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Eight questions that cause leaders to lose sleep

The proverbial question of what keeps leaders awake at night is usually answered by uncontrollable external issues like technological change, stiff competition, economic upheaval, or organizational problems like declining sales and an unengaged work force. But Nicole Lipkin, a clinical psychologist and executive coach based in Philadelphia, suspects that what will eat away at you in 2014 will be "sticky and gooey" matters related to interpersonal dynamics.

Staying awake at night to ponder moments when you fumbled – or taking time during the day for such reflection – is not a bad thing. "We all mess up. There is a big difference between those who are willing to step back and consider their behaviour and people who figure it's the other person's fault," she said in an interview.

Her recent book, What Keeps Leaders up at Night, sets out eight questions that might cause sleepless nights this year:

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1. I'm a good boss. So why do I sometimes act like a bad one?

Even the best boss can have a bad period. Ms. Lipkin experienced this when, despite being a psychologist and coach, she clung to the hope that she could turn around a new recruit who was obviously a poor fit for the job. She lists three reasons good bosses go bad temporarily: They are too busy to win, too proud to see, and too afraid to lose. Like an overloaded bookshelf that sags as extra books are piled on, we are supersaturated by workplace demands. We also can become stuck in our ways and avoid risks, fearful of losing if we try a new approach rather than focusing on possible wins.

2. Why don't people heed my sage advice?

Leaders must influence others, winning their hearts and minds. Of the seven types of power typically recognized by sociologists, she picks as the most important "referent" power, gained when others respect you as a leader. You must be empathetic toward others. You must build credibility, constantly. To help people buy into your messages, you must appeal through storytelling. "The more personal your message, the more likely they are to buy in," she advised in the interview.

3. Why do I lose my cool in hot situations?

Stress is our constant companion these days. But Ms. Lipkin says we can choose how we react to it. Start by taking an inventory of your stress personality, how you react physiologically and psychologically. Can you retain your optimism and resilience under fire? "Your response to stress is vital to your leadership and can be negotiable. But it requires understanding your core beliefs," she said.

4. Why does a good fight sometimes go bad?

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Competition can be fine, leading to greater motivation, improved productivity, self-improvement – and fun. But corrosive competition can sap morale, thwart collaboration, and poison the team or organizational culture. Envy is the most dangerous emotion. You need to manage competition in your workplace, rooting out envy, ensuring strong social connections, and nipping problems in the bud.

5. Why can ambition sabotage success?

Ambition can be fine, when it's not myopic, focused solely on how to benefit the individual. Instead, we need to cultivate a panoramic leadership perspective, in which the needs of all stakeholders are considered. She points to Ray Anderson, who, after reading a book called The Ecology of Commerce, decided to transform his modular floor covering company, later known as Interface Inc., so that it would be sustainable in all dimensions, giving back to the planet what the company took from it.

6. Why do people resist change?

Most of us freeze when faced with change, overcome by physiological and psychological defences. We are particularly susceptible to the sunk-cost bias: The more time, money and effort we have put into something, the less willing we are to walk away. We don't want to admit that we have made a mistake. Exhaustion can also prevent us from considering change. "You can't shove change down people's throats and expect them just to do it," she warned.

7. Why do good teams go bad?

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Just as with individuals, teams can thrive or survive depending on psychological factors. An us-versus-them mentality can arise; social loafing can lead some team members to take it easy and leave the burden on others' shoulders; and group conformity can prevent the full exploration of ideas. Emotional contagion can also pervade, as moods become influenced, detrimentally, by teammates. "We assume when people come into the workplace, they can work in teams. But in fact they need to learn team skills," she said.

8. What causes a star to fade?

Too often, people whom we consider stars fade, bitter or depressed, and no longer able to engage with colleagues. Smart leaders must ensure employees are connected in the workplace, their managers are capable, and the work meaningful.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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