Home Self-Handicapping Leadership Exemplary Leadership Practices – One step at a Time

Exemplary Leadership Practices – One step at a Time

Exemplary Leadership Practices One step at a time

This article about Exemplary Leadership Practices is the twelfth and last article in our series about Self-Handicapping Leadership. We would like to thank the authors Professor Phillip Decker and Professor Jordan Mitchell for their hard work and dedication to sharing their research and expertise.

From Self-Handicapping to Exemplary Leadership Practices

With our articles, you have started your own journey to overcome the habits of self-handicapping. Now, you can begin the conversation about self-handicapping in your business, so everyone focuses less on impression management and more on adding value to customers. Exceptional leaders do not let self-handicapping overwhelm their employees. They help their workforce see where excuses are leading to reduced effort and identify self-defeating behaviors that affect customers.

Like gaining competence or adding value for customers – there may never be an end to overcoming self-handicapping and impression management. Exceptional leaders know it is up to them to start the conversation at work and know it is a team effort. They also know they can’t achieve a mastery orientation overnight or legislate it to their employees with a memo.

Which Exemplary Leadership Practices to Focus on?

First, it takes breaking out of a performance goal atmosphere. You must wipe out the focus on winning and not making mistakes. Learning, increasing competence, and adding value to customers become the new rewarded goals.

Second, every team member must work to overcome self-handicapping habits, call each other out on slipups, and understand the goal: mastery goal orientation.

Third, it will likely require training; new behaviors must be learned. Like all things, eliminating self-handicapping requires attention and practice. Goal orientation will call for some movement of mindsets. And, like most things, it becomes easier when the group can laugh at their mistakes and regressions – but that is part of a mastery climate too.


Exemplary Leaders Facilitate Mastery Goals

When tasks are simple, both performance and mastery goals will serve to increase performance. However, when tasks are complex — such as in team projects — the different goals trigger different reactions.1 Employees with performance goals become worried about failure. The employees with mastery goals worry about outcomes – they persist in the face of difficulty to the desired end result.

Team members who perceive the team as having mastery goals, or believe teammates hold mastery goals, have better performance and greater job satisfaction.

Exceptional leaders work to build a mastery goal orientation through example, training, and day-to-day interaction

Beware, because team members will hold less accurate perceptions of their teams’ mastery goals than they do of performance goals – probably because they are more used to performance goals. Exceptional leaders work to build a mastery goal orientation through example, training, and day-to-day interaction.

Develop Exemplary leadership practices – one step at a time

After leaders understand self-handicapping, they often want to change the world with their new knowledge. Yet, this rarely comes about easily and can at times build resistance and resentment.

Your team should begin by choosing the self-handicapping behaviors that are easy to change and that have the most negative impact on your customers. Work on those.

Make Exemplary Behavior Explicit

Once the conversation around self-handicapping is well established, teams need a self-handicapping vocabulary, clarity of behavioral definitions, and help practicing better ways of handling situations.

EXAMPLE: Let’s say that employees are not engaging customers well and the team identifies three behaviors inhibiting engagement: not making eye contact within a certain time frame after the customer enters the office, not greeting or shaking hands with every employee, team member, or customer you see in a meeting or conversation, and not asking customers what they need to make things easier.

There are more complex solutions to the problem, but take these as your first “baby steps”. They are fairly clear and not terribly hard for a team to address. Picture everyone practicing and doing two or three of these simple behaviors – making eye contact, greeting people and engaging in customers problems – consistently for the next month.

Sometimes it may be awkward; sometimes they may not be able to do it. Hopefully, they will laugh at each other and adjust. But over time, the team will become more comfortable and your customers will respond. You may see reciprocation, trust, openness, and an increased mastery goal orientation.

Exemplary Leadership Practices


How to Lead Discussions of Self-Handicapping?

