Why Qualified People Refuse to Lead
We see it all the time within our workplace.
The dude two cubes down is not just productive; he is quite smart and charismatic. Or the vastly experienced middle-aged lady down the hall who has enchanting influence with most anyone.
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Yet we see one managerial position after another become available, and none of these capable people will step up to the plate. This seems like a waste, and it can be downright frustrating.
Why do these qualified people pass on these wonderful opportunities? Opportunities that would put their lives and careers on a brand new trajectory.
Three (3) types of risks
As it turns out, most of them pass on these job openings for a few basic reasons — three of them to be exact. This is what was discovered during a recent survey conducted by a team of business professors and posted on Harvard Business Review¹.
Here are the three biggest risks they concluded why qualified people are not willing to step into management.
Risk of blame
Many people who participated in the study were afraid to lead because of the responsibility they would be forced to hold. Should the group fail, then the leader would be blamed. This would damage the career that they had already built.
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There is always the fear of having to withstand failure while not having full control of assigned projects. As deadlines become narrower and resources become limited, it is not exactly an environment that creates success very easily.
As one person pointed out, “If I were to dictate the work, then the potential bad results could be pinned onto me.” And another added: “If the project we were working on did not go well…as the leader, I would be blamed.” The fear of being saddled with the blame for failure is a powerful force in preventing people from embracing opportunities to lead.
Risk of damaging relationships
One of the initial concerns that people voiced repeatedly about leadership was how it could damage their existing relationships with their co-workers. Whenever asked about this, one participant stated that “sometimes you don’t want to risk that friendship and hurt other people’s feelings.”
Another expressed fear of losing friends and status among colleagues as they “start to dislike you and talk about you behind your back.” Damage to interpersonal relationships was a very consistent reason for not stepping up to lead in the workplace.
Risk of damage to their image
Finally, many study respondents expressed a concern that others might think badly about them for becoming a manager. For instance, one person voiced the fear of becoming viewed as a “know-it-all.” Others worried about “coming across as a little bit aggressive, maybe, to the rest of the team members.”
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Much of this concern is hinged on the fact that leaders have to make unpopular decisions at times. And whenever they do so, they live a lonely life until it blows over — such is the life of leaders and managers.
Even though leadership is admired, for the most part, people are afraid that conducting leadership acts will make them look bad among their colleagues.
It should be noted that attitudes toward management can vary wildly from one workplace to another². A person’s view on managers and leadership will typically correlate with this attitude.
Unfortunately, some organizations have allowed two distinct silos to develop between workers and managers. Such a relationship will almost always become adversarial. In these environments, people have greater hesitations about stepping into leadership positions.
Conversely, other organizations have exercised more forethought on the worker/manager relationship. In these instances, they work more in parallel. There are fewer apprehensions about becoming a manager when this happens.
: Chen Zhang, Jennifer D. Nahrgang, Susan J. Ashford, and D. Scott DeRue. (December 17, 2020). Why Capable People Are Reluctant to Lead. https://hbr.org/2020/12/why-capable-people-are-reluctant-to-lead.
: Matt Straz. (September 19, 2016). How Employees and Managers See Things Differently — and How to Fix It. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/282397.