GettyImages-1188856966Great leaders help to drive organizations forward and nurture growth, development, and innovation—but what happens when a leader derails? Leadership derailment can have a negative ripple effect within a company, so organizations should take steps to confront this issue.

In this article, we’ll discuss why leadership derailment occurs and how you can manage and prevent it in your organization.

What is leadership derailment? 

Leadership derailment happens when a leader plateaus in their career or is demoted or terminated due to poor performance in a leadership role. Some professionals seem to show great promise as they progress in their careers only to fail unexpectedly when they get promoted. 

Unfortunately, leadership derailment examples abound in workplaces across the country. That employee that was a great team player may become an unlikeable and ineffective manager. Or, the executive who has been in the same role for many years may be burnt out and no longer lead with the same enthusiasm they once did. 

Research suggests that up to a quarter of executives are at risk of derailment, according to London-based HR magazine. Leadership derailment is a common occurrence, but it’s not an inevitable one. There are ways to prevent and quickly address these issues to help leaders stay on track.

Need help identifying the derailer? Check out our guide: Finding and Managing the Bad Boss.

What are some key reasons why leadership derailment occurs?

To understand how to combat this issue, we first need to understand what causes it in the first place. Circumstances, personal attributes and behaviors, and organizational deficiencies can all contribute to instances of leadership derailment.

1. Contributing Circumstances

In some cases, circumstances such as times of transition, a heavy workload, or high-stress situations contribute to derailment. However, these factors tend to only lead to derailment when the circumstances are prolonged or when combined with other factors. 

For example, one leader may face a stressful situation head-on and handle it effectively, coming out the other side with even more respect from their team, while a leader who is already struggling in their role may crumble under the pressure.

2. Personal Attributes and Behaviors

Leaders who exhibit certain attributes and resulting behaviors, known as “derailers,” are at greater risk of derailment. Over time, research has helped us understand the specific individual attributes related to derailment and uncovered several recurring themes:

  • Problems with interpersonal relationships
  • Failure to build and lead a team
  • Overall lack of self-awareness
  • Inability to learn from experience
  • Issues with trust or integrity
  • Difficulty changing or adapting 
  • Poor composure under stress
  • Overreliance on strengths

3. Organizational Factors

While leaders contribute to their own derailment, organizations often contribute as well through problems such as:

  • Promoting someone too fast or selecting the wrong person for the job
  • Linking success and rewards too closely to moving up the organizational hierarchy
  • Overlooking unhealthy behaviors from leaders 
  • Failing to help leaders learn from their mistakes
  • Emphasizing results over feedback on leadership practices
  • Allowing talent hoarding to occur, where valuable employees are kept in current roles rather than allowed to progress in their careers

What are some actionable ways to minimize leadership derailment? 

Understanding and defining derailers is the first step organizations can take in trying to minimize leadership derailment, but it doesn’t stop there. Consider these steps your organization can take to actively combat the issue of leadership derailment.

1. Frequent Feedback

Offer frequent formal and informal leadership feedback. Studies have shown that leaders often have inaccurate views of their own strengths and weaknesses, making feedback from others essential. Leaders need to know where they have room to grow so they can focus on addressing those areas.

Integrate derailing behaviors into 360-degree feedback and ongoing leadership development discussions. This should help leaders become more self-aware so they can set personal goals, perform better in their current roles, and continue to progress.

2. Talent Assessments

Safeguard against derailment through talent assessments and succession planning. As we saw, one issue that can lead to derailment is organizations hiring or promoting the wrong people or the right people at the wrong times. 

As you conduct talent assessments for succession planning, be sure to consider derailment factors along with other important criteria for determining performance, potential, and readiness. Technical skills alone aren’t enough for someone to succeed in a leadership position.

3. Coaching

Provide coaching for leaders as they assume new roles and responsibilities. Derailment often occurs when an individual enters a new position that may be a stretch for them. You can ease the transition to a new position and equip leaders for success by providing training or mentoring. 

Help professionals understand their new responsibilities and how success will be defined in this new role. You may also need to provide some coaching in interpersonal skills or other aspects of management that may not have been as critical for success in the person’s previous role.

Help leaders and your organization succeed with support from viaPeople.

Leadership derailment in an organization can detract from the perception of fairness. That's why our team of industrial-organizational psychologists at viaPeople created our Practical Guide to Performance Calibration.

A performance calibration not only increases the fairness of appraisals but also the accuracy, so you can more effectively pinpoint and solve derailment issues. Download the guide today.

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