Hostile Boss, Hostile Workplace: A Recipe for Positive Change

With the strong focus and support, an overly sharp-edged manager can indeed make modest changes that, over time, will considerably improve their impact on others.  I’ve experienced this with my clients, and it’s inspiring.

So-called nightmare bosses are much more common than any of us would hope. We all know or have worked with someone who’s overly critical or angry and generates stress all around them.

Over the past 14 years, I’ve coached a number of executives and emerging leaders who fit this profile.  During anonymous, 360-degree interviews, which I usually conduct at the start of my client engagement, colleagues described these individuals as quite angry, hostile, and/or volatile, who tended to bring out the worst in others.  In several interviews I was told the clients were bullies whose behavior created a “hostile workplace.”

Bullying, sadly, is trending—in schools, on social media, and across the political landscape. It’s increasingly common to hear accusations that certain managers create hostile workplaces by acting like bullies, too.

Since concerns about bullying have become more prevalent, I wanted to educate myself in the relevant legal perspective.  For that I turned to Mark Romeo, a Labor and Employment Law Partner at Crowell & Moring LLP.

“Being a mean manager doesn’t in itself create what is sometimes referred to legally as a ‘hostile work environment.’ In fact, while no one likes a hostile boss, unless you can show that negative, inappropriate or unwanted behavior is based on certain protected characteristics (for example, race, disability or gender) then the claim of a hostile work environment due to harsh or angry behavior is unlikely to be legally actionable.’” –Attorney Mark Romeo

Even so, hostile and/or bullying behavior significantly impacts people and organizations, whether the culprit is managing two people in a small firm or sitting on the Board of a Fortune 50. “You need a whole cleaning crew to mop up the messes they leave behind,” said one CEO.  Ultimately, bullying managers cause the performance of the team or organization to suffer, by eroding morale, increasing turnover, and even challenging cultural sustainability.  Some affected by bullying remain, and may clam up and vent privately, trying to “cope.” In general, those who stick around pay a hefty personal and professional price in stress, health issues, and loss of self-respect.

Often, the perpetually critical or angry manager or exec is a true believer in their harsh approach. For example, in interviews with their colleagues, I will hear, “He knows full well what he’s doing, and he believes it’s the way to get the best out of others.” Some bullying bosses may have had some psychological pain, trauma, or difficulty in their own personal or professional lives that has hardened them toward others. In both situations, it’s quite unlikely that their behavior will change without significant intervention, and if you work for or with them, you need to factor that reality into your career plan.

When Is this Behavior “Fixable”?

There’s another potential explanation behind overly angry or sharp-edged behavior: the existence of a blind spot around how one’s communication and actions impact others. This is much more prevalent.  I’ve coached several clients who fit this category. Their aggressive or sharp-edged behavior can either be part of a long-standing blind spot, or stem from a temporary condition due to stress or other circumstances. Discussing a specific example with a client who tended to lash out and send fiery emails, she told me, “I had every right to be angry with them!” Perhaps. But what she didn’t realize, and what was in her blind spot, were several important facts:

  • This reaction was a pattern for her. When we see this behavior once, we can expect it has been and will be repeated: she tended to lash out or process her anger or frustration in email or IM “nastygrams.”
  • When a senior leader repeatedly expresses frustration in person or electronically, it can destabilize an organization, shatter morale, and make people stop communicating the most important things its leaders need to know. It can also cause passive-aggressive retaliation on the part of those impacted.
  • She’s absolutely entitled to her feelings. But if she wanted to achieve sustained, effective leadership (which she did), it’s her job to process those feelings in a self-contained manner. Then, after the reactive sting wears off, she could decide calmly what communication, delivered in what way(s), would be most effective. My suggestion: generally, voice-to-voice, one-on-one, kindly, and privately.
  • When we react to something by taking action toward others in anger, we are not making a good leadership choice, nor are we operating at our smartest. I appreciate that one colleague said, “When you’re reacting angrily, your IQ drops 30 points.”

