When you’re working with an abrasive, bullying CEO or one that is tough, straight-talking and doesn’t welcome other ideas, you can feel frustrated and angry – and may even fear losing your job. The impact of such leadership styles can also push entire teams to become less confident and adversely impact quality and performance.
But there is a way to develop a mindset so that in the face of such CEO behavior, it is possible to remain calm, confident and in control. Here are some tips:
- Understand how the CEO is wired. Most abrasive executives do not want to hurt people, but have developed a communication style driven by issues such as their culture and other motivating influences. For example, a CEO may have been reared in a country, region or family that has “louder” style that can seem disrespectful to those who come from “quieter” backgrounds. Or, the tough or abrasive executive is driven to be the best, always be right, achieve great things and serve others. But such leaders can feel personally threatened or become defensive if they feel someone is not as uncommitted as they are or are seen as underperforming.
- Seize the opportunity to grow. If you’re a senior leader, working more closely with a CEO comes with the territory – but so does feeling concerned, anxious and even fearful at times. Learning to accept such feelings – and not be overwhelmed by them – should be seen as part of your professional development.
- Appreciate their warrior spirit. People perceived as abrasive often have an uncommon desire to succeed. They take charge, lead teammates, and are never out of the fight. While such traits may be difficult to handle, they are also critical for success in our volatile, complex environment.
- Learn to tolerate disrespect. Many of the most successful people find ways to withstand incivility and keep going. Learn to separate how you feel about yourself (your self-esteem) from how others may treat you and talk to you.
- Be compassionate. “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion,” says the Dalai Lama in his book, “The Art of Happiness.” Compassion doesn’t mean letting someone off the hook. It means that when you recognize that someone else is suffering, you have an urge to do something to alleviate that pain. An abrasive boss might be suffering from self-doubt, overly harsh self-judgement, frustration, anger or narcissism. Understanding someone else’s pain or suffering (even if he or she doesn’t recognize it) is a way of managing your own sense of well-being.
- Give negative feedback without damaging relationships. While this is the only tip that focuses on skills instead of mindset, it still is critical to your success. To give such feedback without harming relationships, you must first have a genuine intention to be helpful, which might be challenging if you feel you’re being disrespected or feel negatively about the other person’s communication or leadership style. Then, write down three to five sentences that communicate your positive intention, your perceptions and your concerns, while ending with a request to continue. For example, you might say something like, “I wouldn’t be doing my job serving you if I didn’t give you an alternative perspective. Do you want to hear it?” Practice your communication with a trusted person who is adept at handling disagreement to improve your chances of success.
- Get a consultant, mentor or coach. Navigating a CEO’s difficult style can be a challenge, but having someone in your corner to offer advice, feedback and encouragement can help you continue to grow your abilities while preserving key relationships.
The best leaders often have challenging communication styles or abrasive personalities but can also be highly committed to the organization and its success. As a result, their “warrior spirit” can make them feel personally attacked when they think others are not getting it, are not motivated enough or are underperforming. Once you understand where their bullying or abrasive styles come from, you can develop a mindset to survive – and thrive – in your career.
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