Thursday, July 11, 2013

Connecting with Abrasive Leaders

Guest post from Cheryl A. Bond, Ed.D., SPHR:

Every organization has its share of leaders, technical geniuses or future leaders who lack social skills and self-awareness.  They are perceived as bullies, jerks, prima donnas, and worse.  Most people don’t want to work for them or with them, but their behavior is rarely addressed directly or effectively. 

Referred to as “high maintenance,” they’re the 20% that take up 80% of their managers’ time.  Most of that time is spent listening to complaints about them and hoping they haven’t crossed the line into legally actionable offenses.  There are many reasons why these leaders are not confronted directly – key customer/client contacts, technical expertise, political connections, or powerful mentors.   No one wants to risk upsetting them and suffering the fallout.  So they’re sent off to expensive “charm school” training programs in hopes that they will be miraculously transformed, shuffled off to a different division, or given a “special” assignment.

Meanwhile, their behavior has consequences:
-   Low employee morale, retaliation, passive aggression, attrition
-   Higher levels of stress and stress related illnesses and absenteeism
-   Mistakes, loss of creativity and innovation
-   Fearful work environments in which  people hide mistakes, point fingers and avoid even low risk actions
-   Loss of investment in high potentials who derail and fail
-   Ultimately, the possibility of lawsuits due to hostile work environment or discriminatory behavior accusations

We must find a way to engage these leaders in a meaningful dialog to help them understand their behavior and its impact on others.  Success lies in getting and maintaining rapport with them; to keep emotions in check and not get drawn in to a defensive, unproductive spiral.  More than a decade ago, I learned a set of simple principles that describe how the human operating system works, what’s behind our experience of life in the moment. This understanding, referred to as State of Mind or the 3 Principles, is so empowering, it gives me the confidence to make this statement:

It is possible to get rapport with any person under any circumstances – and to sustain that rapport over time.

The fact that we create our experience of life through our thinking and the unlimited potential for new thought allows me to see myself and others from a different perspective.  It’s a perspective that significantly changes the interpersonal dynamic.  In the paragraphs that follow, I’ll share my thoughts on getting rapport and ask you to reflect on a conversation you’ve been avoiding or one that didn’t go well in hopes that you’ll have some insights of your own.

Intent. This insight snuck up on me one day when I was facilitating a teambuilding session.  The program team was highly dysfunctional and everyone had his or her own ideas about the source of the problems – the technical challenges, the difficult customer, the bureaucracy of the large company, procurement issues. (Nothing about rapport or relationships.)  The feeling in the room was terrible.  For just a minute I wasn’t hearing the content of what they were saying, and it hit me – they don’t trust or respect each another.  I knew addressing that was job one.  If they didn’t get rapport as a team, they would fail.  Now I could help them put energy in the right direction – seeing the human factors of their team.

 Separate Realities.  Each one of us is creating our experience of life through our thinking from the inside – out.  Two people in the same meeting or movie can be having an entirely different experience because they see it through their personal thinking.  It’s helped me over the years to see that everyone is doing the best they can based on how they see the world.  We believe our thinking – it’s our truth.  It’s thought, by the way, that’s creating our emotional state, not the circumstances.  Seeing separate realities in the moment, helps me keep from taking things personally.  I’m more curious about others’ reactions and less judgmental and defensive.  That changes the dynamic.

Potential for Insights.  We have an unlimited potential for new thought.  Everyone.  When we have new thinking our experience has to change; our perceptions, our emotions, it can all shift in an instant.  And there is nothing to do.  We cannot stop new thinking from coming to us.  It’s innate.  All we have to do is be open to the possibility.  This brings incredible hope to any situation.  It’s why I am confident that it’s possible to get rapport with any person in any circumstances.

My secret for coaching abrasive leaders is simple; I don’t see them as their behavior.  I see them as people who are doing the best they can based on how they see the world, what makes sense to them.  I honestly want to know what makes sense to them. There’s a feeling to that attitude that can’t be faked or modeled with a technique. That feeling paves the way for a connection, a level of engagement that is the basis of rapport.  Once we have rapport, it’s easy to have the honest dialog that is necessary to address their behavior and the effect it has on others.

One of my favorite coaching relationships started when a technical director flew into my office, slammed himself into a chair and said, “I don’t know why I have to go to ‘be a better person school’ when it’s the other incompetent a-holes who are causing the problems.”  I honestly thought he was funny, and it was the beginning of a wonderful relationship and a life-changing chapter in his life.  Less than a year later, he was physically healthier, happier, and taking on new responsibilities mentoring others.

An understanding of the 3 Principles is also the foundation for sustainable behavior change.  But that’s a story for another time….

About the author:
Cheryl Bond is an accomplished learning and organizational development professional with experience in a variety of corporate cultures including technology, legal, insurance, financial services and 14 years at BAE Systems one of the world’s largest defense and security providers. Essential Resilience provides training, seminars, and coaching to help people maintain well-being and energy under pressure, embrace new challenges, interact with others more effectively and ultimately improve organizational performance.  Visit her website at or e-mail

1 comment:

Lynne Lloyd said...

Enjoyed your article and examples of working with leaders who have behavioral challenges. Your insights on the 3 principles are very advanced, mature thinking...hard for most of us to accomplish but thoroughly worth doing.

I love your example of the technical director who complained about others causing the problems. For some people, it is always someone else's fault. Blame is elsewhere, and is never, ever attached to them.