Leaders should remove barriers … sometimes they make them worse

bigstock-Underwater-photo-big-Pike-Eso-32739506Would you recognize an esox lucius if you saw one? Commonly called the Northern Pike, it is a 25-40 pound freshwater game fish. If you observe it in an aquarium, you realize quickly that this animal is the consummate carnivore. Its predatory style is to suspend itself very still in the water until a potential target gets close. Then the pike snatches it and devours it in the blink of an eye. It can literally empty out a fish tank in minutes.

But what happens if the environment is altered and obstacles are added? Researchers experimented with just that by lowering a glass barrier into the aquarium separating the pike on one side from food fish on the other. When the pike goes after a nearby minnow, it runs into the invisible divider. And after a while, the pike stops trying.

But this gets even more interesting. The observers next remove the glass, and the pike continues to avoid going after its natural food.  The learned behavior is so strong that some pike have actually died of starvation during the experiment even while minnows continue to brush up against them.

This same type of learned behavior can sometimes be seen at work. It’s a learned helplessness that occurs when you, or someone with influence over you, decides that something can’t be done, or perhaps in the case of business, can’t be done right. In short, the Pike Syndrome is a debilitating situation.

For example, if someone approaches you for feedback on a project or job they’ve been working on, and rather than emphasizing what was done well, you point out what could have been done better. Even if you were right in your critique, almost inevitably there are potential negative consequences.

Or, possibly you are the type of manager who tells people, “If you’re doing your job, you’ll never see me.” When that’s the case, good work goes unrecognized and it is only shortcomings that draw a response from the supervisor.

When good performers experience that type of environment, they learn to avoid their leader’s dissatisfaction rather than risking new behavior that might lead to better results. In the longer term, it may be difficult for them to unlearn that.

So avoid being part of the problem. Give your people their best chance to succeed by removing barriers to performance.  Next, acknowledge them when they are making progress. One more thing … it’s critical to get your own behavior in line, before you can help others to do the same.

About the author

Dr. Dick Ruhe is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies. You can read his posts here on LeaderChat the fourth Saturday of each month.

5 thoughts on “Leaders should remove barriers … sometimes they make them worse

  1. Thanks for the reminder. I am experiencing the results of this very thing in my home right now (for quite some time to be honest).

    What are some concrete ways to choose correct and, more importantly, repair the damage done?

  2. Excellent metaphor on life – Thank You! How often has opportunity brushed along side of us – but past failures keep us from seeing them

  3. Pingback: Barriers, what barriers? | Higher EDge

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