The Great Leadership Cop Out: Why "That's Just Who I Am" Is Derailing Your Results

Sam knew something was wrong. It just wasn’t fun anymore. The creativity and enthusiasm had drained from the company. Decisions took forever. Managers were finding it harder than ever to recruit and retain talent. Sam had hired me to help him crack the code.

As I pulled up to Sam’s office, I knew he’d be unhappy with my recommendation–which involved a serious look in the mirror at his own leadership behaviors. His reaction was disappointing, but highly predictable– based on what I’d heard from his team.

“Karin I’m 48 years old. That’s just who I am. Let’s talk about the real issues here. I can’t change. Give me something else.”

“Sam, I’ve got a whole list of something elses–actions that I know will improve the bottom line. But none of those are the MIT (Winning Well for the Most Important Thing).

“What matters most is how you’re showing up as the leader. If we can focus on just a few vital behavior shifts, your team will know you’re serious about making an impact. If you can do that, everything else we do will be easier.”

Why “It’s Just Who I Am” is a Cop Out

Have you ever uttered those words, when hearing tough feedback? “It’s just who I am. I can’t change.”

I hear it all the time, at every level of the business and across industries. It’s most dangerous with the CEOs and start-up founders I work with.

“It’s just who I am… I’m direct. I say what I mean.” Excellent. But imagine how much more easily your message would be received if we added in a little tact?

“It’s just who I am… I’m a visionary. I don’t want to get bogged down in the details.”  Your vision is amazing and got the company this far. AND from what I can tell you’re about to go bankrupt. You need to listen to what your team is trying to tell you.

“It’s  just who I am. I’m not a people person. I have people for that shit.” I hear you. But when you roll through the office like a hurricane tearing everything and everybody apart, you can’t hire enough people to clean up the path of destruction. Your culture and productivity are suffering.

Quite frankly, “That’s just who I am” is BS. It’s not “you” who’s driving people crazy. It’s your behaviors. And it’s usually just one or two that can make all the difference.

What to Do Instead

Have you been told you’re overly direct? Pause 10 seconds before you open your mouth and ask three genuinely interested open-ended questions (and really listen) before offering your opinion.

Is your team trying to tell you something you don’t want to hear? Try again. Promise to really listen. And then shut up. Stay curious before responding. Ask probing questions and listen some more.

Does your team think you’re an SOB? Pick one day and only look for what’s going right, point it out and thank people for their contribution. Notice the impact.

God (or the Universe) didn’t create anyone to be mean and nasty, clueless, or obtuse. Your parents didn’t mean to raise you that way. For better or worse, we pick up our behaviors along the way. And they ARE changeable.

Behaviors are not WHO you are, they are WHAT YOU ARE DOING.

And if you’re a leader, when you won’t change, you give everyone on your team permission to dig their heels in and use the “that’s just who I am” cop out too, and the whole team begins to accept toxic behaviors.

Imagine the possibilities of starting with admitting to yourself that WHO YOU ARE is a fallible human being with great intentions.

And then picking just one thing to change, and prove to yourself it’s possible.

 

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Posted in Energy & Engagement, Winning Well and tagged , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, is CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders and a former Verizon Wireless executive. Karin was named on Inc.’s list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers for Your Next Conference, the American Management Association List of 50 Leaders to Watch, and as a Trust Across America Top Thought Leader in Trust. She’s the award-winning author of two books, Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results— Without Losing Your Soul, and Overcoming an Imperfect Boss. She’s regularly featured in business publications including Fast Company, Entrepreneur, and Inc.

12 Comments

  1. Interesting points. Lot of food for thoughts & actions is there. Excellent post. The process of improvement starts from ” I / Me “. Feedback of sincere colleagues should never be ignored. A negative (offensive) behavior of leader spoils / ruins the life of many. Yes…… They not only watch your words, but also actions.
    Zafarmanzoor, Sr. Exec, Pakistan.

  2. This was me when I was younger. Before I was a manager I was honest to the point of being blunt. This invited those above me to be honest with me in return which worked for me. But once I was supervising others the bluntness just shut down any learning and/or communication. It took me a long time to realize that relationship works differently from the other side. Once I got that message things got so much better not only for me but for everyone who worked with me.

    • Bonnie, There is such a fine line between real feedback and candor and tact. I learned that the hard way too 😉

  3. I love this! I was just thinking through some of this yesterday and this morning, but you articulated it well. I was trying to share something important with my boss and he shut it down and told me to move on. I told him hold on, listen to the point I am trying to make, but he didn’t want to hear it, but it was something that I felt could better the team. Since that conversation, I have been thinking about how important listening is because it shows value to another person. Just because you listen does not mean you agree, but when we listen, we often learn something and we show the person speaking that we value them as an individual. After all, we hired them (or someone did) for a reason to this team, right? Really listening is a lesson I have been learning over the years myself. I want those I work with to feel valued. When we feel valued, I believe we work harder and perform better thus creating a positive ripple effect for the whole team and organization. Who wouldn’t want that? So thankful “Behaviors are not WHO you are, they are WHAT YOU ARE DOING” and that they can be changed. It does take time and we do have to slow down, but I believe it’s worth it in the end.

  4. Karin, great article which applies to all leaders in all walks of life. As a leader, we MUST be willing to change. If not, we give permission to everyone, as you stated “to dig in their heels and use the “that’s just who I am” cop out. I will share this article with my non profit board. Thanks..

  5. Great post but to be fair, the majority of long standing managers won’t change and in addition would do the damnedest to ensure their surroundings won’t change either. They’ve just got too much to lose and have lost interest and/or motivation to take the necessary risks and drive change. Beyond the very human nature of risk aversion and sustainability there’s the company culture which in many cases does not incentivize risk as mistakes are largely being stigmatized, and just as people grow out of creativity per the famous Ken Robinson talk, executives grow out of the ability to change.
    Hence, when I look for new hires or am asked what’s the one skill you value the most, i always say it’s the flexible mindset and adaptedness that can you further down the line.

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