An earlier chapter discussed the continuum along which behavior ranges: from nonassertive to assertive to aggressive . When the behavior of the most senior executive falls into one of the two extremes on the continuum, there is certain to be fallout.
Consider the CEO of a $10 billion financial services organization, a nonassertive type who had come up through the ranks and wanted to be one of the group . When an issue surfaced between two executives on his team, he tried to resolve it "through the back door" by meeting separately with each combatant, rather than allowing the issue to run its course to closure. His involvement ensured short- term domestic tranquility, but it also guaranteed that all of the team's problems would linger behind the scenes. Triangulation was inevitable and, not surprisingly, those problems grew to epic proportions . Before long, the CEO had a mess on his hands.
The nice-guy model of leadership simply does not work. Neither does the aggressive approach. The tough-guy leader typically carries baggage that is unsuited for building a high-performance management team, such as being controlling, unreceptive to feedback, and intimidating. In situations like these, top teams often remain stuck in stage one of the team-development wheel, where the members are afraid to confront issues or individuals. Or they may make it to stage two, where members tend to personalize issues, point fingers, and feel attacked . In this case, either bombs go bursting in air, and there is overt conflict as members model the leader's behavior, or all the in-trigue of triangulation sets in as they attempt to win the leader's favor.
Julia Nenke, former human resources director for Foxtel, has had firsthand experience with the second type of leader. One general manager with whom she worked in the past epitomized the aggressive leader. Not only was he inclined to "going postal" when things did not go his way, but his reactions were completely unpredictable. If he did not care about an issueand his team never knew when this was the casehe let people make decisions completely on their own. But if the issue was one of his hot buttons, he brooked no interference: He and he alone made the decision. The problem was that no one ever knew which issues were the hot buttons . Because they never knew how he would react to their suggestions, the members of his team quickly went mute. They became the stage-one team par excellence .
How do you, as a leader, know when your behavior is too far to the left or right of the continuum? Most nonassertive leaders realize their need to dial up their behavior, but aggressive leaders are often unaware of how they come across to other people. Roy Anise, senior vice president of planning and information at Phillip Morris, U.S.A., realized that he tended to be very directive with employees and had trouble connecting with them, but when he and his team went through an alignment session, he was surprised to learn that his employees judged him to be far more aggressive than he believed he was. He now understands that his ability to communicate needed honing and that he was overly preoccupied with business results. Anise received similar feedback from his boss, which spurred him to seek coaching.
During his first session with the coach, Anise explained that, as a leader, he was unsure of how his team was progressing and where he needed to take it next . Anise's statement prompted the coach to comment, "Now I know why you are so intimidating." "What are you talking about? I haven't said anything to you," countered Anise. "That's exactly the point," replied the coach. "You keep your cards so close to the chest, so covered up, that I have no idea what you're thinking and what's going on with you. I can see why people who work for you would feel the same sense of not knowing what's going on with you. I can see why they're intimidated."
Anise bristled at the exchange. But a day later, he contacted the coach to thank him for his insight. The coach, of course, had simply been mirroring his pupil 's behavior, which had caused Anise to see the light. As Anise said about his coach, "He exposed me and initially I didn't like it, but I needed to hear it."
Once Anise had seen himself as others saw him, he could begin making changes. In one of the exercises his coach used, Anise was asked to imagine various situations that he might find himself in, and where conflict might arise: with direct reports , peers, or superiors. Then, they discussed the impact Anise's current style would have in each situation and how he could bring about a more desirable outcome by consciously becoming less aggressive and more assertive. This scrimmage in consequence thinking was a way of preparing Anise for future encounters with his top team.