Softening Aggressiveness

October 2nd, 2015

Bruce leaned forward, pointed his finger at the employee and said loudly: “This was supposed to be done by Monday, and it’s not done. Why isn’t it done?” The employee cowered, sat quietly shaking, then gave a defensive excuse.

Bruce called another employee into his office and in a raised voice, told her, “I told you to do it this way, and you didn’t follow my directions. I told you that for a reason.” When a third employee didn’t know how to do something, he yelled at her, saying, “You should know this.”

Bruce was hired as the director of the department to turn it around and improve its on-time performance. He had the drive and passion for this work, and was committed to doing it well. He also had solid experience from Fortune 500 companies and major consulting firms. His previous jobs in high-powered corporations had taught him that managers ensure great performance by setting ambitious goals, accepting no excuses and giving tough feedback whenever targets were missed.

His new environment was different. It was a large not-for-profit with many long-tenured employees who weren’t especially ambitious, who didn’t strive for promotions or bonuses, and wanted only to go to work, get through the day, and go home on time. After several months it dawned on Bruce that he was working in a foreign culture. He learned that his confrontational management style was shocking and upsetting to the staff. They had never been spoken to this way. Only rarely had they been told that their work was inadequate. And certainly, they’d never seen such aggressive and blunt behavior by a manager. Some people left the department. Those who stayed became fearful of him and talked among themselves of their hopes that he would leave.

When I met Bruce he was in a quandary. He was trying to do the right thing by pushing for better performance. His intention to turn around the department was appropriate and supported by his manager. But his management style was backfiring. He was facing a near-rebellion by his staff for doing this.

The challenge for Bruce, and for me as his coach, was to find a different way of communicating with his staff—a way that enabled them to listen to him and not shut down in his presence. Because this new communication style needed to be significantly different from his existing style, he would probably need to shift some of his mind-sets before he could use and sustain it.

Bruce’s first shift was to recognize that attending to relationships is as important as attending to tasks. In fact, that by creating trusting relationships people would be more open to talking about how they were doing their tasks. The second was to recognize that his role models for management, though effective in the past, didn’t fit in this culture. And the third was seeing that even though his intent was noble, his impact on the team was not working.

Our initial coaching sessions centered on understanding and accepting these new mind-sets. Like most mind-set changes, his acceptance was gradual. At first, arguing that these worked very well in the past, therefore they should work here. We challenged his tasks-above-all mindset by continuing to look at incidents and evidence that it was eroding his relationships with his people. As he recognized this, he gradually came to realize that a new approach was called for. He switched from pushing back and complaining in our coaching sessions to asking me for specific tools that he could use.

Developing these tools became the focus of the rest of our coaching work. We identified a two-part development plan:
1. Soften criticism, use more sensitive and diplomatic language
2. Manage emotions, moving from frustration and anger to calmness.

1. Using more sensitive, diplomatic language was his first and most concrete goal. We looked for statements and questions he could use when expectations and commitments were not met. Three sources helped us. Crucial Accountability, a book by Patterson and Grenny gave us a philosophy, models and examples. My own familiarity with diplomatic communication added to his new mind-sets and language. And Bruce’s identification of a role model—someone he admired in the organization—gave him a live person who he could share positive techniques with, and who could provide culturally appropriate mentoring.

2. Managing emotions began with deepening his self-awareness of frustration and anger, to enable him to catch his expressions of these emotions before they came out. Breathing and body scanning helped in building this awareness. We also used his body awareness to help him see some of his aggressive body language, like finger pointing and rapid arm movements, so he could change it to more open and welcoming gestures.

Like many others who begin mindfulness, Bruce started catching his emotions a little late, a second or two after they came out. To prime his attention, we added anticipation to the strategy — that is, to recognize when he was entering a volatile situation. By doing this he could anticipate his emotional reaction and prepare to let it pass through him in order to clear the way for a more measured response.

He also began to emotionally plan for these conversations. Before engaging in a conversation about project status, he would calm himself, stay aware of his emotions, and focus on staying calm and choosing diplomatic language. To date, this approach is starting to work. He has kept calm, respectful and diplomatic during several recent conversations in which staff members had missed expectations. He has committed to keeping attention and focus on his emotions and his language to enable him to become a more effective leader of his team. So far, so good.

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