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The Disruptive Executive – Part One


June 2012

Some leaders bully. Some self-aggrandize. Some catastrophize. There are all sorts of ways leaders can be disruptive. In this first of two parts, Tom shares five tools to deal with disrupters.

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June 2012

The Disruptive Executive – Part One

Tom Henschel

What makes an executive “disruptive”?

Shauna wanted me to coach Marina, one of her direct reports. I ended up doing that. But, in an unusual move, I also ended up coaching Shauna about how to manage Marina. Here’s why.

Shauna told me Marina’s expertise was unique and valuable. “But she’s defensive and combative,” she added. “When she doesn’t get her way, she can hold the whole department hostage. Her direct reports are afraid of her. Heck, Tom, there are times when I’m afraid of her!

“I’ve told her she needs to improve her relationships but nothing’s improving. In fact, when I talk to her about her behavior, everything seems to get worse.”

I told Shauna that Marina seemed to fit a category of leaders I call “disruptive executives” who are particularly difficult to manage.

Four common traits

Disruptive executives take many different forms—bullies, obstructionists, catastrophisers, self-aggrandizers, to name just a few—but whatever their style of disruption, they seem to share four traits:

First, their perception of themselves is very different from the perception other people have of them;

Second, they don’t hear criticism easily;

Third, in discussions about their disruptive behaviors, they make it seem that other people, not they, are the problem;

Fourth, they create a great deal of emotional upset.

Shauna heard my list and nodded vigorously. “She does all those things! When I said I’m scared of her, that’s why. Giving her feedback is like getting in the ring with a heavyweight. I’m sorry, but I’m tired of getting beaten up.” Then she laughed ruefully. “Hope you can handle yourself in the ring!”

I assured her I’d done it before and come out unscarred. “But, Shauna, I want to help you manage Marina without feeling like you’re doing combat.”

What follows are five tools I gave Shauna. If someone in your life is “disruptive,” the same tools may be helpful for you.

1 Theme the issue

When I asked Shauna to list the top issue she wanted me to work on with Marina, she couldn’t do it. She listed many issues, and every issue became a story with strands going off in different directions.

Emotions get so stirred up around disruptive people that it’s hard to nail down one single issue. There are so many! That confusion protects the disrupter.

The antidote here is to create one big folder in your mind, then label the folder with one big theme. Maybe the theme is, “Executive Presence,” or “Using Good Judgment,” or “Play Nice in the Sandbox.” The theme should be a broad umbrella that will arch over lots of smaller points. Once she thought about it this way, Shauna decided her theme with Marina would be “Professionalism.”

Here’s what a theme sounds like with a disrupter:

“I’m going to start talking with you about ‘executive presence’,” or whatever your theme is. “I’ll let you know when I think it’s going well and when it’s not.”

That’s all. Just tell them you have a label in your mind and you’re going to talk with them about it.

Once you establish the theme, the following four tools might happen in the next breath or whenever the next incident occurs.

2 Treat the theme as pre-existing fact

A common trait among disruptive executives is their difficulty hearing feedback they perceive as critical. Their defensive behavior makes them hard to approach. As a result, when we approach them at all, we do it tentatively as if we’re edging down a hallway full of hidden traps.

Unfortunately, that caution allows the disrupter’s defenses to stay in place. I’m not saying there aren’t traps in the hallway. There probably are. But edging tentatively won’t stop the disrupter from triggering the traps. So you might as well walk down the hall as if you intend to get to the other end.

Rather than a cautious approach, state your theme, and the subsequent feedback, as if it’s a pre-existing fact.

Here’s what I mean.

In my coaching, it’s not unusual to see a disruptive executive stung by feedback in a report. (Being disruptive doesn’t mean they’re invulnerable!)

When that happens, I’ll say, as if I know it to be true, “You’ve probably been hearing stuff like this for a while.”

Usually they respond by telling me exactly when they’ve heard it before. Often they’ve been hearing it since they were young. I’m never surprised when they know that part of themselves quite well.

What does surprise me is the rare case when someone says, no, they’ve never heard it before. I can’t imagine a leader having gotten that far in his or her career without having heard this information somewhere before—if only from a partner or spouse!

So I assume the theme, and the specific feedback, is a pre-existing fact that they already know. This matter-of-fact approach may help you, too.

3 Commit to drip, drip, drip

None of us change as a result of one piece of feedback. But, because their defense mechanisms are so strong, disrupters need a particularly steady stream of feedback.

Discuss your theme often. Imagine each mention of the theme is one dot on a chart that will end up showing where the clusters are. Putting a dot on the chart might be a short doorway conversation; you don’t have to have a big sit-down conference. You’re just adding a dot underneath that broad umbrella of a theme.

In order for your cluster chart to be valid (and to decrease defensiveness), your feedback needs balance. Starting with positive feedback can ease you into that trap-filled hallway. If you haven’t been gathering positive feedback, it’s time to start.

Giving themed positive feedback sounds like this: “That response to Robert in the staff meeting today? That was a great example of ‘executive presence.’ Thoughtful, articulate, very inviting. Well done. I’d like to see more of that.”

Giving themed developmental feedback sounds like this: “That response to Robert in the staff meeting? That didn’t look like ‘executive presence’ to me. I thought you sounded angry. That’s the sort of behavior I’d like you to control.

If we could see voiceprints, the pattern from both incidents should match exactly. And why not? There’s no drama here. It’s just a dot on a chart. A pre-existing fact, right?

Give lots of feedback. Of all sorts. Drip, drip, drip.

4 Create “and”

Often, to make ourselves feel better, we attach positive feedback to the more challenging feedback. It feels as if the positive feedback will take the sting out of difficult feedback. And it might … if the scales stay balanced. To do that, both sides of the scale must have equal value and must receive equal attention.

When I discuss a disrupter’s impact, I acknowledge both sides. “I think you have two very different sets of impact on people. One seems very helpful and collaborative.

And, there’s another when people seem very upset with you.” I use my hands to show that both exist, balancing each other. The word “and” joins them.

But people tell me they often deliver positive feedback, then preface the difficult feedback with “but.” It sounds like this:

“Sometimes you are helpful and collaborative but sometimes people get upset with you.”

The word “but” creates what I call a “kiss-slap.” The kiss is sweet but lasts only until the word “but.” Then, whack! In one word, the kiss is over. And not merely over, it’s vaporized. Saying “but” makes the other side of the scale vanish entirely.

Use “and” so both sides stay equal.

5 Small stuff counts

Because disrupters make feedback difficult, it’s natural to let small stuff slide and wait for big incidents. Or we take small incidents and inflate them a little to make them bigger. Big incidents feel as if they’ll be more effective at getting through those strong defenses. Hey, if we’re going to get in the ring with a heavyweight, we should have as much advantage as we can, right?

But it’s folly to imagine there’s going to be one tipping-point moment in which they suddenly see the light.

Instead, remember you’re trying to create a cluster-pattern of dots. Dots by their nature are small. Don’t let small stuff slide just because delivering the feedback is uncomfortable. It takes time to create a cluster. Drip, drip, drip, right?

So don’t let small stuff slide.

That’s the fifth tool.

On paper, I think these five tools seem easy. But disrupters often create so much upset in others, that people forget the tools they have.

Next month, in Part Two, I’ll talk about ways you can remember your tools so that, even with a disrupter, you can still exhibit The Look & Sound of Leadership™.

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