by Peter DeMarco

Q: I lead an operations team in a fast-paced, often high-stress environment. I am comfortable managing the leader–follower dynamic and with what is expected of me as a leader. But I am having trouble helping some on my team prepare to be leaders themselves. Most times, these good people make bad decisions by biting off more than they can chew. How can I develop subordinates to exercise authority correctly, especially when their ambition exceeds their ability to act?

A: Too often we as leaders find ourselves thinking about how to motivate the underperformers rather than keep the ambitious employees on a productive path of development. But the latter problem is probably more important for the success of your organization.

Ambition, ability and authority are powerfully connected words in developing leaders. Ambition means a person has a drive to achieve things in his or her life. Ability reflects one’s possession (or lack) of the knowledge, judgment, competence or skill to do something. Authority signifies the power to make decisions for or direct the activity of some thing or person.

Harmonizing ambition, ability, and authority is essential to activating the potential of your employees, both individually and as a group.

Use these five tactics to develop your overly ambitious subordinates:

1. Questions

Ask your ambitious young leaders to explain their views of what it takes to be truly competent at the next level. What principles are guiding their decisions? What level of decision authority do they believe they should possess? Does that authority match up with their ability to make the right judgment? Their answers should reflect both thoughtfulness about the issues and proportion.

Napoleon Bonaparte, the brilliant French General who was ultimately undone by his own ambition, reminds us that, “Great ambition is the passion of a great character. Those endowed with it may perform very good or very bad acts. All depends on the principles which direct them.” Make sure your young leaders are directed by the right principles.

2. Training and testing

Assessing an overzealous employee’s ability helps to temper ambition. Rigorous training provides a forum in which you can push the subordinate to aggressively test his or her limits while not exposing the team to poor performance. Use training to test and develop your ambitious subordinates so that when the real mission is underway, you will know the extent to which you can trust them to make good decisions.

Equally as important, use public after-action reviews to reinforce lessons that can only come with experience. Accepting feedback is key to channeling ambition into ability.

3. Steps/phases

Ambitious subordinates are often so focused on getting to the top of the ladder that they lose sight of the rungs they must master along the way. Shortcuts and missed development steps stunt the leader’s learning with respect to the details that make a big difference for fostering good judgment.

If your subordinates can see the goal but lack a practical grasp of how to get there, require them to break their objectives into sequential deliverables, each of which they must attain before proceeding to the next phase or level. Require them to check-in with you regularly, letting them move at the speed of results they can deliver.

4. Failure

It sometimes takes failure with real consequences for overly ambitious subordinates to learn their limits. Given these failures are visible to others, expect to observe some degree of shame in the overzealous subordinate. If you don’t observe this shame, you may be dealing with a different problem: unconscious incompetence, blind spots or even an antisocial personality.

Developing leaders who are overzealous can be messy, so organizational justice must be experienced and role-modeled for them. Look for evidence of sincere struggle. Map out the steps required for your overzealous subordinates to develop properly while being open-minded to various situations and experiences that can help channel their ambition and test the limits of ability.

5. Peer feedback

Sometimes failure never comes . . . at least not in time to educate the overzealous subordinate. Since ambition is expressed in many conscious and unconscious ways, focus on the gap between how subordinates perceive themselves and how others see them. Other than those with inferiority complexes, most of us tend to see ourselves as doing better than others do.

To reduce the dangers of self-deception, use the natural friction of peer reviews — feedback that all employees give anonymously to one another — to expose the gap between your overzealous subordinate’s self-assessment and the assessment by his or her colleagues.

Make sure the peer review includes a stack-ranking feature to show visually how the overzealous employee’s performance relates to that of the other members. The friction of feedback from peers is often more powerful than your efforts to temper an individual’s inordinate desire for achievement, accolades and authority.

Allow these five tactics to work on your overly ambitious subordinates and you will turn their zeal into real ability.

Peter DeMarco is founder and president of Priority Thinking, an executive coaching, organizational consulting, strategy advisement, and ethics education company. He was named to the 2014 and 2015 Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trust by Trust Across America.

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