Harvard Business Review

Why Jerks on Wheels Run Amok


Posted on Harvard Business Review: July 7, 2011 9:03 AM

It’s amazing how much one troubled employee can undermine a department’s productivity. A staff member who routinely makes cutting remarks, elevates him or herself at the expense of others, or spreads undermining gossip can sink a department’s morale fast. Otherwise positive and productive team members begin to dread coming to work, and the group’s best thinking gets siphoned off the company’s mission as everyone scrambles to stay out of the bully’s crosshairs.

The question on the tip of everyone’s tongue when this type of nightmare takes hold is, “Why doesn’t senior management do something?” It’s the job of the boss to enforce consequences when someone gets out of line. Emotionally exhausted peers often complain passionately and privately to their superiors in these situations. They fantasize that the troublemaker will be removed, put on probation, or at least given a firm reprimand. Unfortunately, in many such cases, justice seems to proceed at a glacial pace. What’s the holdup?

When an office bully starts running wild, there are often two employees to blame. The easy one to spot is the one creating the emotional carnage. The less obvious, but equally culpable, individual is often the manager who fumbles the job of taking this employee to task promptly. The problem limiting this manager’s potential is often embedded in his or her power style.

In my new book, Power Genes, I explore the link between a person’s family history and the power style this person frequently displays on the job. These power styles emerge from the emotional and behavioral responses people internalize from dealing with authority figures in the family system.

Many of the best leaders and managers in the business world operate from the Pleaser power style. Pleasers are hard-working, inspire loyalty, and tend to listen thoughtfully to their clients and colleagues. When they are operating from their strengths, Pleasers can become the glue that holds a positive corporate culture together. Unfortunately, when their blind spots kick in, Pleasers can be so fearful of losing approval that they don’t confront challenges promptly and directly.

Scarcity issues within the family system are at the heart of the Pleaser power style. Due to outside stressors, which can range from financial struggles to preoccupation with a sick relative, Pleasers often don’t get the attention they crave from their caregivers early in life. As a result, many Pleasers grow up hungry for validation and hard-wired to take care of others. They are also easily disconcerted by the withdrawal of approval.

Roger, a vice president of sales and marketing in the pharmaceutical industry, was one such Pleaser. He reached out for coaching when one of his reporting senior marketing staff members was grabbing credit for other people’s work and undermining his department’s efforts.

“I’m at a loss when it comes to managing Cynthia,” Roger confessed. “She’s got other members of the team flying all over the country to visit our managed care clients, and she’s grabbing credit for their hard work by cultivating a personal relationship with the president of the firm, Jonathan. Whenever I try to take her to task for this, she slyly reminds me that Jonathan hired her and insinuates that she’s being groomed for my job. Frankly, I don’t know whether this is true or not. I’m too busy burning the midnight oil around here to play politics. However, the more she exaggerates her efforts at the expense of the rest of the team, the more our clients are starting to notice that our team has problems.”

Roger is the oldest son of an electrical engineer in the Midwest. Having grown up watching his parents struggle to make ends meet, Roger learned early in life to put his nose to the grindstone and support the people around him. While he longed to advance in his career, Roger had developed a bad habit of avoiding conflict. Years of longing for attention from his loving but preoccupied parents had conditioned him to avoid making waves. Unfortunately, Roger’s need for approval turned into a handicap on the job; he wasted time because he couldn’t express his authentic voice or manage his subordinates effectively.

What Roger really didn’t want to waste was the firm’s resources. Cynthia’s overly zealous self-promotion was not only becoming costly in terms of morale, it was beginning to impact the firm’s reputation. By studying the power style of the Pleaser, Roger began to realize that it was also becoming costly in terms of his personal reputation: the more the rest of the team complained about Cynthia, and the longer it took him to address this issue, the weaker he was looking as a manager.

When Roger realized that he needed to have a direct conversation with Jonathan about the way Cynthia was interacting with the rest of the team, the results surprised him. “I was wondering how long it was going to take you to come to me with this,” Jonathan told him. “Frankly, if you hadn’t trusted me enough to have this conversation, I might have had to start thinking about replacing you. Cynthia’s going to be a great rainmaker, but you should be keeping her in line—not me.”

Learning to overcome blind spots ensures that Pleasers won’t lose their authentic voice and will be able to speak the truth when their subordinates—and their organizations—need to hear from them.

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