Management June 17, 2015 Last updated September 18th, 2018 2,222 Reads share

Leaders – Are You Playing the Avoidance Game?

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There is a game, sort of a cat and mouse, humans often play when experiencing stress. For leaders of companies, it can tilt the culture or markedly slow down growth.

Mark* is an accomplished leader who is passionate about improving his skills and facilitating the growth of his company. Yet, he admitted recently that he had played the avoidance game with his sales team because he is not comfortable with selling.

Yvonne* is a recently-promoted CEO in her company and appears eager to move a new product out of development. Yet, she is playing the avoidance game with her production team by putting off a decision because she is uncertain about some new information.

Andrew* has recently stepped back into the CEO role at his company to help stabilize it. He is playing the avoidance game by not working with his team to produce a written business plan. “It’s in my head and they know what to do,” he explains.

In our heads we know that responsibility begins and ends with the leader of the company. However, we also know that human behaviour is not quite as logical and leaders can set themselves up for trouble when they play the avoidance game.

Signs of the avoidance game…

Avoidance is a common defence mechanism when people are feeling stressed. Yet, the strategies, tactics and thinking leaders use while avoiding would be remarkable in a game situation. Richard Boyatzis, Annie McKee and others have identified that leaders (CEOs, presidents, managing directors, etc.) experience “power stress” due to the nature of their role and responsibilities. This high level of stress, if unchecked, can lead to avoidance. It might be manifested by:

  • Engaging in busy work so there is no time to take a look at the big picture. This can result in a company floundering or stagnating. If you are not steering the ship, it will hit the rocks.
  • Acting like you’re too smart to spend time on the company’s basics. Experienced leaders are more prone to this when they have led companies in the past. Due to their knowledge, writing a plan seems like a waste of time and energy. However, each company has its own quirks, there are rapid changes in the business environment and people are terrible at reading each others’ minds.
  • Analysing and re-analysing data, especially in highly uncertain situations. It is more common than we would like to have to make choices based on imperfect information. Putting off the decision can result in missed opportunities and increases feelings of frustration while undermining trust.
  • Feeling insecurity. There are times when the managing director is operating on his/her best guesses. It could also be that there is a team member with a particular expertise that the leader finds intimidating. There is a tendency for people to avoid uncomfortable situations as well as fearing that they might look stupid.
  • Not providing guidance and accountability. It is easy to assume that people know how do their jobs. However, this assumption can also lead to thinking that people know what is expected. This creates a vacuum in which people make up stories about the overall business goals, deadlines and who cares if or how the work gets done.

The dynamic that compounds the situation is that we feel relief when we avoid and this reinforces our behaviour. Stress is pain and we do things to avoid pain. However, some of this pain is self-inflicted because our emotional responses to the circumstances.

Interrupt your pattern

The avoidance game is a way to manage fear and the pressure to perform. However, it interferes with effective leadership and management. Here are some ways to minimise or eliminate it:

  • Be honest with yourself. Ask yourself, “what or who am I avoiding and why?” Listen to your answer. It may surprise you or it may be an old thinking pattern. Telling yourself the truth may be uncomfortable but it can also give you an idea of what steps to take next.
  • Be kind to yourself. You are trying to cope with a difficult situation. Maybe you are making a mountain out of a molehill but it is real to you. Take a moment to breathe deeply and remind yourself that you are capable, strong and can fix your mistakes.
  • Make time to exercise, sleep and eat healthy foods. Sometimes our stress is simply from working long hours with hectic schedules. It can feel like you just do not have the energy to deal with a particular situation. When you take care of yourself, you have a better ability to cope. Exercise has the added bonus of getting rid of muscle tension and making your mood better.
  • Check your assumptions and arrogance at the door. It is worth communicating clearly with your team and spending time on writing a brief business plan so the goals and your expectations are obvious. It reduces how much micromanagement you do plus keeps misunderstandings under control.
  • Trust yourself to do the best job you can. Uncertainty is part of leadership. You do not have to know all the answers nor have the expertise. You do have a vision and a plan. Encourage your team to make recommendations and explain their thinking. The resulting discussion will illuminate if further analysis is warranted.
  • Be open to learning. Whatever course of action you choose will lead to consequences. These consequences are nuggets of knowledge. Failure and success nourish our learning so we grow in our abilities and confidence.
  • Talk with a coach or mentor. Sometimes we need to get out of our heads and talk to someone in confidence. Verbalising our thoughts gives us both the opportunity to hear ourselves as well as get an outside perspective.

Keep in mind that some habits are hard to break. If you have a strong tendency to avoid conflict or over-analyse then this adds a degree of difficulty.

But not impossible

Mark, Yvonne and Andrew are typical in how they are playing the avoidance game. The avoidance game is simply a natural human response. Leaders are just as susceptible to it as anyone else. The skill to get out of the game is your triggers and adapt your behaviour before it sets a cultural precedent or halts progress.

So, leaders, are you playing the avoidance game?

*All names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

Images: “Leadership Management/


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Elli St.George Godfrey

Elli St.George Godfrey

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