OOPS! Unintended Consequences

I have had the privilege of working with more than 1,000 leaders, executives and managers - 32 of whom were CEO's. No matter how hard they try, they simply don't recognize (and no credible person ever tells them) the consequences - always unintended - of their own behavior.


Most, if not all, leaders:

  • have a clear picture of what the business needs and where he/she wants to take the business;
  • don't really want to make all the decisions;
  • would like others to take some of the responsibility for success;
  • would like others to take some of the responsibility for success;
  • want the best for their employees and themselves;
  • recognize that he/she does not have all the answers but believes she/he is supposed to;
  • wonder why others don't get it";
  • are basically good human beings who are, more often than not, very frustrated ;
  • have the talent, ability, experience and intellectual capacity to be successful; and,
  • spend a surprisingly large amount of their time confused and even frightened and they can't tell anyone.


If this is the case, why doesn't it work"?

I suggest that it isn't working" for the simple reason that leaders are not aware of the unintended consequences of their own behavior!

Leader A holds countless sessions explaining to people the state of the business and trying to instill a real sense of urgency in them and they don't get it".

Leader B repeatedly tries to delegate only to become more and more frustrated by lack of business performance.

Leader C asks for candid feedback on his/her impact on the organization only to hear that you're doing great, boss".


Situation 1

A Fortune 100 Company CEO was venting her frustration during lunch. Her company was engaged in the due diligence process for a potential merger with another firm. She had repeatedly stressed to her executive committee (her direct reports) the importance of meeting the numbers" each quarter. Earlier in the day, at a regular meting with the executive committee, she asked how are the numbers for the current quarter?" What made her so angry was the fact that no one could answer her question.

I suggested that there might be an even bigger issue. WHY DID YOU EVEN HAVE TO ASK? Her response was that I was absolutely right; but, she went on to say but in all fairness, they have been busy with the merger talks". My response was WHY DO YOU KEEP TAKING THEM OFF THE HOOK?

She stopped, stared (or more, accurately, glared) at me for about 30 seconds and then said I guess I didn't realize that that is what I was doing". After another 45 minutes of discussion, a concrete intervention plan" to help her stay out of this self-generated trap and communicate this change in her expectations and future behavior was developed.

Situation 2

The CEO of another Fortune 100 company was lamenting the fact that no matter how much he told the leaders and managers of his company that major change was needed, they simply didn't get it". They'd nod their heads and say ain't it awful" and kept doing what they had always done.

I asked him why he thought this was the case. He said, I guess either they don't believe me or they are waiting for me to tell them what to do," I suggested in either case, you're not getting their commitment to take the lead to do something about the situation. Rather than telling them, why not lead a process of discovery so that they - for themselves - see the situation as you do?

He immediately saw the value of taking this approach and in less than 90 days the entire leadership of the firm (union and management leaders alike) had gotten it" and were pressing themselves and each other to get on with it". Incidentally, this firm is now consistently ranked as among the best managed in the US and is also consistently ranked as one of the FORTUNE 100 Best Places to Work. It is also one of the darlings of Wall Street with more than 55 consecutive quarters of record growth in revenue and profits.

Situation 3

The CEO of one of the largest heavy industry companies in the U.S., with a doctorate in chemistry and a brilliant man, was lamenting that, while he knew that he was very highly regarded by his colleagues he had heard that he had a communications problem" with not only his direct reports but also a lot of other leaders and managers. He asked me to observe his interactions for a day and to share my observations with him.

The next week I sat in his opulent office of the top floor of high-rise office building - 30 x 40 feet, huge desk, Corinthian leather sofa and lounge chairs around a marble topped coffee table. His first caller" of the day tapped on the door and said Tom, have you got a minute. I need to walk something by you." Tom said, Sure, what have you got?" The visitor began to describe the situation she was facing. After about 90 seconds, Tom said, I got it. What you need to do is…."

