leadership

The trouble with a leader who aims to please

Harvard Business Review /

It’s amazing how much one troubled employee can undermine a department’s productivity.

A staff member who routinely makes cutting remarks, elevates himself 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 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 boss’ job to impose consequences when someone gets out of line.

Emotionally exhausted peers often complain passionately and privately to their superiors in these situations. They fantasise that the troublemaker will be removed, put on probation or at least given a firm reprimand. Unfortunately, in many cases like these, 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 the manager who fumbles the job of taking the employee to task promptly. And the reasons for these lapses are often embedded in the manager’s power style.

In my new book, Power Genes, I explore the link between a person’s family history and the power style he displays on the job. 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 hardworking, inspire loyalty and tend to listen thoughtfully to their clients and colleagues. When they operate from their strengths, Pleasers can be 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 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 caregivers early in life. As a result, many Pleasers grow up hungry for validation and hardwired 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 senior marketing staffers started grabbing credit for other people’s work and undermining his department’s efforts.

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