Stress can make us all occasionally act in irrational ways - being snappy with colleagues, making unreasonable demands, unfairly criticising the hard work of others...the list goes on. But while most of us manage, at least for the majority of the time, to present a professional front at work, for some individuals the pressure can become too much to bear.
When problem behaviours start to become engrained as permanent features of the individual’s working style, it is very possible that ‘management derailment’ is taking place. Derailment occurs when the career of a well regarded and competent manager appears to go dramatically and unexpectedly off track, threatening to either stall or ‘derail’ permanently.
Both the individual and the organisation can find it difficult to see the derailment coming. However, when it happens, there is often a great deal of harm caused to the profitability of the business and to team morale.
In most cases the derailment is not caused by an ability deficit but by factors such as the individual’s behavioural tendencies, a lack of self-awareness, personal ‘blind spots’, as well as changing professional circumstances or upheaval in a person’s private life.
Tell tale signs may include sudden interpersonal problems with colleagues, a change to a more authoritarian management style, resistance to change, over-confidence or arrogance, unwillingness to accept feedback, mood swings, increased absenteeism (either by the ‘derailer’ or those working with them), and a drop in performance following previously good results.
The quicker the problems are identified, the sooner they can be resolved.
Open channels of communication are essential to identifying the underlying causes of derailment and resolving the problem. The derailing staff member needs to know that their behaviour is not acceptable, but also be told that the organisation wants to help.
Derailment is not usually the result of one issue, but rather a combination of factors. Neither the organisation nor the individual will operate in a static environment so it is important to consider whether new challenges are causing the individual to reassess their priorities. Challenges may take the form of a young family, aging parents, a partner’s career aspirations or financial concerns linked to job insecurity. Such changes may result in a temporary or permanent incompatibility between a derailer and their employer.
If personal issues are causing concern, you can consider offering the person counselling or compassionate leave which may give the person the space they need to resolve the issues. If work stress is a factor, then consider whether the derailer can be given additional support or training to better equip them to deal with particularly challenging work situations. It may be that the derailer would benefit from being taken out of their normal role for a period of time, and moved to a less pressurised position until they resolve their difficulties
While it is necessary to talk to the person experiencing the beginnings of derailment, it is also important to communicate with those working with them. Not only will this improve office relations, but it will also demonstrate the care and support of the organisation - a useful motivator.
It can be helpful for employers to consider the characteristics of the most successful high performers in their organisation. Understanding what competencies and abilities are needed to succeed in their company can help employers to create highly targeted development strategies to support a derailing manager. Interventions may include introducing a mentor, creating a career path that allows the individual to work on different projects and areas of the business, or personal development training.
Very often the most successful individuals will be those who take a proactive approach to self-development and use their own initiative to seek out the feedback of respected colleagues. However, some people can find it very difficult to accurately assess their own development needs and stress can exacerbate the problem by causing these individuals to become defensive or closed to the recommendations of others. In such circumstances, 360 degree feedback tools can play a highly valuable role as they allow managers, peers and the direct reports who work most closely with the derailer to provide them with honest, objective feedback in an anonymous setting. Providing the results are delivered to the individual in a supportive, non-threatening environment, the feedback can often provide the individual with the clarity and impetus needed to begin planning their path to improvement.
If managed effectively, derailment does not have to mean the end of a promising new career, and both the employee and the organisation can ultimately benefit from experience if the underlying issues are resolved. In addition, the cost of failing to manage the disruption will almost always be more than the time and resources invested in getting a potentially good manager back on track – it’s worth the effort.
Those who are responsible for managing derailers must know how to identify when a serious problem is emerging before too much damage is done, and then be able to plan a constructive way out of the situation that is acceptable to both the employer and the employee. To do this, the manager must understand the cause of the derailment and place this within the context of the individual’s drivers, motivation, ambitions and personal circumstances.
Don’t ignore the problem and hope it will go away, it won’t. The longer a derailment problem is allowed to go on for, the bigger the impact on the organisation. This can affect targets and finances, but will also have an detrimental impact on those who work directly with the derailer, affecting their motivation and productivity.