Avoidant Leadership is when a leader wants to achieve their business objectives without engaging with others or drawing a lot of attention to themselves. These independent people want to be left alone to do their own thing and are afraid that if they engage too much with people, they will get bogged down unnecessarily. Avoidant Leaders want to have the freedom to achieve their goals and potential in the way they see fit and expect others to do the same.
Underlying this leadership behavioral pattern is a person with underdeveloped social skills and low social needs. They don’t feel the need to engage emotionally with others and keep themselves safe by avoiding interactions with others, especially those that might be conflictual. They fear their own feelings and those of others, and so they prioritize productivity and engage with their work as a means of keeping others away. Despite their roles in organizations, they have difficulty with leading and managing people because that requires that they get involved. They avoid how they feel in social interactions by not making themselves available.
Avoidant Leaders maintain their self-protective position by using rational defences. They look at things objectively, having the ability to detach and absolve themselves from any responsibility for what is going on. They will also change their position to avoid interpersonal engagement. Unable to tolerate the negative emotions of others, they avoid conflict and issues rather than feeling empowered to resolve them.
While the Avoidant Leader’s approach works well when with highly motivated and experienced employees, it doesn’t work during stages of growth where a directive leadership style is called for or where employees need direction and correction to do their best work. These leaders create issues on teams because they leave a power vacuum to be filled. Conflict and power struggles can occur between team members that the Avoidant Leader is oblivious to. With no one really leading, employees stay insecure and unsure of how to be successful in their roles and on their teams.
Striving Style/MBTI Type Most Likely to Be Avoidant
Leadership behavior can be predicted based on a leader’s Striving Style or MBTI type. With the Striving Styles, you can also identify the function of the brain that will be used to decide and gather information, and the predominant, emotional need that must be met for a leader to perform optimally. It also determines both the leadership style and the self-protective leadership persona they will shift to when their needs are frustrated. Each leadership style has a self-actualizing and self-protective set of behaviors.
Leaders with the self-protective Avoidant Leadership Persona are those whose dominant function is Introverted Thinking and Introverted Sensing. The Striving Styles and MBTI types associated with this function are Intellectual Performer (INTP), Intellectual Adventurer (ISTP), Stabilizer Leader (ISTJ) and Stabilizer Socializer (ISFJ). Most dominant introverted types are avoidant to a certain degree, but these four are the most likely to use the Avoidant Leadership Dysfunction because their first function is in the left brain and focused more on tasks and information than engaging with people.
Hard-Wired to Protect Ourselves
We all have self-protective personas that we use to survive difficult experiences. Wired in our brain from birth and developed during our formative years, it ensures we are psychologically safe and that we survive the rigours of childhood. All self-protective personas are “I” focused as its sole agenda is protecting the self from harm. It’s an instinctual, human response with the brain set to “call in the troops” to defend against a perceived or real attack. As we develop, our authentic self becomes stronger, and our persona becomes a part of who we are.
Avoidant Leaders, when self-activating or leading from their authentic self, have learned that they aren’t really empowering their employees by not telling them what to do. They see they are abdicating responsibility and step up despite the difficulty. They take responsibility for the interpersonal side of leadership and develop skills to manage performance and deal with issues despite how it makes them feel. They no longer believe that if an employee has a problem, they should figure it out for themselves. They learn to take the time to coach, direct and correct performance.
When self-protective, these leaders shift to an Avoidant Leadership Persona. Avoidant Leaders are focused on productivity and the needs of the business. They are self-directed, highly functional and independent. They know what they want to achieve and do extremely well when working on their own. They can be in a senior role in an organization or a successful entrepreneur. They are functional experts and thrive when there is a need for a “hands-off” leadership style. Avoidant Leaders delegate responsibility and authority to their subordinates, making people feel they are capable of doing much more than they can. This is a strong motivator for the right kind of employee who wants the opportunity to prove themselves. They give people the autonomy they need to succeed without the guidance and feedback to ensure they do. However, Avoidant Leaders have difficulty with the relational side of leadership when it comes to defining things for others and engaging in productive performance dialogue with direct reports.
Those with an Avoidant Leadership Persona use it to varying degrees. Without development, they can use it most of the time, thinking this is who they are. They behave the same at home and in personal relationships as they do at work. Others use it situationally to mask incompetence and inexperience, to demonstrate authority when feeling threatened, when they are opposed, or when they are stressed or run-down.
Avoidant Leadership Persona: Characteristics & Behaviors
Avoidant Leadership isn’t authentic leader behavior; it’s adaptive. A lack of leadership development leads to a lack of confidence in one’s interpersonal leadership skills. Another reason is their low social needs and undeveloped relationship skills. They are often promoted to leadership roles because of their functional expertise and hard work, not primarily because they aspired to be a leader. They work hard to keep doing what they love to do and expect others to be just like them. That way, everyone swims in their own lane and they can avoid personal interactions and uncomfortable feelings.
While there are many Avoidant Leadership behaviors, the following are examples of the more frequent ones and the type of organizational issues they create.
1. Absent & Uninvolved
Avoidant Leaders avoid expressing any personal feelings, nor do they encourage others to do so. They like to believe that everybody functions best in an impersonal environment. People may see them as intimidating, unyielding, detached or unapproachable because of their aloofness and reliance on logic and productivity. They have difficulty sharing their own reactions, feelings and concerns with others because it doesn’t come easily to them and can often come across as sounding critical because they can point out faults and problems they see. Employees can perceive them as being cold and unfeeling.
