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8 questions that keep bosses up at night

Book Review: Common factor in all is people

What Keeps Leaders Up at Night: Recognizing And Resolving Your Most Troubling Management Issues. By Nicole Lipkin. Amacom Books, 288 pp. What Keeps Leaders Up at Night: Recognizing And Resolving Your Most Troubling Management Issues. By Nicole Lipkin. Amacom Books, 288 pp.

As bank leaders during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, I'm sure we have all spent our share of sleepless nights.

Add to that all of the new regulations being imposed upon the industry. Stir in all the normal operational concerns you have, as the leader of your bank.

You are sure to have a recipe for insomnia.

While this book won't address the regulatory burdens of banking, it will help you address common mistakes leaders in all sorts of organizations make with the people they manage. Nicole Lipkin is a clinical and business psychologist who works with executives from around the world to make bosses better--better managers of their most valuable resource, employees. The book will also show you how to retain and motivate key talent within your organization. Lipkin draws lessons from history, business headlines, personal example, and research.

Let's review some of the highlights of Lipkin's advice.

Have you been a "good boss gone bad"?

"Good boss gone bad" syndrome comes in those moments we all experience when the normally good boss has a temporary lapse into the bad boss cycle because they are too busy to win; too proud to see; or too afraid to lose. These three symptoms of a bad boss are likened to a cold that temporarily inflicts the patient, but can be cured quickly with the right medicine.

Too busy to win. Many of us suffer from this due to information overload. It creeps up over time.

Have you noticed how the volume of e-mails you receive keep increasing? I sometimes feel like I spend most of my day deleting the e-mails I don't need so I can get to the important information I do need. Another bad habit: Constantly looking at my iPhone when away from the office. It isn't that the information on the phone necessarily changes; I just find it almost addictive to keep looking.

Signs of  information saturation include:

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  • Losing your temper more quickly.
  • Frequently feeling--and appearing--anxious.
  • Growing more impatient than usual.
  • Suffering memory lapses.

(Whew! This is good news--I thought my memory lapses were a result of age.)

Being aware of the signs of "too busy to win" can help you prevent this from happening. Simple things like taking a short walk outside or enjoying a favorite food can help break the cycle.

Too proud to see. When a boss won't let go of an idea; refuses to heed the advise of others; or relies too heavily on past successes at the expense of looking for alternative solutions, this syndrome has kicked in.

Lipkin says that our brains naturally have a tendency to recall past successes as solutions to new problems. Approaches that have worked well in the past have a strong bias in our minds--even though the current situation might have a different set of circumstances.

Banking and new technology serves as a good example of the risk of this trap. I frequently hear bankers talk about their past approach being to "wait and see." They think, "Others can adopt new technology and I will wait to see how successful it is for them. I will let them make all the mistakes before I implement the new product."

Yes, I know that this worked well in the past because there were only a few new technologies being introduced. The problem today is the introduction of new technology comes so fast, those who wait and see may never catch up.

Lipkins says the cure for being "too proud to see" is to listen to others twice as much as you talk. Encourage an environment that challenges the way you look at new problems. Listen to different points of view before you make decisions. Such practices break the  "this is the way we have always done it" mode of thinking.

Too afraid to lose. Being "too afraid to lose" hinges on how comfortable and self-assured you feel in a situation. With all of the changes in the banking industry, who feels self-assured?  This is uncharted territory for all of us. The bosses who will overcome being "too afraid to lose" have certain personal characteristics, such as the ability to recover quickly from setbacks; ability to maintain a strong sense of commitment; and a talent for working well under pressure, to name a few plusses.

Knowing the importance of these characteristics can help bankers identify good managers to work for them.

If you are aware you are only human and will probably experience one of the three causes of the "good boss gone bad" syndrome, you are already on the path back to the ranks of the good boss.

"Why don't  people heed my sage advice?"

Have you ever wondered why people don't follow a leader's advice, especially yours? (The headline comes from Lipkin's second chapter heading.)

Because the author is a psychologist, much of the book explains the functions of our brains that contribute to certain behaviors. Lipkins says the secret to having people follow your advice "referent power," the ability to influence.

The power to influence boils down to the simple fact that people like listening to and are willing to follow those people who sincerely respect and value them and whom they also respect and value.

Living with stress and anxiety

To say these past four or five years in banking have been stressful would be an understatement. Everyone in banking has felt increased amounts of stress due to uncertainty in the economy, increased regulation, and having to take on additional responsibilities.

Have you found yourself losing your cool in hot situations? 

Stress can be the culprit. Lipkin says that three personality traits have been found that could actually help protect someone from the negative health effects of prolonged stress. These traits are defined as the "factors of hardiness" and are as follows:

1. Commitment, which is maintaining a purpose in life and nourishing social and community involvement. Positive beliefs foster successful reactions to stress.

2. Perceived control over a situation. People can choose how they react to a stressful situation and thus exert some degree of control over it.

