelland found that as you move to higher and higher levels of responsibility, leadership ability begins to overshadow technical skill. Of course, in the health field, many supervisory positions in clinics require educational credentials, licensure, and technical skills. However, if people cannot also lead, they will make ineffective bosses regardless of their professional accomplishments. Bill Gates might be a technological wizard, but Microsoft would never have become the corporate giant it is today without his ability to energize, inspire, and animate a rapidly growing workforce. 

How do you stop the downward spiral due to bad leadership? The answer depends. Surely replacing the person in charge can be a solution—when it is feasible. That is not always the case. Another strategy is for directors to diffuse leadership responsibilities by creating self-managed teams (SMTs) where workgroups report to the boss as a group—no supervisor. SMTs usually reinfuse empowerment among team members and begin to turn things around. Creating SMTs usually requires an outside consultant to coach the change. 

The long-term solution is for the organization to bite the bullet and get professional help in making senior hiring decisions. If expert help is not an option, have the entire clinic group interview the top two or three candidates. Their collective judgment will often be better than that of one person. Because they have some skin in the game, staff members will ask tough questions. After all, the counseling staff are trained interviewers. Once leaders are not turning over frequently, this investment will compensate for the extra time and resources by reducing turnover and training costs. It is also very likely to reduce counselor stress, and enable more effective treatment and recovery.

What do you do if the director is the problem?

Sometimes the person in overall charge, the clinic director for example, is where the leadership problem lies. While oversight boards sometimes replace ineffective directors, it is not the norm. In most cases, a broken boss is fixable. Participating in leadership development workshops can help to develop better leadership skills. The FAA, for example, requires that every employee who is promoted or hired into a leadership position must attend a weeklong workshop to develop trust and communication skills. Hiring a coach to come in periodically can help senior leaders develop greater sensitivity to their disabling and enabling behaviors. Staff members too can join in by offering constructive feedback in non-threatening ways. Most counselors have had some assertiveness training. Here are two examples:
“Boss, when you interrupt a counseling session just to tell me something on your way out, it makes it difficult to restore rapport for an effective session.”
“Boss, I’m sure that you did not mean to put me down just now, but think about how you would feel if your boss said that to you.”

Can leadership competencies be learned?

This is the 900-pound gorilla in leadership science. Is leadership a trait or a skill? Organizational psychologists continue to dissect leadership effectiveness. McClelland would say it is both. I agree. Skills you can learn, but traits are innate. They are in our genes. The more leadership traits you have, the easier it is to put those leadership skills into action. Traits become increasingly important as one moves higher in any organization. Without the right mix of traits, skill alone will be insufficient to ensure that you always say and do the right things as responsibilities become onerous and pressure to do the right thing may allow only seconds to respond.

Over my career, I have worked for some amazing leaders such as the Vice President, the Surgeon General, the Admiral of the Navy, and the Administrator of the FAA. Each were always situationally aware, always asking the right questions, always trying to figure out which subordinate executive/admiral/general should take the lead, always weighing the effect of policies on their workforce and the public, always weighing decisions against their mission. They were also charming yet never disingenuous, and dependably ethical. They could sometimes empower you with just a look. That is something special.

Fortunately for most of us, our leadership demands are not so onerous, and many of our trait deficiencies can be moderated by improving both our own and our bosses’ leadership skills. We owe it to the people we work with and work for. We owe it to our clients.

About our guest blogger

Tom Hilton is a retired NIH science officer and NIDA program officer now in private practice. Tom has over 40 years of experience studying and conducting large-scale organizational change initiatives in publicly-traded corporations, DOD and other large federal agencies, as well as general-medical and addiction health services organizations.

Other posts by Tom Hilton:

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