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RIGIDITY: A CAREER LIMITING TRAIT

In several recent conversations with different clients there has been a recurring focus on a person being so rule bound and inflexible that there is no room for conversation.  My role was to provide guidance for my clients about how to interact with this type of person.  That got me thinking about rigidity as an obstacle to ascending to leadership roles.

If you review my earlier posts about preferred behavior styles you’ll read about the person who is very exacting, perfectionist, certain there is a right answer and a wrong answer.  In short, someone who not only colors inside the lines but loves those dark black lines so it is clear where the boundaries are.  Most of us have moments of this type of outlook.  Sometimes it is specific to something we know a lot about or care about or are extremely compulsive or competitive about.  Think sports or workout programs or deep professional expertise.  There are also disciplines that require this precision: engineering, math, science, accounting.  Folks who enjoy the clarity of right answers and wrong answers will naturally gravitate towards those fields.

Okay.  Nothing wrong with any of that…so far.  The trouble starts when this type of person assumes a leadership role.  It may be a project manager assignment or ultimately an executive role.  Since these people are highly valued for their expertise and eye on quality it is not unlikely that they will move up in the organization.  But this begs a question.

Can you succeed as a leader if you don’t experience the gray that is more connected to reality than the black or white?

Some days I yearn for the simplicity of yes/no, right/wrong, black/white.  But reality has taught me that once you are leading others and making tough enterprise decisions nothing is that simple.  As I began to think about my work over the years and the clients I have guided I saw a pattern.

Rigidity is a developmental stage that you pass through…hopefully…on your way to bigger leadership responsibilities.  Our desire to hold tight to certainties is something we do when we are less secure in our abilities to cope with whatever comes our way.  We imagine that strongly held positions will win the day and quiet the internal anxiety as well as the outward strife.  Sometimes that works.  But the reality of what happens in business and the complexity of all the interconnected relationships is the opposite of clear cut.  And it requires a degree of emotional maturity and (true) self confidence to swim in the ambivalent waters.

If you are this type of person and leading a group or part of the business I would bet a lot of money that you have received repeated feedback that you (pick all that apply) a) bully people into submission to your point of view, b) micromanage everyone’s work, c) have already made your mind up about most everything, d) make people crazy because they can’t figure out how to have a healthy dialogue with you.  There is no way in for the people around you.  You are right, they are wrong.  In the extreme there is finger wagging and I told you so’s and eye rolling and general dismissal of all those who disagree with you.  Not exactly the vision of effective leadership.

So, what’s the solution?  How do you think of this rigidity as a developmental stage instead of an end all be all virtue?

Open your eyes and see the world as it is rather than how you would like it to be.  See all the nuances and don’t freak out.  Take a look inward and try to stare down your insecurities.  Find ways to get comfortable with something messy; finger painting, Jackson Pollock, relationships, tough decisions.  At the root of maintaining this hard core position is anxiety…that things won’t turn out the way you want them to.  Guess what?  Sometimes they won’t.  But that is reality and the sooner you figure out how to be clever and flexible and adaptable and have a sense of humor about it all…the happier and more effective you will be.

And if you simply have no appetite for loosening up, accept the (honorable) reality that you can continue to be a great individual contributor and don’t be disappointed when you are not tapped for the next open leadership position.

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