3. Challenge, which involves seeing stressful events as problems or opportunities. Those who cope successfully with stress tend to look at the silver linings as well as the clouds.

(My mother would have summarized these characteristics as those of an optimistic person.)

When competition becomes unhealthy

"Like most deeply rooted human behavior, competition is perfectly normal and health," writes Lipkin in a chapter called "Why does a good fight sometimes go bad?"

She continues with an illustration:

"[Competition is also necessary in human evolution because it drives natural selection and ‘survival of the fittest.' Competition can make the office an exciting and rewarding place to work ... Conventional wisdom insists that cooperation and collaboration work better than competition, but the inevitability of social comparison argues quite the contrary. Comparison is the mother of competition. And competition is a fact of corporate life. Harness its power as a good fight, or risk seeing it metastasize into a bad fight."

Have you ever seen competition between groups or individuals go badly?  Healthy competition between departments or various sales teams can be a good thing to increase income. Unfortunately, envy can come into play and destroy healthy competition. If unchecked, envy can destroy the attitudes of good workers and perhaps the entire organization.

The most important way to keep envy in check, Lipkin argues, is awareness. Both you and the people you supervise must become aware of its symptoms. This book has numerous suggestions for identifying envy and ways to arrive at healthy solutions once it is identified.

Professional paradox: When ambition sabotages success

We have all witnessed stories where ambition was so strong it actually became the person's downfall. Lipkin opens her chapter with the rise, corruption, and ultimate assassination of Julius Caesar as a stunning example of such failure. And she presents the reign of his adopted son and successor, Caesar Augustus, as a success that not only led to the second ruler's deification, but brought about a period of 150 years of peace known as the "Pax Romana."

We all have a voice inside our heads with the ability to influence "cognitive dissonance." In other words, when we do wrong, we come up with justifications, reasons, excuses, all to make what we did "right."

This concept is explained by a study conducted in 1958 by Judson Mills that Lipkin cites.

Mills gave a group of sixth graders a test none could pass without cheating. Before the test, he measured each student's attitude about cheating. He then gave the students the test unsupervised, but put hidden cameras in the room to observe the students taking the test. Some cheated and some did not.

After the test, Mills interviewed the students to once again measure their attitude about cheating. He discovered that the students who cheated grew more lenient in their attitude about cheating, but the students who did not cheat felt even more negative about cheaters.

Cognitive dissonance can work against those who have an overwhelming ambition to succeed. It allows that small voice in our heads to reason as the students who cheated did, that what we are doing may not be so bad if it is helping us to achieve our goals.

This type of reasoning is oftentimes the justification employees have for lying or stealing from the bank.

One of the best observations made by the author on this topic was as a role model (you can never not lead), your actions send signals to your people about the behaviors you and the organization encourage and respect.

If you grow, your people grow. This advice sounds like some good parenting advice as well.

Stuck in our favorite rut

One of my favorite chapters in the book asked the question, "Why do people resist change?"  What banker hasn't confronted this barrier in their industry, in their bank, on their board, perhaps even in themselves?

The chapter detailed a comparison between Kodak and IBM. Kodak at one time dominated the photography business by having 90% of film sales and 85% of camera sales. In 1975, Kodak innovators developed one of the very first digital cameras. In 1979, one of their own executives wrote a very accurate paper predicting the evolution of the photography market to digital by 2010.

Kodak very accurately predicted the future.

But the company failed to change.

On the other hand, IBM kept reinventing itself to remain one of the highest regarded corporations.

Lipkin reviews various reasons people give for not making changes, including exhaustion, a bias toward the status quo, and looking at competition as a defeat, rather than an opportunity for change. All lessons are very relevant to the banking industry today.

Making concepts work in practice

Diversity, definitive expectations, collective awareness, and proper training are all defenses recommended to keep good teams from going bad. Diversity actually can help a team become more holistic in its view of the project, but it is important to have a leader that understands the value of diversity.

Many leaders want team members who think as they do, which makes the group easy to lead, but it doesn't always challenge the talents of the individual members of the team.

The responsibility to nurture the stars of the company is placed upon the leader. It is important to hire people who fit the culture of the organization, but the most important item for a leader to remember is to treat people as people, rather than "human capital," a "human resource," or some other cold business term.

With all of the responsibilities the leaders of banks have today, this book is a good reminder that our people are what make our organizations great.

I highly recommend this book as a way to gain insight on why some of the people that work for you act the way they do and how to better manage all employees, starting with yourself as the leader.

 If you'd like to review books for our online book column, or have recently read a book that you found helpful that we haven't already reviewed, please e-mail [email protected]

Jane Haskin

Jane Haskin is president & CEO, First Bethany Bank, Okla. Haskin, is a member of the Banking Exchange Editorial Advisory Board and a former member of ABA's Community Bankers Council. She is a frequent reviewer for

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