Why Leaders Do the Dysfunctional Things They Do

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Nov 13, 2019

Editor’s Note: It’s an annual tradition for TLNT to count down the most popular posts of the previous 12 months. This is No. 6 of the 708 articles. You can find the complete list here.


Early in a meeting to discuss marketing strategy, Daniel, the VP of marketing interrupted his CEO, Paul, who had launched into a typically long-winded explanation of why his view of the way forward was the right one.

Daniel had long struggled to win Paul’s approval, and had spent significant time collecting and analyzing some new data that largely supported Paul’s view point. However rather than welcoming the new input, Paul became visibly angry at being interrupted, and the rest of the room thought, “Here we go again.”

Pausing to shoot a disapproving look at Daniel, Paul pushed on as if nothing had happened. Visibly wounded, Daniel sat back in his chair, mumbling an apology and looking resentful. Reading the reaction among the rest of his executive team and feeling he had contributed yet again to causing an uncomfortable scene, Paul directed dismissive comments at Daniel, casting responsibility for this “unhelpful interjection” onto him. Daniel responded by defensively trying to rationalize his decision to introduce the new data, only to be cut off and told to “stick to the agenda.” The meeting ended with everyone in an unsettled state and little accomplished.

In our work with top executives and their teams, we often observe scenes like this and listen to our clients recount them. These sorts of unproductive interactions are both common and damaging. In the case of Paul and Daniel, both emerged from the meeting angry and resentful setting the stage for further strife between them and lost opportunities to move the business forward.

Why do poisonous dynamics like this take hold? In many cases, it’s because leaders and their subordinates are locked in the grip of maladaptive emotional patterns that, when triggered, show up as dysfunctional modes of behavior. Even the best leaders sometimes can fall into these derailing modes of leadership, especially when under stress. Only by understanding these patterns and learning to identify and manage them can they hope to lead and follow more productively. The key to doing so lies in understanding and applying the tools of Schema Theory.

The Schema Theory framework

Schema Theory is the conceptual foundation of an integrative school of psychotherapy, developed by Dr. Jeffrey Young and his colleagues in the early 1990s, and practiced around the globe. It combines elements of cognitive behavioral therapy (which focuses on correcting biased beliefs and altering self-defeating behaviors) and interventions focused on healing early emotional trauma. Extensive research has established its efficacy with some of the most difficult-to-treat psychological syndromes, such as personality disorders and chronic mood disorders, such as depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

It also turns out to have profound implications for understanding why dysfunctional leaders do the things they do.

Where do these deeply rooted patterns – called maladaptive schemas – come from? In most cases it’s from early experiences of not having basic needs met. Every leader once was a child, and like every child depended on others to get basic needs for safety and attachment met. When those needs were not met, for example through abuse or neglect, or when getting parents’ attention or approval depended on behaving in specific ways, for example being perfect at doing things, getting high grades at school, or winning at sports, then very deep patterns of behavior get established. Early experiences of abuse, for example, understandably result in a propensity to be mistrustful, and constant pressure to perform can lead to a need to be perfect.

Schema Theory and leadership

The importance of Schema Theory in understanding and shaping leader behavior resulted from early conversations we had about the challenges Michael [Watkins, one of the authors] was facing in coaching some senior executive clients.

For this subset of clients, conventional coaching methods failed to have a positive impact because of what appeared to be deeply ingrained patterns of dysfunctional behavior. While these leaders responded somewhat to feedback from psychometric or 360 assessments, they ultimately seemed to be unable to realize more than temporary change. Helping them seemed to be more the province of therapists than executive coaches.

At the same time, a substantial subset of Wendy’s clientele were people in senior leadership positions, although they often entered therapy because of serious issues in their personal lives such as divorce or estrangement.

In our conversations, we explored the intersection of our two professional worlds and the potential for Schema Theory provide insight into dysfunctional leader behavior and new strategies for executive coaches.

Maladaptive behaviors

Ultimately, we concluded that many executives operate in the “shadow” of their early maladaptive schemas in ways that profoundly undermine their effectiveness as leaders. For Paul, the CEO, his volatility and bullying behavior left everyone who worked for him “walking on eggshells” and unwilling to challenge him, even when it was clear he was wrong. For Daniel, our VP of marketing, his constant need to seek recognition and approval prevented him from “showing up” in a more powerful and effective way.

This has very important implications for the behaviors of leaders. When triggered, early maladaptive schemas can cause people to shift into self-defeating modes of behavior like those experienced by Paul and Daniel

To explore this further, we began by seeking to understand the prevalence and impact of schemas and corresponding dysfunctional modes of leader behavior.

Based on existing questionnaires created by the practitioners who developed Schema Theory, we constructed a questionnaire focusing on 10 schemas we hypothesized were likely to influence executive leadership. We sent the questionnaire to a sample of former participants in a 4-week executive leadership program at the IMD Business School, getting 55 responses.

What we found

Analysis of the data showed that the leaders reported significant frequencies for seven of the 10 schemas we selected, as shown in the table below. The schema with the highest frequency as “Unrelenting Standards”, with almost 50% of the respondents indicating that it was “Mostly True or Completely True” that they exhibited the associated behaviors.

The “Unrelenting Standards” schema shows up as an internalized “voice,” typically reminiscent of a demanding parent, driving those who have it to hold themselves (and often the people who work for them) to impossibly high standards. It may also show up in leaders who were left to fend for themselves as children. Because they didn’t get adequate nurturing or guidance, they constructed a hyper-autonomous coping response as a form of survival, vowing never have to count on or “need” anyone.

Do You Have Unrelenting Standards? Click here and find out.