So…How Can Mean Managers Change Behavior?

Subtracting the unwanted behavior starts with the person’s awareness and genuine desire to change.  If a mean management approach is not her or his deliberate choice, but instead unintentional, then it’s also crucial that they get the right help and support. It takes patience too.  With the proper focus he or she can indeed make modest changes that, over time, can considerably improve their impact on others.  I’ve experienced this with my clients, and it’s inspiring.

As the saying goes, it “ain’t easy.”  Here’s how it works:

  1. Usually expertly-collected and analyzed interview-based anonymous 360-degree feedback from his or her colleagues is a good start. It shows them the impact they are having on others.  Also, this feedback can illuminate the patterns and triggers that cause them to flare up.
  2. A plan of action, including daily reminders in the form of practices or cheat sheets (I’ve also helped clients make mantras, wallpaper for phones and computers, wallet cards, etc.) to keep the desired behaviors, along with triggers, top of mind.
  3. Help with accountability from a coach, colleague, mentor, or friend.
  4. Clarity about how he or she will handle mistakes or slip-ups.
  5. A mechanism to do reality checks on progress and track change, that may, for example, include follow up 360-degree assessments after a reasonable amount of time has passed. Tracking progress, collecting follow-up feedback and suggestions, and making adjustments, as needed, are essential practices.

The strongest factors leading to success are his or her capacity for and commitment to change.  The winning recipe isn’t a cookie-cutter approach; it’s whatever fits that specific person.  Coaching can be a crucial tool. Other solutions can include counseling, mentoring, and friendships. Meditation, physical exercise, music, hobbies, and even reading or studies can act as enablers for change.  Those ingredients, individually or mixed, can provide a developmental roadmap that fits the person—and can make a huge difference in an individual’s ability to achieve and sustain a less reactive and more powerful and positive approach to management.


David Peck is a Partner and US Lead for Executive Coaching at Heidrick Consulting. He’s been published extensively and is the author of Beyond Effective. Twitter: @coachdavidpeck

Special thanks to Eileen Harrington and Mark Romeo for their invaluable contributions to this piece.

Leadership Challenge: Finding Common Ground

Never has the American ethos been more conflicted. More voices are transmitting strongly-held one-sided views via all forms of media. It seems the artful practice of finding common ground among differing ideas is some kind of dream of a more courteous past.

However, leaders in particular, and colleagues in general don’t have the luxury to dig in or to stop listening in a tough conflict, particularly when effectiveness is at stake.

Most of us don’t like having a conflict or disagreement with a colleague. While debate, skepticism, and taking the “devil’s advocate” position may be signs of a healthy dialogue, this challenge relates to situations where there may be a conflict or differing views that seem–if not irreconcilable–beyond your current capacity to resolve.

If you find yourself in this situation this Fall, I challenge you to ask yourself as many of the following questions as you can:

1. How do the facts (rather than the feelings or delivery) of his/her view truly differ from my own?

2. What does this issue, or the overall situation, look like from his/her viewpoint that has them convinced they’re right and/or I’m wrong?

3. What’s the elephant in the room? What’s not being said or addressed here that’s contributing to our lack of progress on this issue?

4. What, if any, sacred cows do I need to let go of in the interest of finding common ground?

5. Beyond this immediate issue, what’s the bigger picture here, that if we can address that, will help with this particular issue?

6. What, if anything, would need to happen for me to change my point of view?

7. If we find common ground, what will my ego need to let go of?

8. What am I therefore willing to do differently right now to find common ground?


David Peck is a Partner and US Lead for Executive Coaching at Heidrick Consulting. He’s been published extensively and is the author of Beyond Effective. Twitter: @coachdavidpeck

Put Your People Center Stage

Have you ever pitched your team’s ideas to your board? Or to your colleagues? If so, you’re not alone. Leaders often choose to be the spokesperson for their people’s work without realizing that it comes at a cost—a failure to foster your team’s autonomy, learning, and engagement.

