Can This Manager Be Saved? How and Why People Change

His peers described him as naturally irritable with a fiery temper.  His brilliant subordinate resigned because his boss couldn’t keep his emotions in check.  He had a large ego and could be easily offended by threats to his sense of honor and strong need for regard.

Sound like anyone you know?  Well, you know this man; his name was George Washington.  Cursed with a hot temper from birth, George Washington copied all 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior” into his exercise book and carried them with him throughout his life.  He spent his entire life consciously practicing self-control and courteousness, to the extent that, at his life’s end, others described him as a model of self-mastery and self-control.

Behavior Coaching for the Bad Manager

Fast-forward to 2010 and, every week, I get phone calls from frustrated HR managers and fed-up CEOs who have finally had it with a domineering, insensitive or bullying manager.  Perhaps a customer has complained about an insensitive remark.  Maybe the turnover in the manager’s department has reached an all-time high.  More often than not, an employee has filed some sort of offensive behavior complaint.

And yet, in spite of the manager’s unacceptable behavior, s/he contributes significant value to the organization – through technical expertise, industry contacts, or an extremely high work ethic.

The caller is on the horns of a dilemma.  Should they throw in the towel and get rid of the manager (and the assets s/he brings to the company) or give him/her a second chance (and risk more problems)?  And, if they give him/her a shot, can s/he change?

Can Bad Managers Change?

Yes, bad managers can change, BUT only some of them and only some of the time.  Yes, they should be given a chance to – BUT only some of them and only some of the time.

First of all, if a manager has committed a serious ethical violation, s/he should be fired – not coached.  A true harasser is not likely to benefit from coaching or invest in it.  On the other hand, a smart, overly competitive manager who impatiently interrupts others, dismisses any opinion other than his own, or whose unrealistic demands and lopsided (critical) feedback alienates peers and subordinates alike is a good coaching candidate.  In other words, there’s a difference between a true harasser and someone who exhibits bad judgment.

Necessary (But Not Always Sufficient) Ingredients for Change

In order for ineffective managers to benefit from behavior coaching, these ingredients are necessary:

1) Be aware of the need for change.  I don’t just mean someone sits the manager down and reads him the riot act.  I’m talking about some specific feedback about the impact of his/her behavior on subordinates, peers, etc.  This can involve a 360 degree evaluation or an executive coach gathering data through interviews.

2) Be motivated to change. One of the arguments I hear all the time is that you can’t make someone else change.  And that’s true.  However, just because the initial motivation for coaching is external, i.e., provided by someone else, doesn’t mean the manager can’t buy into the process.  When I was a practicing therapist, I was often amazed at how much some of my therapy clients – ordered into the therapy by the courts – actually used the therapy to their benefit once the trust in our relationship was established.  No, they weren’t thrilled to be in my office, but they were often thrilled as a result. (Of course, it goes without being said that the external motivation needs to continue throughout the coaching process and beyond).

3) Know specifically what needs to change and how to replace it. Bad managers act they way they do because a) at some level, it’s worked for them and b) they don’t know a better way to manage.  Effective behavior coaching involves evaluating (and often challenging) the manager’s beliefs about his or her current problem behaviors and helping him or her develop specific skills to replace them.

4)  Receive constructive feedback, support and encouragement throughout the change process. Without question, bad managers need the stick to get them into coaching.  However, once in it, they also need the carrot.  In fact, the more domineering and insensitive the manager, the more likely it is that I find insecurity and fear underneath.  Connecting with the underlying fears often allows the manager to lessen his defensiveness and be more open to the ongoing feedback s/he needs to support behavior change.

5) Gain some kind of personal reward (reinforcement) from having changed. Ah, here’s where the coaching really gets to be fun.  No matter what led the manager to the coaching trough, once s/he begins to experience the rewards of behavior change in his or her environment, it becomes a self-perpetuating process.

The Bottom Line

Change is hard.  It’s much easier to hire or promote a good manager than try to remediate a bad one.  However, there are times when a manager’s greatest weaknesses are also his greatest strengths; the manager who has unrealistic expectations of others often sets (and achieves) extraordinary goals for himself, the domineering, opinionated boss may also act decisively and have a keen sense of intuition, the impatient, close-minded executive may be stellar at thinking outside the box.  Behavior coaching can help these managers channel their natural skills into being better bosses – not bullies.

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One Comment on “Can This Manager Be Saved? How and Why People Change”


  1. Brilliant post. Brings forth the pscyhology of how to encourage change. Especially love the section on the needing awareness that one needs to change. That truly is the defining moment.


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