Why Capable People Are Reluctant to Lead
“Resentment,” “competition,” and “blame”; “aggressive” and “pushy.” These are a sample of the words that respondents in our recent study associated with stepping up to lead. Despite the fact that most organizations desperately need people with leadership skills — and many employees and job candidates say that they are interested in leadership — when we asked people anonymously about pursuing opportunities to step up and lead, they often seemed reluctant.
This lines up with many of our lived experiences: it is fairly common to see someone choose not to lead, whether it’s a capable coworker who passes up an opportunity to guide a team project, or a manager who, when confronted with a challenging situation, simply waits for things to happen instead of taking charge. Strong leadership is essential for both organizational and personal growth — so why don’t more people step up when they have the chance?
We conducted several quantitative and qualitative studies to explore this reluctance: First, we interviewed and surveyed more than a hundred working adults, asking them to describe times when they had considered stepping up to lead but did not end up doing so. Second, we conducted a field study following more than 400 MBA students working in consulting project teams, in which we used a series of surveys to assess team members’ perceptions of the risks associated with leadership, as well as their ratings of each other’s actual leadership contributions in these projects, at several points during the semester. Finally, we surveyed approximately three hundred managers and their employees, asking about the risks they associated with leadership, as well as their assessments of their colleagues’ leadership capabilities.
Three Kinds of Risk
Based on this research, we found that there are three specific types of perceived risks that deter people from stepping up to lead:
- Interpersonal Risk: The first concern people mentioned over and over again was that acts of leadership might hurt their relationships with their colleagues. For example, when asked why they were hesitant to step up to lead, one respondent explained that “sometimes you don’t want to risk that friendship and hurt other people’s feelings.” Another said they were afraid that if they stepped up, other people could “start to dislike you and talk about you behind your back.” The fear of leadership harming interpersonal relationships was one of the most consistent themes we found throughout our interviews and surveys.
- Image Risk: The second common concern people described was that leading might make others think badly of them. For example, one respondent said they were reluctant to lead because “I don’t want to seem like a know-it-all.” Similarly, another interviewee worried that “it can come across as a little bit aggressive, maybe, to the rest of the team members.” Despite the fact that both organizations and employees generally claim to admire leadership, people worry that actually engaging in leadership acts might make them look bad in the eyes of their peers.
- Risk of Being Blamed: Finally, we found that many people were afraid that if they stepped up to lead, they would be held personally responsible if the group failed. They worried that they would be blamed for the collective failure, and that that could cost them a coveted promotion or future leadership opportunities. As one respondent explained, “If I were to dictate the work, then the potential bad results could be pinned onto me.” Another respondent expressed a similar sentiment: “If the project we were working on did not go well…as the leader, I would be blamed.” Fear of being associated with and blamed for failure is a powerful deterrent that keeps people from taking on opportunities to lead.
These three perceived risks were consistent among the MBA students, managers, and employees we studied, and they had a real impact on people’s willingness to lead. When they perceived these risks, we found that MBA students were less likely to contribute leadership in their project teams, managers were seen by their subordinates as engaging in fewer leadership behaviors (such as intellectually stimulating their subordinates, identifying and articulating a vision, and setting high expectations), and employees were rated by their coworkers as exhibiting less leadership initiative.
So what can we do to help people overcome the risks that hold them back from pursuing leadership opportunities? Below, we describe three proactive steps managers can take to mitigate these perceived risks and nurture leadership at all levels:
- Go the extra mile to support your more risk-sensitive colleagues. Our interviews suggest that employees who are earlier in their careers, newer to their teams, and/or of lower rank in the organization’s structure may be particularly sensitive to leadership risks. In addition, prior research has shown that minority gender or ethnic groups are also likely to be more risk-sensitive in many professional leadership contexts. To encourage these employees to push past the additional challenges they face, managers can proactively reach out to them when opportunities arise, explicitly seek their input in key meetings and projects, and publicly praise their leadership contributions in front of senior colleagues.
- Manage conflict — and how people interpret it. Conflict inevitably arises within teams. But we found that people are particularly likely to become discouraged by the perceived risks of leading when working on teams whose disagreements stem from relationship conflict (i.e., conflict due to differences in personality or values), rather than differences of opinion about the tasks or work processes at hand. So when conflicts arise, managers should help the group address their specific disagreements and ensure those disagreements remain about the work, instead of letting productive conflict escalate into attacks on people’s personal styles or values. When people see conflict as a search for the best idea rather than a fight between people, they are less likely to shy away from leading those people.
- Find low-stakes opportunities for people to try out leadership. Finally, we found that people are more risk-averse when major career consequences are at stake. For example, when asked to take on highly visible leadership responsibilities, less-experienced leaders may worry that poor performance could damage their credibility with influential colleagues with whom they might need to work in the future, or cause them to lose out on upcoming opportunities for advancement. In cases like these, the high stakes involved can make people less willing to take on leadership opportunities.
To mitigate these risks, managers can identify lower-stakes opportunities, such as a routine project with less visibility or an internal exploratory initiative with less-significant consequences, and encourage high-potential individuals to exercise their leadership muscles in these safer environments. This approach also enables people to try out different approaches to leading, reflect on what works for them, see how others react to their leadership efforts, and adjust accordingly — without worrying that their career is on the line. Then, as they build confidence and hone their leadership skills, they will be more prepared to take on higher-risk opportunities without fear of failure.
While the business world continues to emphasize the importance of leadership — and the rewards that come along with it — we also need to acknowledge the risky side of stepping up to lead. By recognizing the risks that potential leaders face and managing their perceptions of those risks, organizations can nurture leadership contributions from more people in more places — ultimately supporting both the organizations’ own growth and that of their people.