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Develop a personal early warning system to avoid making bad leadership choices

By understanding the mistakes you’re most likely to make — and when you’re most likely to make them — you can maximize your effectiveness and opportunities. See also “Diagnose your risk of unforced errors.”

Note: This is part three in a three-part series addressing how leaders at every level can become better equipped to navigate the new world of work. Read part one on bridging the digital–human divide and part two on developing better leadership habits.

Deepa is an experienced manager at a rapidly growing technology company. She has fast-track aspirations and the rock-solid performance she’ll need to turn those goals into a reality. But when a colleague unexpectedly resigns, everything changes. Deepa’s workload suddenly doubles, and she can’t find the time, energy, resources, or focus to get everything done. She slips into constant catch-up mode and starts arriving late and unprepared to meetings. Feeling overwhelmed by an increasing sense of urgency in every task, she cuts corners just to keep up. Her choices become habits, and she finds herself in a disaster of her own making. As her productivity and engagement decline, so does the confidence others once had in her potential.

Deepa is like a lot of leaders — maybe even you. Chances are, you sometimes face staggering demands you can’t manage effectively. But when your reputation can hinge on moment-to-moment choices, it’s important not to follow Deepa’s example and fall into a pattern of making missteps that leave you susceptible to learning and performance problems.

You might wish you could get an alert every time you were about to make a mistake. But in the absence of telepathic technology, there are other reliable ways that you can create your own early warning system, so you won’t whip up a tornado of self-sabotaging behaviors.

Learn to spot your unforced errors. An unforced error is a self-generated performance gap created by one or more subtle, counterproductive behaviors that you unconsciously adopt. Here are some common examples that directly affect the quality of your work:

  • Zoning out repeatedly, even during important conversations
  • Splitting your focus and multitasking, even with important projects
  • Letting circumstances and events dictate your priorities
  • Being easily and often distracted by technology

No other person or event forces you to do these things. On the contrary, these are your own choices and actions — or inactions — and they undermine your effectiveness. And unforced errors like these don’t affect only your performance. Here are some examples of unforced errors that directly affect others’ work:

  • Arriving late to conference calls and meetings
  • Being unresponsive to email and phone messages
  • Falling behind on your work, which delays others’ progress
  • Exhibiting stress, which makes others hesitate to approach you

When your reputation can hinge on moment-to-moment choices, it’s important not to fall into a pattern of making missteps that leave you susceptible to learning and performance problems.

These situations illustrate the symptomatic nature of an unforced error. Such behaviors emerge from underlying, pervasive issues — the struggle to accomplish more with less time and the trade-offs required when deploying too few resources against mounting demands — but they are avoidable.

To become more aware of the mistakes you’re most inclined to make when the going gets rough, start with this statement: “When the demands I face increase and my capacity is stretched thin, a counterproductive habit I have is…” After you come up with a list of your counterproductive habits, ask yourself: “What action am I taking (or not taking) that keeps this unwanted habit in place?” The second question helps you pinpoint what you need to shift to avoid making the error.

Find your prone zone. Feeling out of sync, overworked, and constantly behind can cause a leader to slip into what we call a prone zone, in which they’re more likely to commit additional unforced errors that have the potential to derail them. It’s important to know what pushes you into your prone zone.

It might be fatigue and increasing irritability from waking up tired day after day. Or it could be frustration caused by missing workouts, disorientation from excessive travel, or a predictable sore throat that comes after you’ve pushed past your limits for too long. Pay attention to the times when you begin to make counterproductive decisions, so you’ll be more self-aware about which circumstances are most likely to put you into the prone zone.

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When you can no longer mask the effects of these circumstances, those around you begin to notice. Perhaps your communication becomes terse and infrequent. Maybe you compensate by taking charge and inadvertently steamrolling others. Or it could be that you retreat inward and stop asking for help from others at the very moment you need it most. These are the unforced errors that could threaten your performance in the short term and erode your well-being and professional brand over time.

Acknowledge the cost of your mistakes. Unforced errors indicate that something is already going wrong in your work life, but the insidious problems are the tangible results of those errors (e.g., “Because of my distracted state, I’m less likely to invest time in developing others or holding them accountable to priorities”).

One unforced error in isolation is not a big deal. We spend our social and professional capital moving beyond such snafus. But if you add a few together and repeat them over time, their cumulative consequence can adversely affect not only your own performance, but also team and organizational performance.

Once you’ve identified your unforced errors, be honest with yourself about their effects. Select a few of your most common mistakes and ask yourself these two questions: “If my direct report were making this mistake, how would I react?” and “If a friend were making this mistake, what would I do?”

With direct reports, you probably wouldn’t let those mistakes go unacknowledged, because you’re responsible for giving those employees performance feedback and you care about their growth and development. And with friends, you wouldn’t want people you care about to limit their potential due to a fixable issue. In the same way, you should care about how your actions affect your future as much as you would care about the future of your direct reports or friends.

Now imagine that somebody you trust saw you repeatedly committing an unforced error. How would you want them to react? You’d probably want that person to prioritize candor over politeness. Increasing your self-awareness and asking for direct feedback can prevent you from being the last one to know about your own unforced errors.

Diagnose your risk of unforced errors. Now that you’ve identified your unforced errors, know your prone zone, and see the value of adjusting your behavior, you can identify your risk level by using the tool below. 

Use this diagnostic tool as an early warning system any time you feel potentially at risk of making the sorts of bad choices that can derail your career. To complete the self-assessment, rate each statement according to how often you experience it.

Like a preemptive pulse check, it will give you a heads-up about impending calamity.


Note: This diagnostic tool is inspired in part by the 1963 work of Howard McClusky and the 1996 research of Peter Vaill. An earlier version appears in The Manager’s Dilemma, by Jesse Sostrin.

Jesse Sostrin

Jesse Sostrin is a director at PwC’s U.S. Leadership Coaching Center of Excellence. He is the author of The Manager’s Dilemma (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). He writes and speaks at the intersection of individual and organizational success.

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