What to Do When Your Boss Is the Conflict

I often get calls from HR managers about difficult leaders who need help, but one stands out in my memory. It was from the HR director of a pharmaceutical company, who said, “We have an executive who’s arrogant, angry and forceful all the time and he’s constantly causing he’s a menace to the organization.”

My first common-sense question was “Why don’t you fire him?”

“We can’t,” the HR director said. He’s brilliant, and he’s turned the company around. We need him.”

And so a call was set up and I started to work with as his colleagues called him the leader from hell. The process I used with him followed five discrete steps:

Developing a relationship.

For weeks I worked on building a relationship with my new client. I asked about his family, his parents, his kids. I learned about where he grew up and went to school, his hobbies and his passions.

Discovering the driver.

Once we were comfortable together, I asked him one day, what drove him in his work. His answer was thoughtful and eloquent. He had planned to become a doctor but he couldn’t hack the pre-med academics, so he studied business with an aim of working for a pharmaceutical firm. He was still helping patients, still connected to his original goals, but in a way that better suited his aptitude.

Understanding the issue.

As I spent time with my client at work, I saw that he was generally calm but sometimes had outbursts with colleagues or direct reports, treating them curtly and almost abusively. When I asked him why he let his emotions get the best of him, he shrugged and said, “I don’t know, I get impatient.” Similarly, he couldn’t understand his co-workers’ responses: “Don’t they see I mean well? It’s just a moment of anger.”

Teaching new skills.

In leadership, as any other field, there are things you need to know that are never taught in school. For the next year, my client and I worked on the skills he needed to learn what I called best practices. For the first time he had resources for regulating his emotions, which helped him feel empowered and in control and better able to deal calmly with whatever was happening.

Reconciliation.

I had him call a meeting with his team where he acknowledged his past behavior, discussed the steps he had taken to improve, and explained that moving forward he would be asking for feedback and responses.

The end result in this case was a good one, a perfect illustration of the adage “when you know better you do better.” In about a year, my client had become not only a good leader but a great one a leader who leads from within.

It isn’t always so smooth. And if the problem is someone in leadership above you, you really aren’t in a position to require coaching or remediation. But you can still follow some version of the steps outlined here: Work to understand what’s underlying the behavior, model positive skills, and communicate as best you can the consequences of the person’s behavior. If they refuse to show any sign of willingness to change, you have a problem, because destructive behavior can’t be tolerated. If you’re in senior management or HR, that may mean setting a disciplinary process into effect. If not, and if reporting the behavior doesn’t bring about change, it may mean looking for a new position in a less toxic environment.

Lead from within:

When a leader is causing conflict, you have to get to the underlying cause and turn it around if you can. If that effort fails, you have to make decisions that are aligned with your company’s values and your own.

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