Most leaders never intend to be the jerk boss. No one moves up the ranks waiting for the day in which they can make their direct reports miserable. Yet, we’ve all encountered leaders who exhibit these type of behaviors. So where does it come from? And more importantly, how can you make sure it isn’t you?
What’s My Life Jacket?
We all have strengths. Some of us are great critical evaluators. Others are passionate about our areas of expertise. But taken too far, these strengths can become liabilities. The critical evaluator finds problems with everything and begins to be seen as a pessimist. Coworkers would rather someone else look over their work. Passionate experts push too hard for what seems to them like obvious solutions and cause others to fight against their plans. Likewise, the behavior of the jerk boss often has roots in a strength that has become a liability.
Often, these career-stalling behaviors originate in a past experience in which the strength was needed to survive. The strength or skill is clung to like a life jacket. Developing that strength is critical in the situation. Unfortunately, we can become dependent on that life jacket and cling to it even when it becomes the main factor that stalls our careers. When that happens it can be difficult to change because we view the behavior as a strength and part of what got us to our present positions. But recognizing a former strength as problem can the first step of reigniting a stalled career trajectory.
Don’t Be Russell
Take the case of Russell. Russell was a manager who constantly berated his team members. He yelled and screamed and if anything went slightly wrong on his projects, he would chastise the employee in front of the whole team. As a result, his direct reports saw him as low-level foreman who dealt with frustrations by making others miserable. When confronted with these perceptions, Russell explained that while he knew he was not effective as a leader, he felt that tough behavior was expected of him. His own boss held him accountable for production numbers and Russell didn’t know another way to achieve the results he needed.
Through coaching, Russell explored his beliefs about leadership and discovered that his image of a leader had been formed by watching his own father treat farmhands poorly. Often Russell’s father would leave him in charge and demand that his son exhibit the same demanding control over the employees. Russell had to learn to be authoritative and while it helped him survive a difficult situation, it would become a life jacket that he would cling to over the rest of his professional life.
Help is on the Way
All was not lost. Russell and his coach discovered the behaviors that were derailing his career and through hard work and understanding of his strengths and weaknesses, Russell was able to develop more effective means of communication. A year later, Russell successfully applied for a promotion and his team members commented on how impressed they were with his changes and much more they respected him.
Russell never intended to be the jerk boss and those of us that come across as too pushy or overly critical don’t intend to be perceived that way. But from Russell’s story, we learn that our career-stalling behaviors don’t have to be career-derailing. If we can identify the strengths that have become liabilities, we can work to change the perceptions we have inadvertently created. It doesn’t matter if you are seen as manipulative or gullible, self-centered or brooding, you can change this by engaging outside help and getting a better picture of how others see you.
The critical step is to begin. Whether you engage a coach or a trusted peer, you need to identify just which of your strengths has become a liability. Then ask yourself a few questions:
- In what ways did this behavior serve you well in the past?
- What well-intentioned outcomes are you trying to accomplish by using it today?
- In what ways is this no longer giving you the result you want?
- And finally, how do others react?
It may not be easy. And you may not be able to go it alone. But if you have accidentally become the jerk boss, you need to know. More importantly you need to learn how to change. Because you didn’t want to be the jerk boss. No one did. You might just need to take off your life jacket.