Not long ago, I received a call from an HR manager at a large corporation seeking an executive coach for one of their senior leaders. He was described as arrogant, tactlessly blunt, and lacking empathy. Despite his challenges, all of which hadn’t improved much despite several previous coaching interventions, the company hadn’t fired him because he was considered one of the industry’s most brilliant engineers, responsible for several of the firm’s most profitable patents. The company simply couldn’t afford to let him go.
How do you coach a leader whom others think is a hopeless case? Sometimes you can’t. The person may well turn out to be a jerk who won’t change their toxic ways. In that case, the company needs to fire the individual. Tolerating destructive behavior will send the signal that it’s ok to mistreat others as long as you get results. But, often, as was the case with my client, the leader who everyone thinks is hopeless is simply being misunderstood and their behavior misdiagnosed.
Whether you are a coach, an HR leader, or an executive trying to help a challenging subordinate, your credibility, and that of the leader you’re trying to help, depends on an accurate understanding of what’s actually going on. Here are three ways you can be sure you’re addressing the right problem with a challenging leader in the right way.
Manage your assumptions and judgements. Without realizing it, those of us in advisory roles often bring our own issues to our work helping others. We make assumptions and judgements based on our own experiences that often have little to do with the leader we’re trying to support. Before I even met this leader, I found myself feeling anxious, dismissive, and judgmental toward him based on what others had said. I imagined how I would respond to his insulting behavior and what I would say if he made an arrogant comment. But my defenses were unwarranted and my assumption that he was a jerk proved wrong. He was engaging, open to learning, and willing to accept his need to improve. When I asked him why he thought he was so harsh toward others, he seemed stumped and genuinely troubled by how others had characterized him.
I’d heard from the company’s HR manager that this executive was especially cruel toward one colleague. Why had he singled out one person to treat in a uniquely nasty way? As we explored this, it became clear that something about the younger engineer triggered the executive’s anger and it eventually clicked: The young engineer reminded him of his older brother, with whom he had a contentious relationship. My client was raised in an excessively achievement-oriented family, that prized blunt candor over tact, and he was regularly sent the message that he was inferior. His brother had been the family’s golden child while he was never good enough. This direct report was a daily reminder of that pain. This back story in no way excused his behavior, but it did explain it. More importantly, it revealed a path forward toward changing it. But I had to set aside my biases and prejudgments to build the trust necessary to access these important insights.
Look past symptoms to contradictions. Determining what lies beneath seemingly destructive behavior requires looking beyond symptoms. My client’s colleagues had described him as mean and insensitive. His previous coaches had focused on various interpersonal techniques, like how to give constructive feedback, work with different personality styles, and delegate effectively. But they’d neglected to probe into the dynamic with that one engineer. To thoroughly diagnose a leader’s behavior, look for breaks in patterns. Are there people this person works especially well or poorly with? Specific circumstances in which they shine or falter? No one is the same all the time, so understanding where people deviate from predictable habits can isolate important clues. In my client’s case, his unique contempt toward one colleague was an important data point. Further, I learned later that his widely regarded technical expertise coupled with his family background made him feel anxiously responsible for the company’s technical reputation. His team members experienced this as micromanagement and dismissive of their expertise. If we’d focused on those symptoms, we wouldn’t have gotten very far. We needed to understand the root cause. It’s not uncommon to inaccurately diagnosis bad leadership behavior. One Arizona State University study found that toxic leadership pathologies are often confused with behaviors that might fall into a normal range of pathology. To avoid confusing common leadership shortfalls with serious pathologies, it’s critical to dig deeper behind symptoms.
Have a broad repertoire of solutions. For many in advisory roles, their diagnostic lens is narrowed to problems they are best equipped to solve. Every hammer looks like a nail, as the saying goes. For example, I’ve seen some consultants whose specialty was team building, so it was no surprise that their findings and recommendations were all around improving team trust. Leadership coaches use their favorite personality instruments to solve everything from poor financial performance to low morale. It’s important to be open-minded to solutions that fall outside your expertise. Ineffective leadership behavior can originate from deep-seated pathologies to problems with organizational culture. Having a repertoire of tools and approaches helps avoid the dangers of applying a one-size-fits-all solution to all situations. And don’t be afraid to refer people to others who have different expertise that may be able to better help your clients with particular issues. In the case of my client, I recommended he also see a therapist to work on his anxiety and unresolved family issues. He and I worked on more effective ways to engage, teach, and empower his team, and how to recognize when his triggers were getting in the way of doing so.
Consistent scholarly research suggests when it comes to empirically measuring the effectiveness of those advising leaders, we fall far short. Mislabeling behavior or a person as beyond help is one way we fail leaders. If you don’t look for contradictions, get to the root cause, and have a range of solutions, you could unwittingly limit someone’s growth or, even worse, derail their career. But if you do those things, with an open mind, you may be able to help save the job of a valuable leader who might otherwise have been let go, and in turn, provide great value to those you serve.