Instead, move your people from backstage to center stage and nurture their growth and confidence. Encourage them to present their own projects, ideas, and problems. Expose them liberally, even to “high stakes” audiences, and you help them strengthen their skills through direct experience and experiential learning. By being a more secure leader in this area, you end up with a stronger team and elevate everyone’s effectiveness, including your own.

Why leaders hog the spotlight—even inadvertently

It sounds so simple, yet many leaders still keep their team backstage, by holding onto some common mindsets:

  • I prove my value to the organization by presenting my team’s work.
  • These may be their ideas, but it’s my group. The buck stops with me.
  • If they present their own work, what’s my value?
  • I’d better present this project, especially since we’re presenting to [“high stakes” person or audience.”The stakes are too high to put my people on the line for their own work.
  • I want to protect my team from being attacked. That project is in trouble; I should take the heat.
  • If I let them present their own work, I will lose control.
  • I would present it better.

How do you go behind the scenes?

First, it’s helpful to identify and challenge your mindset; the one that’s keeping you (and not them) center stage, when the stakes are higher. What thinking or fear on your part holds this behavior in place? Is it on the list above, or do you have a different mindset?

Then with a desire to change, support, and plenty of practice, you can take some simple steps to change the behavior.

If you have a tendency to speak on behalf of your team, I challenge you to create more opportunities for them to speak for themselves. Invite them to senior meetings you attend, and be watchful and supportive. Provide kind, necessary, behavioral feedback privately afterward.

In short, give them the freedom to do well, or, if needed, fail small, learn from it, and build skills for the next time.

By sharing, or even giving, the spotlight to your team, you become more of a participant. You may be pleasantly surprised—once you start gaining experience spotlighting your people, you‘ll probably want more of it. Most executives do. Not only will your team grow and evolve, but you’ll also receive greater respect and more engagement given what they can do and how you’re leading them.


David Peck is a Partner and US Lead for Executive Coaching at Heidrick Consulting. He’s been published extensively and is the author of Beyond Effective. Twitter: @coachdavidpeck

A Time to be Hands-On, A Time to be Hands-Off

Whether you supervise one person or lead 10,000, being deliberate and consistent about when you are hands-on versus hands-off with your team’s work is one of the most meaningful skills a leader can master.

Most executives I coach need to work on this balance. Much like being right- or left-handed, we tend to default to being more hands-on or hands-off, and either extreme can be a problem. Leaders who default to being overly involved in their people’s work may demotivate them and cause dependency, rather than autonomy. Leaders who are too hands-off can miss impending meltdowns, allow under-performance to linger, and create confusion about roles and responsibilities, organizational goals, and roadmaps to achieve them.

Knowing when to be more or less involved in your people’s work is a balancing act—one that requires dynamically responding to individuals and changing conditions in a consistent way.

Through my many years of leading and coaching other leaders, I’ve pinpointed seven guidelines you can follow to ensure that your team is operating at the highest level of autonomy:

1. Tenure and experience: What is your staff members’ professional experience and how long have they been in their current role or a related role? The less tenure and experience they have, the more you need to be involved.

2. Results: Do they have a pattern of success in executing and delivering good results on time and within budget? Is their work, and that of their team, accurate? The stronger their track record, the likelier it is you can be informed rather than involved.

3. Capability and capacity: Do they demonstrate innovation, creativity, common sense, critical thinking, and problem-solving capabilities? The weaker they are in these areas, the more involved you’ll need to be. If a problem stems from a temporary situation, like their current workload is overwhelming, then you can adjust accordingly. Otherwise, you may need to make a change.

4. Fit: Are they a good fit in their role and in your organization? When people are a good fit and they’ve met many of the other standards on this list, you can likely default to staying informed rather than being involved.

5. Jeopardy: Is there a level of crisis or peril within the organization or in an employee’s specific project or area of responsibility? The greater the jeopardy, the more you’ll need to be hands-on.

