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Leaders Who Intimidate seek solace from others who share their fate. Bottom line, it can lower morale, marginalizes productivity and minimizes healthy employee engagement. Why do leaders engage in intimidation? The short answer is a low self-esteem. Its origin is generally from a parent who was constantly critical, communicated unrealistic expectations, and rebuked (often punished) even the smallest of mistakes. Often one parent was the abuser; the other a passive, acquiescent “saint.” As the child of an abuser grows up under a barrage of negative criticism, he or she comes to internalize and believe the parent’s message that he or she is inadequate, inferior and even worthless. When the child grows up, there is often a commitment to never be vulnerable to anyone who could render emotional discomfort. This feeling of inadequacy can take several forms. It can be show up in an “I’ll show you” form--potentially propelling the person to high levels of achievement. Some of the greatest achievers--presidents, famous performers and renowned athletes- -were driven by a relentless zeal to prove their abusing parent wrong. It can take the form of rebellion—pursuing a path that is the antithesis of what their parents desired, like the son of a prominent over-achieving executive becoming a dropout. And, it can take the form of passive aggressive behavior that lashes back in elusive and sometimes manipulative ways forcing others to stay at arm’s length. Intimidators usually have a small circle of colleagues. Often narcissistic, they are prone to having subordinators skilled at reminding the leader of his or her greatness. They are comfortable with people who have repeatedly demonstrated unconditional acceptance, like a loving spouse or best friend. And, they are at ease with people whom they know or believe can do them no harm. One of the interesting aspects of intimidators is their capacity to allow their “free child” to come out around young children. It is as if, with children, they can finally give themselves permission to be the kid they were not allowed to be growing up. How can a leader who intimidates learn to stop intimidating? Changing an intimidation style and changing the reputation for being an intimidator are two different challenges. Reputation improvement takes longer since the word of mouth machine extends way beyond direct experience. Changing a reputation takes the tenacity and public relations persistence of a political campaign. And, it usually requires a cadre of helpers—especially assertive coaches--willing to help replace old perceptions with new realities. Changing the style of intimidation takes awareness, determination and courage. One of the most powerful steps an intimidator can take is to go public with their intimidating style. Done well, it can sound like: “I have gotten feedback that I can be intimidating and it’s not a trait I am proud of. When I am doing anything that you perceive as intimidating either to you or someone else, I would appreciate your telling me. I will do my very best to listen, hear, and adjust. I cannot fix what I am not aware of. You can help me by helping me be more aware.” The effectiveness of this step lies in how the intimidating leader reacts the first time someone boldly delivers uncomfortable feedback. Ongoing coaching can increase the likelihood of a positive outcome. It is always wise for the leader to listen far more than is required to gain understanding. The instinct of the intimidator is to cut direct feedback short—“I got it!” A clipped or abrupt cessation of candor can signal to the person willing to give feedback that it is unwelcome. However, a sincere and curious response—“That is helpful; please tell me more” or “Can you give me an example” will telegraph a sincere desire for personal change. Authenticity can be a challenge for an intimidator since it says in a vulnerable way, “This is who I am.” However, telegraphing vulnerability helps make it safe for others; not having all the answers helps establish trust. If intimidators can laugh at themselves, they help lighten the atmosphere of apprehension, gradually inviting others in. Engaging in out-of-character lightness also can send a credible message that they are honestly working to change their persona. It is not unusual for an intimidator to have a quick and clever wit--a tool that can enhance their public persona if used more frequently. One key step is for the intimidator to surround him or herself with a small group of people bold enough to provide candid feedback. It helps when intimidators set up regular times to solicit feedback, taking notes to craft a practical, short-term change plan. The goal is to gain understanding that leads to insight and not a debate over the accuracy of the feedback. Facts are not the stuff reputations are made of; perceptions are. Arguing over the accuracy or inaccuracy of facts completely misses the point that intimidation is about feelings and therefore solely in the eye of its recipient. The key to making the small circle of candid colleagues work is the speed with which that circle can be enlarged. Intimidators are skilled at the “blame game.” As a child, there were grave consequences for mistakes. By the time the emotionally abused child reaches adulthood he or she has learned a host of ways to deflect the negative spotlight. Search for a “target for blame” is a way to keep their own actions from coming under scrutiny. They have a low tolerance for error and exhibit a style of nitpicking and criticism. The antidote to this tendency is to practice leading any review of work with a focus on what is good or positive about it. It also helps to assume mistakes are made by well-intentioned people working hard to do their very best. The final recommendation for leaders wishing to stop being intimidators is to forgive the source of their damaged self-worth. It can be helpful to remember that all parents make mistakes as they raise children and are rarely trained to be parents. As such, they are the inadvertent victims of their upbringing, often passing dysfunctions of their youth on to their own children. Through the forgiveness of an abusive parent even if that parent is no longer alive, can begin the restoration of a poor self-esteem. With the support of people who care, intimidating leaders can find their way back to wholeness and effectiveness. LE Chip R. Bell is a customer loyalty consultant, and the author of several bestselling books. His newest book is The 9½ Principles of Innovative Service (www.simpletruths.com ). Visit www.chipbell.com leadership excellence essentials presented by HR.com | 04.2014 52


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