Disruption creates more disruption
I’d been coaching Marina, a very disruptive executive, for several months when her boss, Shauna, called asking for a little help. I wasn’t officially coaching Shauna, but because Marina was so difficult to manage, I’d talked with Shauna frequently.
“I think I blew it yesterday,” she told me. “I stopped by Marina’s office to do the ‘drip, drip, drip’ feedback you suggested and she just flipped out. She started screaming that she was getting results our department hasn’t seen in years and that if I wasn’t going to support her then she was going to file a complaint against me.
“I lost it, Tom. I started yelling back at her. I finally caught myself and just walked out, but everyone heard us. I was a mess for an hour afterwards. It was terrible. I haven’t yelled at anyone like that since I was a teenager. I just couldn’t hold it together.”
Shauna had experienced one of the traits common to disruptive executives: they create a great deal of emotional upset in those around them.
Emotions are as contagious as any virus—but without the incubation period! When we get infected, we suddenly find ourselves behaving in ways we know are inappropriate but feel helpless to stop. Exactly what happened to Shauna.
I’d spent time teaching Shauna tools for dealing with disrupters and she had been an apt student. The five tools I taught her were covered in last month’s Coaching Tip. But she’d just found out that all those tools—and her rational self!—vanished when her emotions flared up.
I assured her that, when dealing with disruptive executives, getting hijacked by your emotions is not at all unusual.
Shauna replied, “That may be true, but I don’t ever want it to happen again.”
What follows are four tools to help you manage yourself with a disrupter. The first three tools are very specific and tactical. The fourth is a powerful concept that can rescue you when an emotional hijacking is in progress.
Giving feedback to a disruptive executive can create a volatile situation. That volatility makes you particularly vulnerable to emotional hijacking.
Rehearsal gives you time to think through your points, craft language that may be less inflammatory and prepare yourself for the tension that’s inherent in the situation.
The objective for your rehearsal is to build familiarity with your thoughts and feelings. You are not rehearsing to be able to better control the disrupter. That’s a false goal. The real goal: gain confidence and competence in your own skills.
Soldiers, surgeons, emergency responders, astronauts and pilots all rehearse their high-risk tasks because rehearsal guarantees improved performance. And failure has such a high cost. The same is true for you. Failure to manage yourself with a disrupter has a very high cost. Just ask Shauna!
2 Own feedback as your own
Disrupters often derail feedback by debating it.
Imagine you’re Marina’s boss. During a staff meeting, you saw her speak harshly about a co-worker’s report. The co-worker, Anna, was obviously upset by Marina’s comment.
It would be appropriate for you, the boss, to give Marina feedback. But if you speak for Anna (“She was very upset by your comment about her report”), you may end up in a debate about how upset Anna really was or whether she was upset at all.
To avoid those sorts of debates, simply own the feedback as your own. For example, “I was watching Anna when you made that comment about her report. She appeared very upset.”
If Marina wants to debate any part of this, just continue owning your experience. “Marina, your comment sounded harsh to me. If I had been Anna, I would have been upset. Those kinds of comments won’t help you achieve the goal we’ve been discussing.” (Here you would reference your “theme” which was the first of the five tools in last month’s Executive Coaching Tip.
When you make the feedback about yourself and your experience, it becomes irrefutable.
3 Stay on point
Disruptive executives often create diversions. They may blame others or change the subject or bring up irrelevant incidents from the past. When that happens, don’t take the bait. And don’t let the tactic upset you. Just bring the topic back to whatever you want to talk about.
Let’s imagine you’re talking with Marina about the harsh comment she made to Anna. And she replies, “That’s no different than what Scott said to me last week. You didn’t go slam him, did you?”
Don’t take the bait. Calmly stay on point. Say, “Marina, right now we’re only discussing the comment you made to Anna. I want you to know that I thought the comment was harsh and I’d like those harsh comments to stop. That’s all.”
Suppose she replies, “Fine! Then I won’t say anything at all any more!”
Don’t take the bait. Calmly stay on point. Say, “Marina, I’m only talking about that one comment to Anna. I thought it was harsh and I’d like those kinds of comments to stop. I am not asking that you stop participating. That isn’t what I’m asking for.”
Don’t take the bait. Stay on point.
(You can find a similar set of targeted communication tools in “Three Little Phrases with Big Impact.”)
4 Inoculate yourself
Emotions are contagious. They jump from one person to another in a second. That’s documented fact.
But self-awareness and self-management are protection against infection.
Here is a powerful tool for protecting against emotional hijacking. I learned it from a psychologist who was leading an emotionally charged intervention. I’ve used it ever since.
The intervention was to be an intense psychodrama performed by a group of teenage girls living together in a therapeutic setting. The target of the intervention was a girl whom they knew to be explosive and unpredictable.
As the girls gathered, the knowledge that this disruptive, emotionally uncontained girl would shortly enter the room created an air of intensity.
The leader quietly called the girls around him for final instructions. “Remember, girls, whatever happens here is not about you. Don’t take in anything she says. Get yourselves safely in your tent and zip up tight.”
I glanced about. There were no tents to be seen.
Later, when I asked the leader what he’d meant, he said he teaches the girls to create an imaginary tent that surrounds them like a shield. There’s a little porthole they can unzip so they can see out, but otherwise, they’re encased in a protective shell. Any bile or poison the disrupter slings around will land on the outer walls of the tent, keeping them safe and uninfected.
I’ve created my own protective tent and used it often. When anyone near me becomes highly emotional—even if they tell me I am the cause of their upset!—I can zip myself into my tent, unzip the little porthole and look out at the ensuing drama safely. I’m inoculated against the contagion of emotion.
Shauna was learning from her interactions with Marina that dealing with disruptive executives is a test for everyone around them. The tools here, and in last month’s Tip, are meant to help you deal respectfully with any disrupter in your life, whether that person is your peer, your direct report or your boss. Being effective with a disruptive executive, and being respectful at the same time, is a masterful display of The Look & Sound of Leadership™.