6. Savvy: Do your team members have proven ability to navigate interpersonal nuances and organizational complexities? Can they influence and garner support? How much do they inspire confidence in you and others? The less savvy they are, particularly in more complex organizations, your involvement will likely be more necessary.

7. Impact: How much would their potential failure impact the organization? If their failure would result in a material issue for your organization, then you’ll likely need to be more involved.

Develop and consistently stick to your own guidelines for when to be hands-on versus hands-off. Maintaining that balance will help your team work more independently, make you an effective leader, and allow for a more scalable and smarter organization.


David Peck is a Partner and US Lead for Executive Coaching at Heidrick Consulting. He’s been published extensively and is the author of Beyond Effective. Twitter: @coachdavidpeck

Lead More Effectively by Mastering Your Worry Monster

Whether you worry habitually or you think it’s keeping you sharp, becoming worry-free is way better!

Worry is a killer—over time it harms our health and emotional well-being. It doesn’t solve problems; nor does it make us better, faster, or more effective. Yet studies have shown that our capacity to worry has grown in tandem with our intelligence and the complexity of our lives. In short, that means we’re going to worry.

So what do effective leaders do to manage worry and be at relative peace?

They Recognize That Their Worry is Within Their Scope to Manage.

If you believe that worry “happens to” you and that you have little or no influence over it, you could be facing an ongoing problem. Worry only exists in your own mind: it’s the product of your beliefs, assumptions, and “story” about reality at any given time. And it’s become habitual over the years. Observe any baby and their carefree nature, and you’ll realize that chronic worry is not part of our “original equipment.”

When you recognize this, you’ll discover that you can edit those patterns, like a document or spreadsheet, with deliberate, sustained conscious efforts.


Stop Thinking it’s Helping—it’s Not

My worried clients tell me, “My worrying keeps me sharp,” and “If I don’t worry about it, no one will…”. If you think your worries keep you sharp, motivated, or productive, join the club-that’s a huge reason people hang on to worrying behaviors. And you’re wrong: the most productive, effective leaders realize that they didn’t get to where they are because of their worry, but despite it. They then decide that worry is simply more painful than it’s worth.

Start Your Worry Detector Each Morning, and When a Worry Crops Up, Catch it and “Give it the Day Off”

To manage worry, it’s important to catch it in the act and shine the light of awareness on it. For example, say before a big presentation, you find yourself thinking, “Oh, I’m worrying about presenting at that meeting.” You can then take a few deep breaths and address the worry directly: “I’m giving my worry the rest of the day off.” This usually does the trick, and repeated over time, it can help with your general pattern of worrying about topics like presenting, for instance.

Get to Know Your Own Pattern of Worrying and Doubt It

Our worry patterns are as unique as fingerprints—we tend to worry about certain types of things and not about others. Maybe you worry about your health, conflicts, or making mistakes. Pay attention and you’ll see your own patterns. The better you know them, the better you can manage them. The very fact that you worry about selective things is further proof that worrying is optional. Once you detect your pattern, keep an eye out for them, and manage them by giving them the day off.

Get Enough Rest—And If Unrested, Doubt Your Worries Even More

We all know that rest is important for health and well-being. Yet we live in a restless, hyper-connected 24/7 device-laden mode. Being less rested also amplifies worries—you may notice that you worry more when you’re tired. Because it’s impossible to avoid days when we lack rest, it’s good to remember that our worries are higher than normal during those times. When I’m not well-rested, I’ve learned to tell myself, “Oh, I’m worrying because I’m tired, so I’m calling a timeout to the worry until I rest.” Get your rest!

Develop Your Own Ways to Manage Your Worry

For some people, mindfulness meditation, exercise, or other zen-like activities help them the most in managing worry. For others, keeping track of worries in their journal is the key. Some even limit their worry to a specific block of time each week, and dismiss it at all other times. The point here is that peaceful people take worry-management seriously. Develop healthy anti-worry habits that fit your personality and style (but don’t worry too much about it!)

* * *

Effective leaders are calm and reassuring to their teams and organizations—and you simply can’t be that way until you manage your own worries. Try it: it’s healthy, life-sustaining, and good leadership to master your worry monster!


