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    Mar 01, 2021    |   Psychometrics Canada

Are Leaders Too Rigid?

3 minute read

Written by Shawn Bakker, Lead Psychologist

In times of organizational crisis our natural tendency is to go on the defensive. Leaders focus on the threats and risks they are facing and their primary goal becomes stopping bad things from happening. This approach is often the best first step for dealing with a crisis, but it cannot be the last one.

The threat-rigidity effect, first described by Barry Shaw, Lance Sandelands and Jane Dutton, explains what happens when organizations and their leaders get stuck playing defense. They become more hierarchical, they narrow their field of attention, and they restrict the information they process. This makes it more difficult for them to adapt and innovate, which is often the exact thing they need to do in order to survive the crisis.

Our research with leaders also shows that many are prone to falling into the threat-rigidity trap because the first step of playing defense aligns with their top skills. Aggregated data from our Psychometrics 360 assessment tool shows that the highest rated competencies of leaders revolve around work and execution.

Highest rated competencies of leaders:
  • Woman leading meeting with notes on whiteboard
  • Focusing on high standards
  • Achieving results
  • Communicating clearly

These are the exact things necessary for initially meeting a crisis and ensuring that the core functions of the organization are maintained. However, these leadership skills are less useful for tackling crises in a progressive way, and identifying future opportunities in the face of threats. David Denyer from the Cranfield School of Management shows that a strategic approach to dealing with threats needs to be both defensive and progressive; not always at the same time, but certainly within a short succession of each other, and often alternating between the two. The difficulty for many leaders is that shifting into the progressive mindset, which requires thinking innovatively and adaptively, requires setting aside their highest rated skills and then engaging in actions where they are less comfortable and do not feel as competent.

Returning again to our data from the Psychometrics 360 assessment the following are the lowest rated skills of leaders:

Lowest rated competencies of leaders:
  • Displaying flexibility
  • Seeking innovation
  • Coaching and developing others

So to ensure that they do not get stuck in the threat-rigidity trap, leaders need to step outside their comfort zones and engage in behaviours that we do not see from them as often. If you are a leader, or work with leaders, these are the key take-aways for moving beyond playing defense:

Key take-aways:
  • Seek out other perspectives – ask others for their ideas and how they would approach the challenges you are facing.
  • Embrace change – look for new ways to improve performance and address problems in a creative and innovative way.
  • Look to the future – organizations have never survived by doing the same thing. What might need to change for your organization to thrive in the future?
  • Get feedback – how do those around you see you performing? Stuck in the threat-rigidity trap? Operating strategically and progressively? You should find out – and 360 assessments can help.

Moving from a defensive stance into a more progressive approach is going to feel uncomfortable for many leaders. During times of crisis feeling uncomfortable and moving into the unknown is not a bad thing. Beware of focusing too much on control and defense – this is where you can really get in trouble.

If you would like more information about the Psychometrics 360 and how it can help leaders become better leaders of change please reach out to us at 1-800-661-5158 or

Filed under: Leadership Development