The Kids Are All Right…Derailers and All

I am the proud father of three children: a 4-year-old boy, a 4-year-old girl, and a 7-month-old baby girl. As you might assume, the 4-year-olds are twins. I have observed many things that have amazed me with the twins over the past 4 years. One observation was that a multitude of people, from strangers at the shopping mall to professionals with PhDs, would ask me if the boy and girl were identical. I would, of course, politely respond “no.” I wanted to say that not only did these children not result from the splitting of a single zygote, but there is a very fundamental difference between the anatomy of a boy and a girl that prevent them from being identical!

Another observation that I noticed very early on was how differently they behaved when they were upset. The children share the same family circus environment and around 50% of the same DNA, however their reactions under stress follow very consistent, yet distinctly unique, patterns. Through my work at Hogan as a consultant, I began to see clear parallels between the derailing behavior of leaders as assessed by the Hogan Development Survey (HDS) and the challenges I was facing at home as a father.

A derailer is a counterproductive tendency that, in normal circumstances, likely manifests as a strength. When we are tired, pressured, bored, or otherwise distracted, these behaviors can become overused strengths or risk factors that inhibit our effectiveness. The HDS measures 11 such risk factors. For example, leaders scoring in the high-risk zone on two of these HDS risk factors, Excitable and Diligent, are likely to struggle with a vicious cycle of behavior when under stress. They tend to be perfectionistic and typically impose high performance standards on their employees causing others to view them as demanding and nitpicky (Diligent). When employees do not meet these lofty expectations, the leader may react with emotional outbursts and become overly disappointed in others performance (Excitable). As a result, leaders might demoralize and disempower staff through moody overreactions and a refusal to delegate, which places additional pressure upon the leader to deliver results, and this increased stress level is likely to further trigger the Diligent/Excitable cycle of behaviors.

Now, I obviously cannot administer the HDS to my 4 year-old son. If I could, I would bet dollars to donuts that he would score in the high risk zone on both Excitable and Diligent. Like any leader, child, or human, my son has many wonderful aspects to his personality. He is very hardworking (loves to help his dad shovel snow, pull weeds) and his positive enthusiasm is contagious in our household. However, he has very specific and rigid expectations for his own and others behavior (Diligent) and he becomes overly upset when things don’t play out to his liking (Excitable) such that his negative emotions also set the tone for the house.

Another interesting combination of HDS factors occurs when a leader scores in the high risk zone on both Mischievous and Colorful. These leaders tend to get noticed and succeed early on through their ability to command the spotlight with outgoing and animated behavior (Colorful) and charm others with their impulsivity and excitement seeking (Mischievous). However, these behaviors can cross the line into the realm of derailment when leaders are too dramatic too often such that they manage by crisis in reaction to stress. Performance can also be inhibited when leaders invite negative attention by testing limits, taking risks, and favoring pleasure over commitments. On a smaller scale, Colorful and Mischievous are very accurate labels for my daughter. On the positive side, she is endlessly entertaining with her family room theatrical productions and already demonstrates a capability to use finesse to win others over. However, her dramatic antics are less entertaining when she reacts to a simple splinter extraction as if it were major surgery without proper anesthetic.

The real fun begins when one person’s derailers collide with the derailers of another individual. In my work life as a consultant, these derailers collide among members of work teams. In my personal life, they collide between my twins. What do you think happens when you pair one child who demands that everyone color inside the lines and gets upset when they don’t with another child who truly relishes coloring outside the lines and pushing other peoples’ buttons? Sometimes it resembles a mixed martial arts pay-per-view event. That being said, the twins also function like a little old married couple where neither individual could function without the other. I can’t wait to see what my 7-month-old eventually adds to this behavioral stew!

The Hogan leadership research tells us that most people will struggle with at least one or two derailers. So I guess that makes my children normal. The research also indicates exactly what I’ve observed in that we develop risk factors early in life while learning to deal with parents, peers, and relatives. This behavior that develops while we are young may become habitual and we may be unaware that we behave in certain ways because it’s simply the way we’ve always acted. These derailers can inhibit both individual and team performance both at work and at home. Strategic self-awareness of these potential risk factors is the critical first step for understanding our behavior and beginning to manage ourselves to get the most out of our strengths.