Changing The Asshole a.k.a. Executive Intervention

“You’re bombastic, caustic, uncaring and domineering.  And those may be your good points,” I started.  He just laughed.  “I embrace all of those things,” he said.  “But I’ll tell you one thing; I get a lot done.  By the way, how long is this meeting supposed to last?”

The individual sitting in front of me was a department director with no small string of complaints against him.  Employees avoided him like the Plague while upper management loved his “get it done” approach.   “I admit that he’s difficult,” said the City Manager as we discussed executive coaching.  “He’s too blunt, too demanding, doesn’t listen to his employees very well, and lacks a lot in the category of appreciation.

“So… you’ve kept him because?”

“Technically, he’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.  If we fire him we lose a lot of organizational knowledge.”

Sound familiar?  If so, there are some things to consider toward a fix.

To you—the bosses—of such individuals, allow me to address you with several suggestions.

Assess what the issue seems to be.  Is this individual just an A-hole by nature or could he/she be exhibiting pressure reactions?  Pressure reactions, as I call them, are unconscious habits we all experience when stressed out.  Something akin to Jekyll & Hyde, this person is usually fairly calm and centered but morphs into a bit of a monster when things aren’t going right.  Some people become aggressive, some hypercritical and perfectionistic.  Others withdraw and complain behind the back while others yell and pitch an immature looking fit.  Employee assessments help to identify what specific character traits are emerging under pressure.  Coaching or supervisory training can be helpful in providing personal coping strategies and may also uncover stress-inducing dynamics within the organization that should then be addressed.  Of course, if you are the boss of this individual, you must take an honest look at whether it is you who may be contributing to your employee’s stress.  Keep in mind that a good portion of negative behavior in an organization is systemic in nature.

But what about the perpetual A-hole?  This is that individual who seems to employ bullying, threatening, blaming or manipulation as go-to leadership tactics.  Employee assessments and coaching are important first steps here as well, but this individual must be put on a short leash.  An honest and blunt conversation must convey the impact of their behavior and specific expectations must be set forth in writing in a performance improvement plan.  Under no circumstances should this behavior be ignored in the hope that it will improve on its own.  This individual is destroying morale and forcing good people to leave either physically or by mentally checking out as a form of self-protection.

Additionally, follow up with those employees who have been impacted.  Find out whether the individual has begun altering his/her behavior.  You may get a “deer-in-headlights” kind of reaction because they will be afraid of reprisal, but reassure the employees that this will not be tolerated and then make sure you follow your word.

Finally, remember that no one is indispensable.  Putting technical expertise over common decency sends the message that our opinions, feelings, and efforts don’t matter.

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