…that some managers lack leadership skills?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university educator over the last 17 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q: Why is it that some managers lack leadership skills? Whenever there’s a challenge at work, my boss avoids making unpopular decisions. Being a supervisor isn’t a popularity contest! I just wish my boss would show some backbone for a change.

A: The topic of leadership is central to the study of social psychology, and many theories have been offered to explain who and what makes for an effective leader. Whether talking about business, education, politics, religion or even parenting, psychologists have defined certain traits and characteristics that can make or break one’s ability to manage others.

Early theories of leadership argued that leaders are born and not made. These trait theories state that certain individuals have natural qualities of leadership that include out-going personalities, the ability to communicate well with others and a high motivation for personal success. But more recently, research has identified other factors that may influence one’s ability or inability to lead effectively. Needs theories state that people in positions of leadership are driven by their own personal needs for power, achievement or social affiliation.

Those driven by the need for power and achievement are more concerned with the accomplishment of tasks and worker productivity. They are less concerned with how employees view them and are unlikely to be swayed by the opinion and feelings of their subordinates. In many ways, these types of leaders are highly driven to achieve organizational goals or personal advancement, and may appear insensitive to the needs of their employees. Much like your question implies, these authority figures are not out to win “popularity contests” and often rule with “an iron hand.” And while they may be successful at meeting deadlines and quotas, they are not typically well liked or respected by staff – resulting in a decrease in employee motivation and job satisfaction.

In contrast to power/achievement oriented leaders, others may be driven by their need for social affiliation. These types are far more concerned with being well liked and accepted by their subordinates than their achievement oriented counterparts. It’s my guess that your boss may fall into this category, as affiliation focused leaders tend to sway with popular opinion and are unlikely to implement or enforce decisions that cast them in an unpopular light. Because their primary interest is social image, many employees find these types of leaders to be “wishy-washy” or weak – due to their reluctance to make unpopular decisions.

Overall, we can think of leaders as falling into the broad categories of being either person-focused or task-focused. However, both approaches have positive and negative consequences when taken to the extreme. While task-focused leaders may be effective at making and implementing decisions, increasing overall productivity and maximizing the goals of the organization, they are also frequently faced with the negative outcomes of demoralized employees who resent their impersonal approach to success in the workplace. When employees become overworked by unrealistic expectations placed upon them by demanding managers, the whole system backfires – as employee performance typically decreases as a response to the overall stress and lack of respect they feel at work.

On the other hand, managers who are overly concerned with their social image, may place too much emphasis on inter-personal relationships, often resulting in decreased performance and an overall lack of strength, guidance and direction. As we know all too well – we can’t satisfy everyone. Even the most well intentioned, sensitive leader will inevitably fail to make all his/her subordinates happy. Because person-focused leaders are overly concerned with social popularity they may become so obsessed with maintaining a popular image that they fall short in providing their employees with the structure and guidance they need to effectively perform their jobs.

Therefore, in order for a leader to be truly effective, a balance is required. Successful leaders must blend a task orientation for achievement with a healthy degree of respect and appreciation for their subordinates. While many may believe that salary is the primary factor related to job satisfaction and productivity, it is actually a positive and constructive social climate that maximizes motivation, satisfaction and job performance.

The underlying personal or professional motivations of managers will determine how they approach their leadership roles. And while the recipe for success may vary with each specific context, we’ve found that the most successful leaders are those who provide their employees with concrete/reasonable goals, structure and firm decision-making – while still maintaining a sincere, respectful and approachable social demeanor.