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Being a Jerk Isn’t a Leadership Style

Have you ever done a search for “I hate my boss”? There is no shortage of search results that’s for sure (I got 167,000,000 results in 0.47 seconds). Research has long reported that one of the top reasons people leave a company is that they can’t stand their boss.

Do you see a position of power as a place of entitlement (i.e. perks, power over others, etc.) or as a place of responsibility for others (i.e. develop and empowering employees to reach their full potential, etc.)? Your answer determines your long-term success. While there are plenty of people operating under the entitlement mindset, they will inevitably find themselves unable to advance. Marshall Goldsmith wrote What Got You Here Won’t Get You There to highlight the problem.

Seeing a position of power as an entitlement is a fundamentally primal behavior that mimics the “law of the jungle.” While the dress code might be more modern the mental attitude still reflects a long outdated mindset that is counterproductive in today’s workplace.

Bad Bosses Kill Brain Power

Not only is today’s workforce unwilling to tolerate it, neuroscience has proven that flexing power over others shuts down their executive function thereby limiting their mental capacity and ability to perform at their best. It creates a downward performance spiral. Instead of looking good, these leaders are constantly frustrated by their subordinates lack luster results. These leaders can’t see that they’ve created a lose/lose situation for themselves and the people on their team.

Leader limitations constrain organizational success, particularly in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world. Leaders who enforce mindless compliance create complacency and learned helplessness. Complacency is like cancer to an organization. It creates a slow death from the inside out, because it kills creativity, innovation and high performance.

Do these behaviors sound familiar?

  • Frequent angry outbursts.
  • Competitive over almost everything.
  • Incessantly impatient.

Whatever their behavior, bad bosses believe that it is justified based on their perceptions of their role and the situation. It’s not uncommon for alpha males to get tagged as having these behaviors and worse.

Emotional Intelligence Gauge

When Strengths Become Weaknesses

In their book, Alpha Male Syndrome, Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson remind us that we naturally look to alpha males to lead us. More importantly, the characteristics that we admire in those leaders, when taken to an extreme, become behaviors that we can’t stomach.

Strengths taken to an extreme is a potential problem for everyone. Our greatest strengths, when taken to an extreme high or low intensity become our greatest weaknesses. Take confidence for example. Extremely high confidence becomes arrogance that’s hard to swallow. Extremely low confidence can lead to feelings of self-doubt and insecurity. Neither extreme serves us well.

In the Alpha Male Syndrome, the authors share their perceptions of the different alpha male types, the ways they benefit their organizations and how they can damage productivity, morale and efficiency. Fortunately, they share survival tips for those who work with them, in addition to insights for self-development for alpha males themselves.

Research has shown that out-of-control alpha males have shorter lifespans. It’s important to note that, if you have to endure an out-of-control alpha male all day every day, being on the receiving end of that behavior for an extended period of time can shorten your life too…

Female Alphas

By the way, the Alpha Male Syndrome authors note that while there are women leaders who can be just as opinionated and strong-minded, female alphas are less inclined to dominate. They are more likely to search for consensus and buy-in rather than impose their will on others. Additionally, they tend to find win/win solutions to conflict.

Interestingly, they report that women have a natural attraction to novelty and will likely fit the new knowledge into what’s already in place. Alternately, an alpha male might cling too long to the known and be more conservative about exploring risks and create new systems as their adaptation strategy. It makes you wonder how those findings will play out during turbulent times ahead.

How to be “In the Moment” with a Boss that “Loses It”

In reflecting on their recommendations, I’m reminded of the following approach to dealing with people who have impulse control problems and are emotionally out-of-control. Realize that they are frustrated, fearful or overly concerned about a potential negative consequence that they may suffer as a result of the situation.

