Dealing With Difficult Leaders

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Leaders can both make AND break an organisation at the same time. So how can their teams learn to cope and even manage upwards?

If we ask you to think of the stereotypical difficult leader, one of the first that is likely to spring to mind would probably be Elon Musk. Utterly brilliant with unparalleled vision and totally driven, he doesn’t however look much like a people person. He certainly doesn’t look like someone mindful of the HR procedures of his business. If he rages and rampages on Twitter, what on earth does he do in real life? Yet, he is undeniably one of the most successful business people in history.

To a less public extent, organisations the world over are headed up by equally difficult leaders. No one would (or could) blunt their drive (an innate trait, measured by McQuaig) but it’s important to have a human skills development strategy in place to minimise the fallout that these leaders can cause.

The leaders

It’s important to recognise that an individual’s personality traits are largely fixed. People can stretch and squash how they exhibit their behavioural traits, but this can only ever be temporary. However, with greater self-awareness, individuals can learn to mitigate the less desirable elements of their personality with learnt emotional intelligence, resilience and motivation skills.

For example with greater understanding of their emotional intelligence, leaders can gain perspective on their triggers, responses and the resultant impact on those around them. This perspective allows them to make the small changes that can have a significant positive impact.

Their teams

This is a difficult one. Should anyone have to put up with a difficult leader? In an ideal world, the answer would be no. But what if your leader is Elon Musk, or a similar visionary without whom there wouldn’t be a business? The truth is that brilliant people are often difficult to be with. Obviously there is a line which must be drawn when behaviour becomes unacceptable. This is the point at which senior management or board members must take action. But up to this point, it’s important to put together teams with the emotional intelligence and resilience to cope with a forceful personality, without succumbing to toxic behaviour themselves.

In this situation, you will need to recruit with emotional intelligence and resilience at the top of your skills wish list. Assessing these skills at the interview stage will tell you whether your candidate is aware of their emotions and understands how to regulate their emotional responses. Do they have the self-confidence to hold their own when faced with the challenges of their difficult leader? Are they able to recognise and rationalise the behaviours of others without taking it personally? While it may not be reasonable or even desirable to aim for totally Teflon-coated candidates, you will certainly save yourself false starts if your working environment is particularly ‘robust’, let’s say.

… And your leaders of the future

While you may not be able to remodel your current difficult leaders, you are in a position to make sure that you do not hire or develop in their image. A certain skill set or personality type might have been needed for the initial business start-up, but a radically different set of skills may be needed to take the organisation forward.

For example, Adam Neumann’s vision gave life to the global office space WeWork, but had he handed it over to better skilled managers, perhaps it wouldn’t have ended quite so badly. Nurturing your leaders of the future will create long-term stability and build trust throughout your organisation. Your future leaders must be able to head up a culture of organisational psychological safety which safeguards workplace wellbeing and where mistakes are not blame & shame-worthy.

Strategies for difficult conversations

What all of this comes down to is having the ability to constructively engage in difficult conversations. Hard truths are difficult to hear, but it is important to speak truth to power nonetheless. Solid emotional intelligence skills can take the heat out of these situations.

” … one in four employees admit never discussing frustrations or thoughts of quitting with their manager before they handed in their notice … 91% of employers felt they fostered an environment where staff were comfortable communicating frustrations, while just 64% of employees said the same to their managers.

When employee retention is proving more vital than ever, it’s time for managers to take steps to narrow the communication gaps between themselves and their team members.”

To narrow this communication gap, managers and their reports need to speak the same constructive language. They need to be aware of their emotional intelligence, resilience and motivation drivers. They need to understand how & why they react & respond the way they do, to have the words to calmly articulate this to those around them. This takes the heat & blame/defensiveness out of difficult and potentially explosive conversations.

Also valuable is external facilitation. A skilled facilitator has no axe to grind nor points to score. They are able to direct discussion through models that enable groups who may be in internal conflict to reach agreement on a viable way forward. External facilitation could be an incredibly cost-effective way of channelling the drive of your difficult leaders without alienating their teams.

Regular coaching will also help to soften the edges of difficult leaders who may suffer with fragile egos beneath their external vigour. Coaches are valuable as confidential sounding boards who invite their coachees to consider appropriate pathways to success while taking their teams with them.

McQuaig and flowprofiler® help your leaders and their teams to understand each other better. They provide effective solutions to strengthen the workplace relationships that are the bedrock of your organisation’s success. Used within strategic development and recruitment programmes, these tools can deliver significant ROI and support your HR teams as they work with your organisation’s leaders to drive productivity.

We can’t promise to magically transform your difficult leaders. But we can help them, their teams and their HR professionals to understand and learn from each other. Contact us for an easy conversation about making your difficult conversations more productive.

Contact us to learn how McQuaig and flowprofiler® can help your leaders to be less difficult ...

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