David Peck is a Partner and US Lead for Executive Coaching at Heidrick Consulting. He’s been published extensively and is the author of Beyond Effective. Twitter: @coachdavidpeck

Power Up Your Interpersonal Awareness Skills

Interpersonal awareness: The cornerstone of effective leadership

Consider colleague feedback I collected from an executive’s team several years ago: “I don’t get the impression he’s aware of how he comes across to others,” offered one employee. “I don’t think he’s tuned in to how sharp, harsh or dismissive he can be,” said another.

It’s normal to hear doubts from my client when I share this type of feedback. We discuss the notion that an effective leader doesn’t have to win any popularity contests — but it’s key to not communicate in ways that discourage your colleagues or team from doing their best, or that blow back on you and harm your ability to lead.

If you don’t pay attention to the impact your style of communication has on others, over time, you’ll shut people down — and that can turn them against you. The good news: It’s avoidable and fixable.

Once my client takes in the feedback they will ask, “Okay, so what can I do about it?”

“Communication perspective”: What’s your point of view?

In every conversation, there are three points of view: how things look through your eyes; how they look through their eyes; and how they look through the eyes of an impartial observer. Think about it like an author’s narrative perspective — first person, second person, and third person. Here we could simply call it a “communication perspective”:

  • First Position: My own point of view — my ideas, questions, and opinions.
    “I think you should do X.”
    “I’m confident this project is going to complete on time.”
    “You need to revise that projection.”
    When our own expertise or opinion is called upon, or our ego gets the upper hand, or we need to “prove ourselves,” we are taking the first position point of view. First position may be summarized as, “It’s about me.
  • Second Position: I take your point of view — try to see the world through your eyeballs: your ideas, questions, and opinions.
    “I can see you think I should do X.”
    “If I were you, I may be worried about that project.”
    To negotiate effectively, deal with an opposing view, or simply empathize with another, taking second position is a powerful tool. Second position may be summarized as, “It’s about you.
  • Third Position: I take the observer point of view, like a satellite hovering overhead, watching me interact with you. I’m asking myself, “What needs to happen?” and adjusting my actions and words to draw out your best.
    “I was dismissive with him, and need to acknowledge that.”
    “I should stay quiet here; that will encourage my team to figure this out for themselves.”
    Third position may be summarized as, “It’s about how I impact you.

How to use this insight to improve your leadership communication skills

Leaders who need to upgrade their awareness of how they impact others tend to overuse first position, and avoid third position. If that sounds like you, then your homework is to practice in third position, as described below:

In several upcoming meetings and one on one discussions, take a small piece of your attention, and (metaphorically) float it in the air above the room, like a satellite, for the duration of the meeting. Imagine it’s observer-you … watching you, the other(s), and your impact on them. As you do this, silently ask yourself these four questions:

  • How am I coming across here?
  • Is that going to help what most needs to happen in this discussion?
  • How am I helping — or getting in the way of this person being at their best?
  • How should I adjust what I’m saying and doing to draw out their absolute best?

Ask yourself these questions, and adjust how you participate, once or twice during the discussion. The result may be that you say less, or say more, or read others more carefully, or ask different questions. Try again in the next meeting.

Interpersonal awareness is difficult — but keep at it!

Just like any new mindset or behavior, this will take practice. You will lose awareness of it, try again, regain it, etc. Keep at it! When new to it, my clients say practicing communication perspective is like learning a new language — exhausting and headache-inducing.

To find and maintain your best impact on others is to embody leadership at its best. You will be surprised by what you discover — and do differently — from the third, or observer, position. Many clients have told me that learning to use third position deliberately was an extraordinary upgrade to their leadership and business communication skills. It’s one which I hope you will find equally useful.


David Peck is a Partner and US Lead for Executive Coaching at Heidrick Consulting. He’s been published extensively and is the author of Beyond Effective. Twitter: @coachdavidpeck

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