  1. Recognize that regardless of what they are saying, they are the one with a problem. Whatever name calling or bad behavior is taking place is a reflection on them. Even if you did something wrong (you probably know it if you did) they are out-of-line by allowing themselves to lose control. Recognizing this, you need to breathe deeply. Slow steady deep breathing throughout the conversation helps your executive function to stay active, so you can respond effectively, in the moment.
  2. Don’t try to reason with a person who is in a highly emotional state. The executive function or reasoning part of their brain is turned off. Any attempt at reason will just make the situation worse.
  3. Notice the emotions they are expressing. Most likely there are many.
  4. Wait until they pause or wind down. Restate the frustrations, concerns, fears, etc. they reported (less any bad language or derogatory remarks about you or others). You do not have to agree with them. Simply acknowledge their perspective. At the point where they feel heard, they should calm down.
  5. If further action is required on your part and it makes sense, you may want to confirm your understanding of what needs to happen next. Otherwise, excuse yourself and give them a minimum of 20 minutes to mentally recover. Don’t internalize what they said. Think of their lack of self-awareness and self-control as immaturity. You need to be the adult.

If you’re thinking, why should I have to be the adult, when he’s the boss?! It’s a fair question. Recognize that when you are able to tame your boss, YOU demonstrate your leadership abilities and other people will take notice. Even if you’re not interested in becoming a manager, your influence and success will be greatly enhanced when you master working through others. It’s rare these days to have a job that operates in complete isolation. Think of it as skill building towards your opportunity to shine, at least until you can find a better job.

Bad Boss that Fails to See Impact on Others

Oblivious to Behavior

It’s bad enough when leaders intentionally behave badly because they believe it’s the best way to achieve their desired results. It’s worse when it’s unintentional and leaders believe they are doing a good job when they’re not. Organizations need people who can exercise higher order thinking (also known as mental complexity). The ability to analyze their own thoughts. Question something they “know for sure” and recognize that it is really a belief, thereby avoiding a bad decision.

In Ray Dalio’s book Principles, he emphasizes the importance of reality checks. In his organization, everyone is subject to radical candor at all times. They keep baseball like score cards so everyone knows your strengths and weaknesses. They are constantly making sure to separate confidence from reality. As painful as that level of scrutiny must be, it has certainly produced a superior results for Bridgewater.

It’s been shown that you don’t necessarily get the best results by putting all the people with the highest IQ in a room. Each of them stubbornly insists they are right and everyone else is uninformed or they endlessly debate about who should lead the group. They can’t get anything done. They can’t see any perspective but their own. In and of itself, this is a mental shortcoming …regardless of how high the IQ score.

Rightness Mindtrap

In Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps, Jennifer Berger, PhD., reports that our sense of rightness is just a feeling and has nothing to do with actually being right. We can just as easily be wrong. Our sense of rightness is an emotion, like love or anger and has nothing to do with reason. The scary thing of course, is that we tend to think we’re right most of the time. Add a position of power to that recipe and bad things are sure to follow.

Rightness is one of many ways our brain tricks us. Berger goes on to say that “we can’t tell the difference between our opinion and the truth, and that shapes what we notice- and how we treat other people.” Wait, it gets worse! “Our experience of rightness kills curiosity and openness to data that proves us wrong.” That sure sounds like the confirmation bias in action.

Thankfully, she provides us with two questions we can ask ourselves to counteract the rightness trap:

  1. What do I believe? This makes us consider the possibility that our feeling of rightness could actually be a belief rather than the truth. Once we realize it’s a belief rather than the truth, it’s easier to consider that other people have different beliefs.
  2. How could I be wrong? Once we go through the process of evaluating the many ways we might be wrong, it opens up a world of possibilities.

More important than the questions, Berger says we must change the way we listen from either listening to win or listening to fix to “listening to learn.” Both listening to win or fix come from our belief that we are right instead of being curious and open, which are prerequisites for learning.

It’s a reminder that in this world of constant change how dangerous our “experts” can be. History is filled with stories of experts who proudly discredit ideas and innovations as implausible or fads, only to be proven wrong. It’s a reminder that when you hear yourself adamantly say something can’t be done, you’re at great risk of embarrassing yourself one day in the not-to-distant future.

