Derailing? Are You Being Pushed?

M. Nora Klaver Posted by M. Nora Klaver, Executive Coach, Bouchard Executive Coaching Ltd..

Nora is an accomplished executive coach with 25 years of experience developing corporate leaders. She is the author of Mayday! Asking For Help In Times of Need.


Derailing? Are You Being Pushed?

Cliff’s pose was typical. We had been meeting in his rather cushy office for our coaching sessions and, as in previous sessions, he had been leaning back, arms wide on the back of his small sofa, legs akimbo, taking up as much room as possible. This was his domain and he regularly telegraphed that he knew it, and I should too. He was about to receive feedback that I had collected on his behalf regarding his interactions with peers and direct reports.

After reading aloud his recognized strengths I continued, “Cliff, you are perceived by most of your team as a bully. Brilliant, but a bully. Some on your team, and some of your peers, don’t find it worthwhile dealing with your behaviors – no matter how brilliant you are.”

“What? How can that be? I love my team! I treat them really well!,” he asked incredulously, the hurt obvious in his voice. As he asked his question, his body changed dramatically, as though he had been punched in the gut. Cliff’s body was now almost folded, legs closer together, hands intertwined on his lap, head jutting forward with eyes focused on me.

I spent the next 90 minutes walking through the feedback, helping him understand how his demanding, challenging and difficult behavior only worked with a small fraction of his team — and the rest, well, they just wanted him to listen to them for once.

I never enjoy giving feedback like this, though I’m alpha enough to relish the challenge of “resetting expectations” for other alphas. I understand that many of these hugely successful leaders simply want to work with others who, like them, love a good argument. But most people don’t enjoy the verbal sparring. It’s exhausting and risky if you are battling the boss. Cliff was too blind to see it — especially since he enjoyed it so much. He had no idea how he was derailing, and certainly no idea how his derailing behaviors were affecting everyone he worked with.

Why was this a surprise? Cliff had been head of the networking division for ten years. It was hard to believe, in all that time, no one had ever told him this. Had no one had ever set him down and explained how abusive his behavior was? Had no one told him that people voluntarily transferred off his team because he was so mean? Nope. In reviewing previous appraisals, there was no hint that he was a bully. No wonder he was surprised.

Who was really derailing here?

Alpha behaviors are one way in which otherwise successful executives derail. Usually fast-thinking, action-taking, and impatient, these men and women love to see these same behaviors in their direct reports. (Excellent article; older but still relevant: Coaching the Alpha Male, Harvard Business Review, May 2004.) When they don’t, they try to instill these same qualities into their beta followers. It rarely works. If anything, it leads to intimidation and a toxic work environment. That’s what Cliff had inadvertently created. No matter how much he thought he was encouraging them, he was actually discouraging them. Someone on the team had finally complained to HR.

Still, Cliff wasn’t the only one who went off the tracks. How about his direct reports? Did they derail in some way? There were those select-few who understood, tolerated and possibly even thrived under Cliff’s leadership style. They were Alpha-wannabes. They admired Cliff and his energy; his unwillingness to be satisfied with the status quo in technology. They had good relationships with him that they didn’t want to damage by suggesting that, perhaps, not everyone appreciated his “in-your-face” approach. In addition, there were those who were afraid of Cliff; too lacking in confidence and too uncertain of their positions, arguments and counter-arguments. These folks wrote off his bad-boy behavior and said weakly, “that’s just his personality.” Maybe. But that kind of thinking is limiting. It leaves no opportunity for improvement, growth or change.

I want to be respectful here. At no point do I want to blame the “victims” in this scenario. Someone on the team, at some point, did exactly the right thing by going to HR. At the same time, I do wonder if there wasn’t one person who could have pushed back, who could have walked out of a meeting, or who could have simply asked Cliff to slow down and listen. I recognize that speaking up to your supervisor is not exactly like climbing out of a fox hole when the bullets are flying. But emotionally, it can be just as scary challenging an alpha on a rant. The Courageous Follower by Ira Chaleff has a great insights on the responsibilities of being a follower – and speaking up is essential. Part of me wants to believe there was one person on the team who could have spoken their truth. If there was, then there was a failure there.

Even so, it’s easier to speak up when you know your company has your back.

So what about the organization? Did they derail? Absolutely. The company prided itself on being talented, fast and customer-oriented. As long as clients were happy, it didn’t really matter what happened to the employees. Leadership was aware of Cliff’s behavior but tolerated it because his clients loved him and his ability to work miracles. (Clients just didn’t know the emotional toll those miracles took on his team.) Not only that, Cliff was iconic; he represented how the organization wanted to be perceived: aggressive, fast, smart, effective. Leadership turned a blind eye to the flotsam he left in his wake: the turnover, the disengaged employees.

What complicated matters for Cliff, however, was the fact that he wasn’t alone. In fact, the entire whole leadership team was rife with toxic habits. Yet, Cliff was the only one being asked to improve. “It’s as though I’m being asked to step out of my speed boat in the middle of a race, and start helming a cruise ship. It’s still a race of speed boats. And no one else is being told to switch boats!” Unfortunately, rather than just focus on his own race, Cliff slowed his progress somewhat by getting sidetracked by resentment and disgust with the unfairness of it all.

While Cliff is fully responsible for his actions, he hadn’t been exactly pushed off the rails either. The company, and to some extent his team, didn’t help set him on the straight and narrow when they could have.

What has to happen? Individuals like Cliff need to focus on the needs of the entire team and be the leader for everyone, not just those few who respond to the alpha “style.” In addition, new actions and attitudes need to be fostered at all levels in order for everyone to succeed. All three parties should consider new and ongoing conversations about what is ideal, not just acceptable, behavior. Organizational leadership needs to stop pretending: that there’s only one alpha; that there’s no legal risk; and that they are attracting and retaining the best players to their obviously unhealthy work environment. Leadership should also anticipate that people like Cliff are not going to tolerate what isn’t tolerated in him.

Teams of direct reports are going to have to do a little shifting, too. If trust isn’t too badly damaged, they’ll need to cut their leader some slack while she or he tries out new ways of being and leading. And they may just have to risk speaking their truth— perhaps with guidelines to help everyone feel safe.

No one person ever derails alone. It’s time we stopped pretending that one person has to shoulder all the growth.

M. Nora Bouchard, MA, is a senior-level executive coach with twenty plus years of experience who has chosen to work with those who value an analytical mindset. She enjoys working with CIOs, leaders of IT teams, as well as the people who wrangle code, DBAs, data center operators, and network administrators. She’s also great with other analytical minds in finance, engineering and science. Nora is author of Mayday! Asking for Help in Times of Need. Learn more about her background, programs and clients at www.mnorabouchard.com.

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