Talking to anyone about self-handicapping is difficult because it is typically an undiscussable topic at work. Team members often misinterpret their peers’ goals that are driving impression management. Furthermore, there must be a fair amount of trust between the individuals discussing self-handicapping. Conversations about self-handicapping will only happen where leaders are open, connected, and trusted – and usually only when the boss initiates it for him/herself and promotes it among peers.

Exemplary Leaders Recognize and Reward

Employees should be recognized and rewarded for a mastery orientation. The goal should be to be individually as competent as possible – in adding value for customers – and to own one’s own competence. Furthermore, employees must be allowed to feel free to express their worries and vulnerabilities. Without this they will close up or go back to a place of uncertainty and insecurity.

Many leaders will skip over the self-handicapping discussion because of general unease with talking about “personal or psychological issues.” Dealing with self-handicapping is difficult in itself, and building a mastery goal orientation to drive out self-handicapping takes time and patience.

Tips & Tools to Promote a Mastery Orientation Climate:

Employees usually know when they’ve made a mistake. Instead of telling them how to fix it, just take yourself out of the situation and let them work it out. They must feel free to make some mistakes, ask questions, and express when they feel vulnerable or apprehensive.

Remember that employees inherently attend to bosses. By telling them exactly what you want, you retain a performance orientation. Instead, teach them to own their own competence to satisfy customers (not you).

Many leaders think showing weakness shows that you are weak; yet it really demonstrates that you have the courage to be yourself

Let employees develop a sense of internal evaluation, allowing them to take responsibility for their actions and pride in their achievements.

Show your vulnerability. Many leaders think showing weakness shows that you are weak; yet it really demonstrates that you have the courage to be yourself. Opportunities for vulnerability come up every day: calling an employee whose child is sick, reaching out to someone who has just had a loss in their family, taking responsibility for something that went wrong, or asking someone for help. When employee vulnerability is not welcome in the workplace, employees’ ideas are being stifled.

Leaders accepting expressions of vulnerability can give employees a positive view of themselves, confidence in their strengths and abilities, increased skill in communication and problem solving, and increased resilience in the face adversity. It will also increase employees’ capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses and move them away from performance goals.

How you say “thank you” is also important. Many of us say “good job!” and leave it at that. Why not come out and state the connection directly? Saying, “Thank you for saying that to the customer. Now, these customers don’t have to worry about when or how it might get done!” will convey much more than “good job!” and start to teach employees to own their behavior toward customers.

Much of this may sound like you are raising children. Indeed, developing a mastery climate at work looks a lot like helping our children become independent adults, sure of their abilities in life.

We Recommend the following to Improve Team Spirit

  1. Agree to make Self-handicapping a joke (if we can laugh at our mistakes it is much easier to acknowledge them) and all about getting to mastery goals – adding value for customers.
  1. Agree to call each other and everyone on the team out every single time self-handicapping occurs – at every level. Let nothing slip by or become undiscussable.
  1. Each team member must agree to own the success of one other team member. Watch over this individual and specialize in calling them out. After some time, the whole team switches partners. This prevents the process from becoming stale and helps to avoid feelings of being the bad guy all of the time.
  1. Come to terms with whatever issues you may have and listen openly to the feedback coming your way from employees without retaliation.

Reflective Workshops & Behavior Modeling

We have used two types of training in exposing people to self-handicapping – reflective workshops and behavior modeling (Taylor et al. or Decker & Nathan, ) – we think both are necessary. Reflection is required because recognition of excuses comes first, then self-defeating behaviors and finally obstacles are recognized. We use behavior modeling training, because it differs from other training methods – the emphasis is on learning a set of well-defined behaviors (skills).

Furthermore, we provide relapse training: 1) to anticipate high-risk situations, and 2) to develop coping strategies for avoiding high-risk situations. This helps make slight slips predictable outcomes that need not become full-blown relapses.

