Stories about executives whose rage routinely ‘sets people’s hair on fire’ are common in most organizations. Based on years of leadership coaching, most executives who were referred because of disruptive behaviors had in common a combination of personality traits and ‘hot buttons’ that result in behaviors that range from aggressive fury to dismissive disinterest.
The usual conclusion is that this is a business and they just need to change or go – soon!
So why should you care about the cause of dysfunctional behaviors in a leader, partner or colleague?
Innovative organizations discourage rigid expectations about personal differences, excess conformity and ‘political correctness’ – and encourage tolerance and experimentation. While the typical interpretation of diversity is awareness and inclusion based on racial, gender or cultural differences, I believe a broader context is useful. In any group of more than a few people, there is typically a wide range of personalities, beliefs, experiences, and behaviors. These differences are critical to avoid group-think, and are the primary qualities that drive both collaboration and conflict. Striving to understand and accommodate differences in the way people feel, think, interact and communicate is the real core of inclusion. Facilitating understanding and finding common ground is a necessity to successfully lead and work within teams.
This does not absolve anyone of responsibility for their behaviors and the need to change and grow. Empathy begins with awareness, and it can transform the workplace – and the world.
Being other-centered is the foundation of executive presence and emotional intelligence – hallmarks of good leaders – and good practice for aspiring leaders. Being other-centered is also a primary leadership competency in order to successfully collaborate, negotiate and resolve conflicts. It’s both good humanity and good business.
This doesn’t mean we always like or agree with the beliefs, behaviors and actions of others.
It does require that we make an authentic effort to understand – to ‘walk in their shoes’.
Most people can summon up tolerance for inappropriate behavior when they understand that the individual is in a personal crisis such as serious illness, domestic abuse, family crises or death of a loved one. When the reason for the behaviors is ‘behind the curtain’, intolerance is more often the norm.
Many adults who overcame extreme adversity on the path to education and career success are determined, bright, capable and innovative. When their behaviors are outside the boundaries of common business or cultural expectations, their motives are often questioned and they may even be actively demonized by some colleagues. Comments on numerous 360° feedback reports reflect that some colleagues view a particular individual as uncaring, arrogant, exceptionally unrealistic regarding expectations, mean-spirited or even purposely destructive – and therefore unredeemable. The results of personality profiles and coaching sessions reveal that these perceptions are almost never based on reality.
Many have survived – and overcome with varying degrees of success – the results of childhood abuse or neglect, which at an extreme may include PTSD. Especially without treatment, these symptoms can continue well into adulthood.
As the individual rises in the organization and their visibility and impact increase, the coping mechanisms they relied on in their youth become less effective – especially when stress levels are high. When self-awareness is low, they are unaware of their impact on others, which often causes them to be blind-sided by the reactions of colleagues and leaders.
An estimated 3 million children are abused annually, although only about 1/3 of them are reported.
This means that in each generation of people in the workforce, a significant number – including entrepreneurs and corporate leaders – fit this description.
While it’s unreasonable to expect that most organizations can or should provide a social services ‘safety net’ or accommodate disruptive behaviors beyond a certain point, there is business justification for reasonable tolerance, intervention and accommodation – both to preserve high-potential talent and to demonstrate cultural tolerance. There is also evidence that behavioral leadership coaching – in some cases combined with referral to an EAP for appropriate counseling for the person who is willing to accept it – can make a difference for the individual and provide return-on-investment to the organization. The investment is a small fraction of the cost of replacing a key individual.
Of course, while many dysfunctional behaviors have their roots in childhood abuse or neglect, not all do. Some driven, high-performance individuals are so goal-focused that they have behavioral blind spots.
It is rarely our greatest weakness that derails a career – or a company. More often, it is our greatest strengths run amok.
See Visionary Leadership Misfires and Brushfires™. And sometimes what appears to be narcissism and arrogance is exactly that. Whether dysfunctional behaviors are too disruptive to accommodate or attempt to mitigate is a leadership judgment call.
