Restraint: It helped to lack it...until you got promoted


Published on: May 2018

Written by: Scott Weighart

We recently analyzed a set of survey results of 12 leaders who have taken our multi-rater assessment, the ExPI™.  At first glance, this is a diverse group. They work for about six different companies in roles that range from manufacturing and supply chain to talent development and consulting. The industries include aerospace/defense, chemicals, non-profits, payment processing, and industrial equipment. The gender mix is pretty even.

All of that said, there has been almost uncanny recurring theme for this latest batch of folks. The vast majority of them received a low rating from peers, direct reports and supervisors in the facet of Restraint—or in the related facet of Composure… or both.

We define Restraint as the degree to which a leader is perceived as calm, deliberate, and reasonable rather than excitable, impulsive, and dominated by their emotions. In other words, does the leader come across as more “Ready, Aim, Shoot,” rather than simply “Shoot!”?  Composure is similar but reflects whether a leader is seen as steady in times of crisis or change, generating light instead of heat.

The somewhat surprising string of low scores in these qualities prompted the question: “What is the story about all these leaders in need of Restraint?”

Well, there are a few possible stories here. It could be pretty simple. Within our database of over 14,000 surveys, Restraint is the lowest-rated facet in Character and the fourth-lowest overall of the 15 facets of executive presence, so statistically you might expect to get occasional periods where five or more leaders in a row have it as one of their two development themes.  We’ve had stretches where it feels like everyone is working on Vision, for example—another facet that tends to have low mean scores.

Upon deeper reflection, though, it seems that Restraint is more likely to be a quality that emerges as a need when a leader hits an inflection point.  We work with many senior leaders and high-potential leaders, and one observation that has emerged is that in fact there are times when these leaders are promoted due to their lack of Restraint.

To understand this, when we look again at this group of 12 leaders who are low in Restraint, we see they are rated highly in many other important facets of executive presence:

  • Confidence – Being decisive and having a bias toward action, not analysis paralysis
  • Practical Wisdom – Delivering relevant insights based on subject matter expertise
  • Appearance – Showing up prepared, energetic, looking “ready for the game”
  • Integrity – Having a high bar for themselves and others, and walking the talk
  • Authenticity – Sharing your thoughts and feelings openly and genuinely

If you’re looking to promote someone, you probably are going to pick a smart, driven person who knows their stuff and gets things done quickly as opposed to someone who is slower to act.

Then what happens after this person is promoted? Their new role demands that they slow down to create room to engage others by asking them questions, listening to them, being open to their ideas, and getting into real dialogue with them that leads to alignment and execution. It’s no longer so much about them, but how they appear to others.

As such, a lack of Restraint now becomes an impediment to influence. In the open-ended comments section of their assessments, these 12 leaders were readily acknowledged to be passionate, decisive, forthright subject matter experts. The other side of the coin is that they’re not as likely to come across as calming, inviting, approachable, inclusive, or aware of what their stakeholders are thinking and feeling. And the more senior these leaders become, the more they will need to get work done through others rather than themselves. Communication and influence essentially become a leader’s most important skill set.

It’s a classic ‘what got you here, won’t get you there’ story, really.  In this case, in fact, ‘what got you here’ can start hindering your ability to rise any higher unless it’s addressed.

The good news is that Restraint can be developed. It’s a case where learning why and how to slow down will definitely speed up your ability to engage, inspire, align, and move people to act.

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