2. Engage in Reclusive and Withholding Behaviors.
Avoidant Leaders prefer to focus on their work, not on the needs of their people. They don’t get involved with their employees unless they have to and will work behind a closed door. They may present an attitude that says “I am so busy, don’t bother me” or meet employee requests with annoyance in their voice. Rather than engaging with employees as a work unit, they set it up in a way that everyone is responsible for themselves. They don’t like people interfering with the way they want to do things and although they will answer technical questions, they avoid giving input about how to do something or giving feedback about a proposed approach.
3. Abdicate Responsibility
The Avoidant Leader doesn’t feel it’s their responsibility to make decisions. They give their subordinates the power to make their own decisions about the work and the freedom to do work in their own way. By doing this, they abdicate responsibility for the final outcome. In addition, Avoidant Leaders will frequently change their minds. Because they don’t want to have to get involved with others, they can appear to “flip-flop” on plans and decisions. They seem to be in agreement with whomever they are speaking with, creating conflict for their subordinates. In team meetings, they don’t use rules of order and let infighting and dysfunctional behavior amongst team members exist. They may seem to others that they are incapable of leading, managing or correcting the performance of their subordinates or team.
4. Don’t Manage Performance
Their preference for working in a solitary, intensely focused way means they can spend hours or days by themselves without needing social contact. This tendency can lead to neglecting the needs of their employees who require more hands-on direction, appreciation or contact in general. Their lack of availability can create anxiety and uncertainty in their people as it may not be clear when they will emerge back in the land of the living. They will also struggle to respond to the needs of employees who require more structure and stability to work optimally. The Avoidant Leader assumes employees should know what they are doing and don’t feel it’s their job to coach, correct or motivate employees. They have difficulty with the relational component of leadership and struggle with getting those who do not share their task orientation to conform to what is expected. They allow employees to do things their own way instead of staying involved to ensure they are doing their job correctly.
5. Don’t Tolerate Interpersonal Tension or Conflict
Avoidant Leaders avoid conflict or any situation that makes them feel uncomfortable, ignoring what is going on as long as they possibly can. They act like observers, disinterested and uninvolved, and become uneasy when they are asked personal questions or when someone lets them know how their behavior has affected them. They don’t invest in their own emotional or relational development and are on shaky ground when dealing with situations where emotional intelligence is required. They may even flee the scene if anger is directed at them. They rarely feel the need to try to figure out what they are feeling or what is going on in an interpersonal dynamic, so they can be caught off guard by their own emotional reactions to things. They prefer to avoid problems and hope that the other person will as well. This can cause havoc in workplace relationships, as it can create an undercurrent of unresolved tension.
6. Fail to Deal with Team Dysfunctions
Because the Avoidant Leader doesn’t deal with employee behavior, they allow employees to overstep the boundaries of their positions. An ambitious employee may aggressively confront them privately or publicly without being called on their behavior. Avoidant Leaders act as though everyone has a right to behave the way they want and say what they want to say. They don’t recognize when they are being disrespected as their first response is to avoid dealing with whatever is happening. The Avoidant Leader doesn’t realize the role they play in the dysfunctional behavior of their employees or team. They naturally try not to engage in interpersonal dynamics, keep a low profile, and leave people alone as much as possible. Subordinates and coworkers may respect the Avoidant Leader for the work they do, but lose respect for them as a leader and person. They don’t trust that the Avoidant Leader will be direct and honest with them, creating an environment of mistrust. At worst, employees take advantage of the lack of firm leadership and decide on their own what work they want to do and when. This leads to a lack of individual and collective responsibility for the team’s success, resulting in some degree of disorder, disobedience and chaos as people “do their own thing.”
7. Doesn’t Communicate
Communication is one of the biggest challenges for Avoidant Leaders. They don’t communicate their ideas and plans, and they will unintentionally leave out important details when they do. Leaving others to “fill in the blanks” often leads to workplace challenges and communication failures, particularly if employees make incorrect assumptions. The result may be work that is redundant or inconsistent with what the Intellectual leader was expecting. These leaders can fail to see their part in the undesired outcome and can tend to conclude that the employee is incompetent rather than giving the employee more detailed instruction or corrective feedback.
You Can Change Avoidant Behavior
Avoidant behavior is a form of self-protection. Long-standing self-protective patterns of behavior can be changed and new, productive responses and patterns can be put in their place. Remember, this is a self-protective persona used by leaders whose brains are wired to use the Introverted Thinking & Sensing functions first: Intellectual Performer (INTP), Intellectual Adventurer (ISTP), Stabilizer Leader (ISTJ) and Stabilizer Socializer (ISFJ). Without development, we continue to use our self-protective persona instead of developing our authentic leadership potential. Becoming a conscious leader requires you to step out of your comfort zone, learn new skills, engage with people in different ways and put the agenda of the organization and its people ahead of our survival agenda.
Leaders’ self-protective behavior can negatively impact every aspect of organizational life. It creates dysfunction and gets in the way of productivity, employee development, achieving business goals and team cohesiveness. Find out more about Dismantling the Avoidant Dysfunction by listening to our podcast.
Anne and Heather are organizational and leadership development experts at Caliber Leadership Systems, a boutique consulting firm specializing in dismantling of dysfunction in organizations. They are dedicated to empowering individuals, leaders, and organizations to achieve their potential by leveraging their expertise in the neurobiology of human development combined with system thinking approach. They wear many hats – Consultants, Executive Coaches, Trainers, Speakers and Authors – adapting their expertise and solutions to meet the needs of their clients. They bring a unique depth and breadth of knowledge and experience that gives clients the benefit of all of our disciplines to help them achieve their goals.
As experts in human development and behavioral change, leadership and organizational transformation, interpersonal dynamics and the achievement of potential, Anne and Heather have worked with thousands of leaders and individuals from around the world, been featured in dozens of publications, spoken at professional conferences, and written several series of books on personality type and the brain based on the Striving Styles® and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®.
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