Once on an airline flight I sat one row in front of a sales executive and a new manager he had just hired. The executive was giving his new manager advice on how to succeed in the organization. In exquisite detail, he described (loud enough for me to easily hear) how he manipulated others in the organization to do what he wanted. After sharing his methods, the executive said to his new hire, “Of course, I would never use these techniques on you.” I would love to have seen the reaction on the new manager’s face, but I resisted turning around to look.
The executive’s advice to the new manager was self-limiting. As soon as he described his strategy for influencing, he reduced the chance that he could use his strategy “on” that person. Self limiting strategies are those that are used “on” others, just as the executive described. In general, the more people who know a strategy is being used “on” them, the less it works.
Self-limiting strategies are a common problem in teams and organizations. Unfortunately, sometimes consultants create the problem. I was recently working with a group of medical leaders and one physician asked me what I thought of a famous consultant’s approach to creating change. This consultant recommends that leaders create an urgent need for change – even if natural events haven’t created that urgency yet. I replied that this approach becomes less useable as more people in the organization learn it: when you tell your team to create urgent change that isn’t yet urgent, they will come to know you’re using a technique rather than a genuine strategy, and the next time you say urgent change is needed they won’t trust you.
In another organization I worked with, another consulting group was helping HR leaders learn how to deal with people who were resisting change. The consultants showed leaders how to profile the type of resisters they were facing and to overcome the resistance with a proscribed approach based on “type”. But once the resisters understood they were being treated as a “type”, the prescribed approach would no longer work.
Another example of this self-limiting approach is the sandwich approach. (Click here to read about it.)
Unfortunately, organizations continue to teach leaders these self-limiting approaches without realizing that the more they are practiced the deeper the negative impact becomes: self-limiting approaches can create cynicism, disengagement, distrust, and poor performance across the organization
To create effective teams and organizations, leadership strategies have to become stronger – not weaker – as more people use and experience them. Instead of strategies that we use “on” others, leaders need strategies that we use “with” others.
Originally published May 2011