Common causes of behaviors that elicit strong reactions from leaders and colleagues:
Most people have ‘hot buttons’ about certain issues; chief among them ‘fairness’. For some, reactions to perceived inequity or unfairness are especially hard to control. Colleagues or leaders who take credit for the work of others, appear to feign commitment and ride on the team’s coattails, lie to or about others, or are promoted or hired over a more qualified colleague because of connections or politics create an emotional reaction that is often very deep, stressful and hard to let go of.
Boundary issues are also common, including excessive self-disclosure, such as telling colleagues about personal issues – past or present – which the average person would hesitate to reveal. Low self-control may also be remnants of childhood trauma, in which case colleagues may observe what appears to be overreaction to seemingly normal events or minor infractions.
Extreme reactions are not always a response to what is happening now; they may be unconscious reenactment of feelings experienced as a child. When perceived criticism is internalized, the reaction is often experienced by others as defensiveness, aggression, rage, passive-aggressive behaviors, or emotionally shutting down which can appear to be arrogance or hostility. For survivors of trauma, they are often caused by heightened ‘fight or flight’ responses such as anger, fear or panic.
The result of this ‘round robin’ of escalating misperceptions and reactions-to-reactions is a decline in trust, energy and productivity of everyone involved.
What you can do:
- Choose your battles wisely.
Objectivity is a hallmark of effective critical thinking and decision-making. Frequently, as I’ve listened to a litany of complaints about a colleague or report, they seem to be based on personal perception and bias. When I ask, “Is there a real impact of this behavior on your personal well-being or performance?” and “Is this behavior creating a barrier for you or the team in meeting objectives?” the answers are often ‘not really’. If this is the case, it’s useful to examine our own perceptions and biases and to work on ‘just letting it go’. If the answer to either question is ‘yes’, a candid conversation – and if necessary an intervention – may make sense.
- Avoid drama.
It’s human nature to enjoy a good story – and even a bit of drama – to distract us from the daily tsunami of meetings and deliverables if nothing else. There is a big difference between this and the relentless demonization of a colleague, which is typically an indication that the speaker is making assumptions about the motivations and character of the other person – and they are usually wrong. When one or more people continuously tell horror stories about a colleague and encourage others to join in, it’s a good idea to be skeptical about the speaker’s biases and motives. Confronting may be warranted in some cases. Declining to participate – including walking away – is always a wise decision.
When dysfunctional behaviors interfere with morale, teamwork and performance:
If you’re a colleague -
- especially if you have a good relationship with the individual, an empathetic discussion about your concerns and suggesting possible resources is the first step. If you don’t have a relationship or can’t get beyond your discomfort with the idea, it may be time to talk with your human resources partner or your leader about your concerns – and your hope for a constructive solution.
In either case, using the Emotionally Intelligent Communications Guide – available free on request – provides a format to think through and plan for this crucial conversation.
If you’re the leader –
- empathetic straight talk about expectations and gaps, and often referral to coaching or another appropriate intervention is a good first step.
To determine whether the individual currently has the level of awareness and commitment necessary to fully participate in the coaching and development process – and the probability of a positive result and return-on-investment for the organization, The Executive Coaching Readiness Assessment is an online instrument that generates a report to support an informed and objective decision. Access it in our Resources Library.
On a personal note:
This is a subject that I have alternately longed to explore in writing – and resisted for years. My knowledge of the subject extends beyond experience as a leader, entrepreneur and executive coach – to family, community and volunteer experiences. I am in some respects ‘one of them’ and I believe most of us can relate – directly or indirectly – to the difficulties of overcoming behavioral tendencies that started early in life.
Knowledge comes in many packages, and the gifts of both my work and life experiences include the ability to recognize both the causes and the personal and organizational consequences of dysfunctional behaviors, the empathy to understand rather than judge, the ability to both support and confront – each in their own time, and a deep desire to facilitate awareness and positive change in others. I’m grateful for all of my experiences and for the individuals who enrich my life by allowing me to share their journeys.
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© Copyright 2013. Marilou Myrick/ Masters Among Us, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction is prohibited in any format, in whole or in part, without the written consent of an officer of Masters Among Us, Inc.