Researchers have found that inept bosses and supervisors are defined more by the important steps they do not take rather than by any overtly disagreeable conduct on their part. For the most part, these executives and managers don’t see or imagine what they are failing to do. Their failures are sins of omission rather than a result of crass behaviors.
These findings, as I interpret them, provide another example of how depth psychology can help people overcome everyday missteps and failures.
The research findings, posted online at the Harvard Business Review, analyzed the behavior of 30,000 bosses and managers. The findings were based on direct reports as well as on assessments from their peers. The researchers combed through 11,000 of the worst-performing of these managers, and they identified ten features that were common to mediocre or failing performances. Each of these features, as I see it, can be traced in significant part to the existence in the psyche of inner passivity.
Inner passivity is the hidden psychological aspect through which we become entangled in self-doubt and indecision. It blocks even the smartest people from achieving higher levels of performance. Inner passivity accounts for most of the ways in which we can be emotionally weak. Unfortunately, people usually fail to see or detect this passivity in themselves. (Read, Lost in the Fog of Inner Passivity and Our Messy Mix of Aggression and Passivity.)
According to the authors of the study, the ten features or flaws can be difficult to recognize. They’re “not the kinds of flaws we instantly recognize, either in others or in ourselves,” the authors say. “And they’re not the kinds of things people call out, since there’s nothing explicit that draws attention.” This observation describes the nature of inner passivity: it is difficult to see in ourselves and others. What we are likely to see instead (and what we experience, usually in a painful way) are its many self-defeating symptoms.
We begin to bring inner passivity into focus when we trace our symptoms—a difficulty in developing leadership skills, for one—back to the source. When we’re able to see inner passivity as a clinical feature of our mental and emotional life, we can begin to disentangle ourselves from it.
Here, from the Harvard Business Review, are the ten common features or flaws of failing performance, in the order of the most to the least flagrant. My comments regarding the influence of inner passivity on each of these flaws are displayed in italics:
1 – Failure to inspire, owing to a lack of energy and enthusiasm. Good leaders possess a sense of legitimate authority that, at its best, is based on inner confidence and self-trust. Inner passivity, which is an ingredient in neurotic inner conflict, cuts us off from this sense of legitimate authority. We can’t feel our authentic self. Because inner passivity is largely a negative emotion, it stymies the circulation within us of positive energy. We feel flat, with less enthusiasm for life in general.
2 – Acceptance of mediocre performance in place of excellent results. Inner passivity can exist in individuals who regularly perform at a high (even brilliant) level, particularly with respect to highly creative and solitary endeavors. Inner passivity doesn’t necessarily impair their talent or skill, yet it will usually cause them to suffer in some manner or to engage in other forms of self-defeat. Nevertheless, inner passivity usually does exist in people who are regularly underperforming. Mediocrity is one of the primary symptoms of inner passivity. Managers impaired by inner passivity can also be reluctant or unable to challenge their subordinates to rise to a higher level of achievement because they (the managers) are failing to challenge themselves in this way.
3 – A lack of clear vision and direction. Inner passivity blocks us from being able to create a vision and establish a sense of direction. In order to have this vision and direction, we need some well-established degree of self-assurance. We have to feel a purpose or a need for self-fulfillment that is aligned with our potential, and this feeling is less likely to be available to passive individuals. (I describe this problem here as it applied to me many years ago.)
4 – An inability to collaborate and be a team player. A symptom of inner passivity is self-alienation. When inner passivity is an emotional default position, it produces indecision and uncertainty. When individuals fail to make a strong, harmonious connection with their sense of self, they tend to be entangled in self-centered considerations. They will care less about the wellbeing of others and be less skillful in sincerely connecting with them.
5 – Failure to walk the talk. This involves the behavior of saying one thing and then doing something that falls short of what was discussed or promised. With inner passivity, individuals can swing back and forth between grandiosity and timidity. Inner passivity causes emotional instability, and outbursts of apparent confidence are often followed by abject insecurity. The individual lacks consistency, and therefore won’t be trusted by others.
6 – Failure to improve and learn from mistakes. Focus, concentration, and attention are required to improve oneself. These qualities require that we possess some reserves of inner strength. The individual has to make a concerted effort, while at the same time wanting to excel and fulfill his or her potential. Inner passivity thwarts such intentions. Nor will the individual learn from mistakes because he or she is likely to be too insecure to even admit to mistakes. Subordinates are often blamed for failure.
7 – An inability to lead change or innovate owing to a resistance to new ideas. Inner passivity often throws us into self-centeredness, and can cause us to be wooden, inflexible, and stubborn. As well, insecure individuals feel more comfortable with what’s familiar. New ideas feel disorienting. They’re afraid they won’t measure up to the new challenges. Often they’re identified emotionally with their old ideas or old ways of doing things. Their inner passivity blocks them from accessing a solid inner foundation that can withstand or handle a fast-paced changing environment without undue stress or anxiety.
8 – A failure to develop others. Developing others requires the confidence to let others surpass oneself. Insecure bosses or managers are often prepared to feel that they’ll be overshadowed or displaced by their subordinates if they help them to become outstanding performers. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, poorly performing managers won’t have a facility for developing others because they’re not developing themselves.
9 – Inept interpersonal skills. This shortcoming has already been addressed in some of the above comments. Most significantly, ineffective bosses are self-created out of their psychological failure to overcome self-doubt and inner conflict. This means their emotional connection with themselves is wobbly. They’re deficient in the inner skills of personal connection and self-trust. This deficiency is carried over to their emotional and professional connections with others.
10 – Displays of bad judgment that lead to poor decisions. Inner passivity can block individuals from mustering the inner resolve to think a problem through to successful resolution. Their challenge is to be objective, yet many of the perceptions of neurotic or dysfunctional individuals are, instead, subjective and irrational. They can easily misconstrue the intentions of others and misinterpret their remarks. Mediocre bosses can also have unresolved issues with being a disappointment to others, and the higher they rise in a business hierarchy the more pressure they can feel to act this out. (Read, Overcoming Incompetence and Its Miseries.)
The authors of the study note that people sometimes observe these kinds of failings “only after weeks and months of working together.” This means, they say, that if you’re one of those unfortunate ones “heading toward disaster, you could be traveling down this road right now with no hint that anything’s amiss.” As I see it, individuals who are underachieving will usually feel through inner dissatisfaction and suffering that something is amiss. At this point, it’s a matter of whether they tap into the relevant self-knowledge that addresses their inner malaise and frees up their potential.
Another feature or flaw of failing performance can be added to the list above: The ineffective boss who becomes a bully or controller and generates negative feelings among subordinates. Bullies and controllers are infused with inner passivity. Because of this inner weakness, they can’t exercise healthy power. To feel a semblance of power, they revert to a caricature of it: the nasty, overbearing or controlling boss who lords it over his or her subordinates. Their leadership emerges in a way that is inappropriate, negative, and self-defeating.
We all have to become more astute concerning the deeper dynamics of human nature. Otherwise, life itself—in rebellion against humanity’s self-sabotage—might fire us all for the incompetence that accompanies our lack of insight.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.