Unruly Leaders: 6 Building Blocks for Behavior Change

Mike is a great leader in so many ways. His senior leaders always rely on him to operationalize huge projects and bring them in well executed, on time, and under budget. He has tremendous drive and clarity about how to efficiently and sometimes miraculously pull things off with limited resources. He also has great vision about new ways to improve the organization overall, articulates the vision well, and inevitably gets the green light on his suggested projects.

The company leadership wants to promote him to the Senior Team, but Mike’s style is holding him back. He can be painfully direct and has trouble tolerating individuals that can’t keep up with him. Recently, he offended a newer employee so much that the employee went to HR to complain. There is now an investigation underway. Mike has been coached by his boss and HR in the past. Even though he knows he should soften his communication, his sense of urgency gets the best of him whenever he’s confronted with a mistake or the potential of a missed deadline.

Gathering Critical Mass

People change only if they want to, or have to, and what I’ve learned is if they want to and have to, the odds of success increase.

Let’s look at it this way: Mike’s drive and “take no prisoners” attitude has worked for him up until now, and has gotten him to that lower rung of upper leadership in his last three organizations.  His bosses have reinforced him by giving him high scores and bonuses in his performance evaluations. His “problem” behaviors have been overlooked in the name of his successes, providing little motivation for change. He wants to be perceived as caring, but his drive for success always dominates at the end of the day, and the organizations where he has worked have unwittingly reinforced that.  It’s an old story…

Our old behaviors have been our champions. They formed based on experiences or assumptions from our past, and have protected us.  We tend to think of them as character flaws, but in actuality, that’s not what they are at all.  Mike came from a tough home environment. His father was former military and believed if you “spare the rod, you spoil the child.” Mistakes were not tolerated, and positive feedback and affection were withheld until the kids performed well.  Mike needed to adapt to feel the respect and love all children crave.

So, how can Mike change?

1. Create Clear Impactful Consequences. First and foremost, Mike must understand that if he does not change, there will be negative consequences that have meaning for him. He needs to know that there will be career consequences if the behaviors don’t shift. As important are the positive consequences of the change. Mike will get more engagement, more discretionary effort from others, and it will be great for his career from a promotability standpoint.

2. Offer Specific Behavioral Examples. Provide clear behavioral examples to help him understand what needs to change. Words like “soften your style” or “be nicer” don’t cut it. They are too subjective.  Offer examples like: “When you were talking to Sheila, you constantly looked at your phone, and then you interrupted her. Here’s what you could have done or said instead…”

3. Bridge to His Reality. Listen to his point of view, what he’s tried in the past, how he feels about the investigation and how hard he feels he is trying. Bridge back to him, reflecting what you have heard, and ask him what he wants to do. This process can unearth his personal motivations for change.

4. Surface Underlying Motivators. Work with him to connect to what’s motivating the old behaviors without blame.  Ask him to track what he is thinking about when he engages in the wrong behavior, what may be driving him, and what has lead him to employ that approach in his life.

5. Focus on the Moment. Help him to recognize what’s happening in those stressful moments. Provide some suggestions about how he can become aware when things might go sideways, how to take a step back, and decide what outcomes he really wants. Then, he can act on the new behaviors.

6. Provide Ongoing Observation and Feedback. It’s not enough to tell him what needs to change. Critical to his success will be your commitment to give him feedback on his behavior. Reward him for taking behavioral risks, whether they are successful or not. Reinforce small wins and call out the old behaviors as soon as you see them.

When all is said and done, recognize that making these types of behavioral changes can be really difficult for even the most talented of individuals. Being deliberate and consistent in reinforcing the right behaviors in them, can net a huge return, bringing that much more engagement and performance from key talent and all those who work with them.

Leave a Reply