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Yellow Flags: How “Personal Fouls” Can Sabotage Success

The score is tied. There are 20 seconds left on the clock. It’s 3rd down and you’re fifteen yards from field goal range—a field goal will win the game for your team. The forward pass is caught for a gain of fifteen yards! The fans go wild.

But wait.

Your teammates stop their high fives. The ref has thrown a yellow flag. Your team is penalized fifteen yards for a personal foul.

Unable to make up the lost yards, your team loses the game. Why—how did this happen?

Personal fouls in a professional world

A “personal foul” in football is a fifteen-yard penalty given to a player who has committed an act of unnecessary roughness or unsportsmanlike conduct.

I have good news and bad news about this.

The bad news for us—leaders, managers, and executives—is that these fouls aren’t just limited to football. They can happen in our professional lives, too, and they can be just as damaging—if not worse—and here’s why.

When employees see bad leadership behavior, there’s no referee who can throw a yellow flag. As a result, employees often just leave. In fact, it’s well-established that people don’t leave companies; they leave managers.

How leaders get derailed—and how you can stay on track

In a landmark study on executive derailment for the Center of Creative Leadership, Jean Brittain Leslie and Ellen Van Velsor looked at why “high-potential” executives, who had a string of successes and were seen as “technical geniuses or tenacious problem-solvers,” had derailed as they moved up in the organization. One of the most common reasons cited is akin to a personal foul: “poor working relationships.” The leaders had alienated their team by being too harsh, critical, demanding, or insensitive.[i]

That’s the bad news. The good news is that we can change. It’s entirely possible to stop these counter-productive behaviors so that we don’t derail ourselves—or worse, cause our talent to leave the company. It’s possible, that is, as long we are open to feedback on our behavior.

Where effective leadership starts: self-awareness

Effective behavior starts with self-awareness, the ability to accurately judge our own performance and behavior and its impact on different situations. As a result, yellow flags are quite common among leaders who lack self-awareness; after all, without understanding the negative effects of their behavior, there’s nothing to hold them back.

What’s more, it can be difficult for these leaders to gain self-awareness because they’ve learned to view their own derailing behaviors as strengths. For example, the executive derailment study I mentioned above found that while ambition typically helps move your career forward, being too ambitious can derail it. It’s essentially a function of “too much of a good thing.”

How do we stop our derailing behaviors and become better leaders? Personally, the most powerful insights I’ve gained into understanding this problem have come from the Harrison Assessment and, specifically, Dr. Harrison’s use of Paradox Theory.

Paradox Theory

Dr. Harrison has identified 12 behavioral paradoxes that show the relationship of opposite but complementary traits. A lack of balance in these traits can create “too much of a good thing” and foreshadow derailing behavior. Let’s look at how these paradoxes make sense of one common problem in professional relationships: communication.

According to paradox theory, communication is a balance of candor and tact. “Candor” is the quality of being open and honest in expression—frank. When people perceive that we can communicate candidly, it makes it easier for them to trust us. But too much candor or inappropriate candor can have a negative impact. It may be perceived as blunt or too direct for the situation or the parties involved.

It’s paradoxical; we must be both candid and tactful, or we can derail effective communication.

Tact and diplomacy are built on an understanding of other people and sensitivity to their feelings, including how they feel about the feedback we’re giving them. A person who has developed both candor and tact responds best to the situation; this leader can read the situation, determine whether it calls for tact or candor, and act accordingly.

Let’s look this paradox in action.

Bob couldn’t find the balance between candor and tact

Bob is someone who didn’t know how to balance candor and tact, and it was derailing his effectiveness as a member of a board of directors. One day I got a call from the chairman of the board, who explained the problem to me.

Although Bob was a preeminent subject matter expert and had a lot to offer the board, he was so blunt that he was alienating the other board members. Fortunately, the chairman told me Bob was open to a coaching relationship with me because he wanted to be a productive member of the board.

To begin our coaching relationship, Bob filled out a Harrison Assessment questionnaire. As expected, Bob’s report showed very strong candor but a dearth of diplomacy. He told me that he had been given feedback over the years that he needed to be less blunt. I asked him how he processed that feedback, and his answer was very interesting.

When Bob was told to be less blunt, he took that to mean that he should lie or be less than genuine. He essentially viewed diplomacy (or tact) as a lack of forthrightness. He felt diplomatic people were holding things back. And he certainly did not want to be that kind of person.

My approach to Bob was to give him a different perspective on tact, so we changed the topic from professional relationships to dating relationships. I asked him if he had been completely candid when he initially wooed his wife. (Of course not!) As it turns out, Bob became more candid as their relationship deepened, after the two had established trust and gotten to know each other.

What Bob realized is this: being tactful isn’t about withholding the truth; it’s about saying what a person is ready to hear.

When I was coaching Bob, I didn’t ask him to be less candid or frank—that was a potential strength. Rather, I encouraged him to learn that there’s a time for candor and there’s a time for tact, and it all depends on what a person is willing to hear. I also gave him a process to help him be tactful if he couldn’t ascertain how candor would be received. It’s very simple.

When uncertain, ask, “may I be candid?”

With this new awareness, Bob’s behavior changed almost immediately. After the next board meeting, I got a call from the chairman, who asked, “What did you do with Bob, and who was that person sitting in his chair?” We laughed, but it was gratifying to see how this talented man was able to become an effective leader after a simple change of perspective and a helpful tip.

As Isaac Newton said, “Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy.” Bob, too, could now see how tact could be a positive thing. This enabled him to balance one natural strength (his candor) with another (tact) and become an effective communicator.

Respond to your own yellow flags the right way.

If I may be candid, here’s a question for you: have you committed any personal fouls recently?

Would any of your people say you committed an act of unnecessary harshness or un-leaderlike conduct?

Has your behavior inhibited forward movement or violated trust?

If so, be open to behavioral feedback. The behavior that would draw a yellow flag may be rooted in “too much of a good thing” that would otherwise be a strength. My advice? Take a Harrison Assessment.

The Harrison Assessment proprietary paradox methodology distinguishes whether strong traits are genuine strengths or potential “derailers,” and it creates actionable self-awareness—it provides the feedback that can help you turn derailers into strength. It covers a range of paradoxical traits including “compassionate enforcing,” “forthright diplomacy,” “flexible organization,” “authoritative collaboration,” and “logical intuition.” In my opinion and experience, it’s a fantastic indicator of where we may have too much of good thing, with the attendant risk of a personal foul. More importantly, it shows the complementary trait that can moderate our behavior and turn us into better, more effective leaders.

Assessing your behavior today could save you a yellow flag tomorrow.


[i] Center for Creative Leadership, A Look at Derailment Today: North America and Europe, ©1996 Center for Creative Leadership, pp. 2, 6, 8 and 9

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