Exemplary Leaders Hire Exemplary People

Throughout reading this series of articles, you probably had thoughts on how to hire employees and leaders who do not self-handicap and that already have mastery goal orientation. You can start with an idea of what to look for in a candidate:

  • Humble (not too certain and not too uncertain)
  • Open and willing to learn
  • High self-efficacy and resilience
  • Understanding of self-handicapping
  • Demonstrates a mastery goal orientation versus performance goal orientation

The Challenges of Practicing Exemplary Leadership in a Future Job Market

On a final note, let us say this: Two in five people work for someone they consider a “bad” leader. Generation X’ers seem to be the most dissatisfied — 45% of them say they work for a bad boss. 39% of Millennials and 35% of Boomers are unhappy with their bosses. Over a third of employees say that poor leadership at work is the most stressful part of the job, and that their boss makes them feel controlled, manipulated or defensive. Additionally, 25% feel their career progress is limited because of their boss’ poor leadership.

Exemplary leadership practices one step at a time

Employees who classify their supervisor as bad are more than twice as likely to say they plan to look for a new job within the next year. This adds up to many obstacles for any leader to overcome. Yet, for the “good” bosses, 91 % of employees feel positively about their work and enjoy going to work each day, 80% believe their work makes a positive difference in the world, and 74% feel empowered to be a leader at work. Exemplary leadership is good also for bottom lines.

We believe exemplary leadership is essential to developing mastery climates. Up to 60% of the people on your team will thank you for overcoming your self-handicapping. If you don’t eliminate your self-handicapping, that 60% is likely to be looking for another job. The best will leave.

We invite you to go to our web site www.shleadership.com. We will have available handouts & slide decks, self-handicapping surveys, a complete bibliography of self-handicapping and goal orientation research articles, and a blog at www.shleadership.com/blog.

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter: @Leadership_SH and let us know what works and what doesn’t work. We would appreciate hearing about your experiences and successes. Your ideas and suggestions will help others on the same quest. Feel free to contact the authors with questions, suggestions, or criticism in the comment field below or at [email protected].


Kristof-Brown, AAL, and Stevens, CK (2001). Goal Congruence in Project Teams: Does the Fit Between Members’ Personal Mastery and Performance Goals Matter? Vol. 86, No. 6. 1083-1095.

Taylor, et. al. (2006) A Meta-Analytic Review of Behavior Modeling Training. Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 90, No. 4, 692–709.

Decker, P. J., & Nathan, B. R. (1985). Behavior modeling training: Principles and applications. New York: Praeger.

Charles A. Scherbaum, CA; Yochi Cohen-Charash, Y, & Michael J. Kern, MJ (2006). Measuring General Self-Efficacy a Comparison of Three Measures Using Item Response Theory. Educational and Psychological Measurement, December, Vol. 66, no. 6, 1047-1063.

Midgley, C., Kaplan, A., Middleton, M. J., Maehr, M. L., Urdan, T., Anderman, L. H., et al. (1998). The development and validation of scales assessing students’ achievement goal orientations. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 23, 113–131.

Conroy, D. E., Elliot, A. J., & Hofer, S. M. (2003). A 2 x 2 achievement goals questionnaire for sport: evidence for factorial invariance, temporal stability, and external validity. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 25(4), 456–476.

Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis.

Self-Handicapping Leadership Series

#1: Why Self-Handicapping Leadership can be a Hurtful Strategy

#2: From Self-Handicapping Leadership to Mastery Management

#3: Overcoming Self-Handicapping Leadership and the Problem of Accountability

#4: Self-Awareness and Self-Handicapping Leadership

#5: Tunnel Vision – Its Drawbacks and How to Stay Clear of it

#6: How to Skyrocket Employee Motivation and Engagement

#7: Be Best at the Managerial Decision Making Process

#8 Importance of Communication Skills for Leadership and Management

#9 Talent Development Planning and How to Get it Right?

#10 Are you Micromanaging? STOP IT. See Why

#11 Driving for Outstanding Business Results

#12 Exemplary Leadership Practices – one Step at the Time


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here