Dysfunctional modes and triggers

Schemas can lie dormant until they are “triggered” by specific events (sensory experiences, social interactions, the behaviors of others) that lead to their activation. Schema activation triggers a shift from one emotional mode to another, potentially maladaptive one, for example from a calm, encouraging state to a highly demanding state.

Leaders often have a relatively small set of schemas and a corresponding set of modes through which they shift over a course of time. Paul, our CEO, did have a “Healthy Adult” mode (wise, emotionally accessible, reasonable, rational, thoughtful) in which he operated a significant amount of the time; he also had a “Demanding Parent [Critic]” mode (with unreasonably high expectations and rigid standards) into which he shifted when he thought subordinates where underperforming. Daniel experienced, a third, “Bully” mode in which Paul directed sarcastic, demeaning comments at his subordinates. This mode often is associated with the “Punitiveness” schema, which results from early experiences of being punished for even minor misdeeds. About 15% of our sample of leaders reported it was mostly or completely true that they had the “Punitiveness” schema.

In fact, there is a strong correspondence between the seven schemas we identified as most common in the leaders we studied and a corresponding set of dysfunctional modes as detail

Click for larger image

ed in the Schemas chart.

While having one of the seven schemas doesn’t guarantee that you will exhibit the corresponding dysfunctional leadership mode, it’s likely. If you do, the shift into these modes will happen as the result of specific triggers, which are very important to understand and learn to manage.

Leader’s schemas can get triggered by the actions of their subordinates – which can be the result of their own schemas and modes getting activated. The result can be in “schema clashes” that can be highly damaging.

Daniel, the marketing VP, had a “Recognition-seeking” schema, which he acquired because he only got attention as a child when he “performed.” When triggered, this schema shifted him to an “Approval-seeker” mode of behavior in which he tried too hard to impress people in authority. About 31% of our leaders reported that this pattern of behavior was mostly or completely true for them.

When the desire for recognition from Paul activated Daniel’s “Recognition-seeking “schema and he shifted into “Approval-seeker” mode, it triggered Paul’s “Punitive” schema and shifted him into a “Bully” mode, with unfortunate consequences for both of them.

Maladaptive schemas are common

Our research revealed that most executives have one or more early maladaptive schemas and corresponding dysfunctional modes of leader behavior. This does not mean, however, that all leaders need therapy. For those whose schemas run deep and whose modes are highly damaging and difficult to control, it may help. In fact, we have had some tremendous successes working together as therapist and coach with the same clients.

However, for most leaders, it’s enough to work with an executive coach who is versed in Schema Theory and can help them to understand and manage their dysfunctional modes. This starts with an assessment done by a coach who understands the framework and employs supporting diagnostic tools. Once identified, the focus of the coaching is not on healing the underlying schemas; that is the work of therapists with in-depth training. Coaches focus helping the client to 1) understand when and how dysfunctional leadership modes get triggered and 2) learn to anticipate, avoid, and mitigate their impact on one’s leadership.

Where to start

For leaders like Paul, for example, who have a “Demanding Critic mode that that stems from an “Unrelenting Standards” schema, the starting point is to recognize that the mode exists and explore how it impacts their leadership. When you are in the “Demanding Critic” mode, how do you feel and what behaviors show up in your leadership?

Once awareness is raised, the next step is to recognize how (and how often) the mode gets triggered. What are the circumstances that lead to the mode-shift from “Healthy Adult” to “Demanding Critic”? How often does it happen and what are the implications when it does? Understanding of the frequency and intensity in which this mode shows up offers important insight into the nature of the work to be done. If the mode is frequent, intense and highly damaging, it’s a signal that in-depth therapeutic work should be explored.

Coaching preventive action

Assuming this is not the case, however, and armed with insight into one’s dysfunctional leadership modes, the coaching work can proceed to anticipation, avoid and mitigate them. The coach works with the leader to help them build their awareness that a shift into a dysfunctional mode is in danger of occurring. This is a big step in its own right. While it is important progress to understand one’s modes and recognize that they have been triggered after-the-fact, the mode shift still has occurred and some damage has been done. It’s another big step to develop anticipatory awareness that a mode shift is about to occur and to take preventive action.

Taking preventive action means developing strategies to avoid and mitigate the impact of mode shifts, such as diversion, disengagement, and delay. Diversion essentially means trying to change the subject. If there are topics or behaviors that one knows are likely to trigger a dysfunctional mode, one can try to shift the conversation or do something to break the frame of what is happening. Failing this, disengagement can be a strategy worth trying. This can range from, “I need to take a break” to, “I can’t discuss this at all further right now.”

Finally, when one is triggered, it can help to try to pause, breathe, and delay the resulting reaction. We believe, for example, they every leader should have a folder of “emails I wrote, but didn’t send.”

Developing the ability to anticipate, avoid and mitigate one’s dysfunctional leadership model doesn’t heal the underlying schemas: the propensity to get triggered, shift into a dysfunctional mode and react in potentially damaging ways remains, but becomes more manageable and less damaging.

For leaders who decide to go down the therapeutic, schema-healing road, with or without the support of a coaching partner, the benefits can be great. To do this, however, we have found they first have to overcome a basic barrier: the fear that doing this work will make them less effective as leaders. This is particularly the case for executives with the most common of the schemas: “Unrelenting Standards.” Leaders with this schema believe that perfection is the key to success, even survival. So, it’s natural for them to feel that the alternative to achieving perfection is mediocrity, and that ceasing to strive relentlessly for perfection will lead to failure.

The good news is that the executives with whom we have partnered have become more effective leaders, not just people who are more satisfied with their lives. The alternative to unrelenting standards is not no standards; it’s high-but-achievable standards. And the alternative to the pursuit of perfection is not mediocrity, it’s striving for excellence.

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