Bad Boss Addicted to Control

Addicted to Control

Berger also warns us about the need for control. It’s a compelling drive in leaders. However, in our VUCA world we have to shift our thinking to one of influence. How we support bringing our objectives into being. It means as leaders we need to design processes and systems to naturally produce the desired results and remove roadblocks along the way, rather than trying to micro-manage the end results. Think of it more as guiding everyone in a general direction rather than producing a specific outcome.

Two questions Berger suggests we ask ourselves to counteract the control trap are:

  • What can I help enable? Shifting from enforcing to empowering has exponential benefits when it comes to igniting the human potential.
  • What could enable me? Continuous reflection and personal development that lead to personal goals, making sure to focus on what’s really important for long-term fulfillment.

The key is to alter patterns rather than outcomes. Experimenting to amplify the positive and counteract the negative.

Safety Before Performance Improvement or Innovation

In The Fearless Organization, Amy Edmondson reports on the importance of psychological safety in the workplace. She describes it as an environment where people feel they can speak up, offer ideas, and ask questions without fear of being punished or embarrassed. A place where candor is expected. Some of the benefits include:

  • Substantially increases a CEO’s knowledge of what’s really going on in their organization.
  • Conducive to setting ambitious goals and working towards them together
  • More honest and more collaborative interactions
  • The value in conflict is realized as people are better able to work through differences
  • Mistakes and problems are promptly reported
  • Empowers learning from mistakes
  • Problem solving is enhanced
  • Promotes continuous improvement
  • Motivates learning and innovation
  • Improves willingness and ability to listen
  • Generates high employee engagement
  • Increases the effectiveness of remote/virtual teams
  • Improves employee retention
  • Makes the organization more attractive to top talent

One of her most poignant reminders is that “no one was ever fired for silence,” even though an environment where people fail to speak-up can put customers or employees in jeopardy. Highlighting the need to get information early about problems to mitigate the size and impact of future large-scale disasters (including potential loss of life).

If your workforce doesn’t feel safe, there is little chance the critical issues are being addressed when they arise. Instead, they are turning into fires that take up all your time and energy. Constant firefighting is a symptom of an unsafe workplace.

Jerks as Leaders Hurt Your Bottom Line

Bottom line is that having people who behave like jerks in positions of power don’t just cause misery for those who report to them. Jerks serve as a terminal illness for organizations that allow them to operate that way. It’s bad enough to have one. It’s terrifying to have a culture that supports bad bosses. You can forget about hiring and retaining top talent. Three things organizations can do is:

  1. Empower people to anonymously reveal your bad bosses, including details of bad behavior. Anonymous employee reporting is also a proven approach to uncover fraud, theft, and sabotage in your organization.
  2. Model the desired behavior and pay attention to bad behavior around you and discuss it with the bad actor. Remaining curious and asking questions throughout the conversation to determine whether they are acting intentionally or are oblivious of the impact they have on others is one place to start. Hopefully, your conversation will serve as a wake-up call.
  3. Incorporate lived learning approaches into the workflow and include the entire workforce. (Traditional classroom style training doesn’t work on behavior change.) It gives everyone a shared vocabulary and empowers every person to focus on their individual needs, at that time, and adjust as necessary. The Dripped, Flipped & Lived Learning™ System meets that need but do whatever works for you.

For those who hesitate to participate in lived learning programs because they think it will make them look bad in some way, the reality is that everyone already knows where we fall short because we demonstrate it to them every day. We’re just fooling ourselves thinking our weaknesses are a secret. You get respect and admiration when you demonstrate self-awareness and humility.

Companies that allow bad bosses to operate within their ranks are doing far more harm than they realize. The domino effect creates a downward spiral for everyone involved, including the perpetrator. It’s a losing proposition for all involved. Failing to take action could be fatal for a business over time.

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