For the balance of the day this was the routine. At the close of the day, Tom asked for my feedback. Referring to my notes, I said I watched to you interact with 14 people today. In every case, you either interrupted them or cut them off and gave them your response. What do you think they felt?

His somewhat miffed response was Look we are all very busy. I understood the situation and thought we could save both of us some time by just answering their questions." My response was In more than half the cases I observed today they didn't ask for an answer, they just wanted to talk things through with you, check their thinking, get some advice.

Being the very bright person that he was he responded, In my effort to SAVE time I actually probably belittled them, caused them to not learn anything and probably really p----- them off." I suggested that his diagnostic skills were superb.

We laid out a plan for him to check what the visitor wanted - information, advice, a decision, etc. - , get up from behind his power position" desk when the topic warranted and utilize the 'conversation pit' furniture.

Within two weeks, he called me and said that he had received countless comments on how much better a listener he had become.
A SUGGESTION Leaders are human beings although they oftentimes are not allowed to be. For them, like most of us, our weaknesses are our strengths either misapplied or carried to excess.

Leaders sometimes misapply" their strengths or go over the top". If they don't know the effect of that behavior, how can they fix it?

Leaders need a coach! Someone who:

  • has no axe to grind" other than
  • the effectiveness of the organization and every individual - as an individual - in that organization
  • is an experienced business person who understands how organizations function
  • cares about people
  • has the experience and credibility to be a good listener and guide
  • maintains the confidentiality of every interaction.

If senior executives need a coach, they simply ought to be replaced with a person who doesn't need a coach!" All of my experience suggests that this is not the case. I simply haven't met anyone who can carry the mantle of leadership without someone to help them examine and correct the unintended consequences of their behavior which are unknown to them - to serve as their personal Jiminy Cricket". (If they knew the consequences, they are more than smart enough to correct them!)

Ideally, this role would be carried out by someone within the organization. Unfortunately, very few organizations have developed sufficiently open norms of conduct to allow this role to be carried out by someone within the organizations. Until that set of norms is firmly imbedded within the organization, an outsider, - in the course of helping people develop their own internal capability to do so - may be needed to serve in that role.

Even more important and perhaps surprising, well over 80% of those leaders who were on the cusp" of being labeled nonperformers" were not only willing but also able to recognize the unintended consequences of their own behavior and FIX IT. This repair work" made unnecessary the seemingly fashionable action of periodic changing of the guard" at the top of the organization. My experience with the house cleaning at the top" has unintended consequences as well.

Replacing the CEO (and others) does have the positive effect of buying 9 - 12 months with the Board of Directors and stockholders to give the new regime time to get their feet on the ground". On other hand, the unintended consequences can be huge:

  • the real, underlying problem(s) continue until the new regime can ferret them out and fix them; and,
  • the rest of the people in the organization are let off the hook" because the 'problem' was obviously those at the top and there is nothing that needs to change 'below' THEM.

The realities of a warp-speed changing global marketplace require that ALL leaders and employees recognize that we have met the enemy and s/he is ME!"

Developing a method by which people can become aware of the unintended consequences of their own behavior and helping them correct that behavior absolutely MUST be a part of the day-to-day working environment if organizations are to be successful.

RECOMMENDED STEPS Meet with your colleagues and tell them of your interest in having a coach for yourself and others and in creating the internal capability to provide coaches for everyone. Enlist their understanding, support and commitment.

    Jot down notes of the criterion you want to use in reviewing external resource candidates to help you get started:
  • What type person would I be willing to have as my coach?
  • Will this resource not only provide coaching but also assist our organization in building internal capabilities?
  • What experience has this resource had in these roles?
  • What is this resource's track record"?
  • Etc.

Locate and retain resources to assist you and your colleagues.
Clearly define expectations of the resource(s) and the measures for success in this activity and their effectiveness in building internal capability.

  • Begin the journey".
  • Periodically assess progress and make adjustments as needed.