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When Managers Take Their Stress Out on Their Employees

Sabina Nawaz


Adam ran a $500 million business. The company was on a sharp upward trajectory, the biggest competitor was a distant second, and his board loved him.

But there was a problem. Even though his company was performing well, his employees’ productivity seemed sluggish. Designs required countless iterations, development was fraught with delays, and quality assurance found errors on the eve of major product releases.

What’s more, four senior executives had left the company in the past year. All publicly said their reasons were career opportunities they couldn’t pass up or family obligations. Adam was also on his third executive assistant in as many quarters.

Adam thought the problem was with his employees. He spent many hours reviewing his team’s work only to find their efforts subpar. No one seemed capable of envisioning the future or asking critical questions as well as he could. He wished people could read his mind so he wouldn’t have to continually re-explain the strategy and how to respond to changing market conditions.

Adam was stressed, frustrated, and perplexed. He seemed to be the only one finding problems and holding people accountable. He felt alone. Although he could see into the future of his business, he seemed blind to the immediate problems within his corporate walls.

I interviewed a number of Adam’s colleagues to try to understand what was going on. The biggest issue came as a surprise to Adam: the problem was him. People hated working for him. They described him as a jerk, a micromanager, and a bully. Even the senior executives that left the company indicated, when confiding with friends, that they were leaving because of the CEO.

Adam is not alone. His behaviors and lack of self-awareness are all too common in senior executives. I’ve worked with hundreds of CEOs and senior executives and interviewed almost a thousand people who work with them. These “360 interviews” provide my coaching clients with feedback from their direct reports, peers, and higher-ups — a full circle of the people who work with them. The most common refrain I hear is that the executives are “hard on people.”

There’s a high cost to treating people poorly, and it’s backed by neuroscience. A boss’s aggressive behavior triggers team members to feel threatened. The threat response causes employee brains to be flooded with stress chemicals and drains them of oxygen and glucose, flushing their ability to think. Due to their impaired brain chemistry, they struggle to remember things, be creative, solve problems, or take in new information. No wonder Adam was frustrated that he seemed to be the only one capable of innovation and superior performance!

To understand what leads to bullying behaviors, we first need to understand the pressures that senior executives face every day. They must deliver value for impatient boards, demanding stockholders, and fickle marketplaces. Stakes are measured in billions of dollars. Pressure can bring out the worst in any of us. Think about the stress you were under the last time you raised your voice. In positions that place them under a microscope and high pressure, executives are also susceptible to having their brains hijacked into a fight-or-flight response. They try to regain a sense of control by exerting dominance over their employees.

If you’re in a high-pressure job where you’re not happy with the performance of those around you, consider if you might be part of the problem. Then start to turn things around by following these steps:

Listen with curiosity

For the first two weeks after I shared my interview data with him, Adam was gutted by the feedback he had received. He felt shocked and ashamed and wanted to quit. After realizing that these problems would follow him wherever he went, he decided to address them. The first step was to listen more deeply. He asked questions to uncover more details. He also asked one of his direct reports to give him feedback after each executive team meeting. As a result, Adam learned that the way he dug into details scared people. They thought they had failed or were on the verge of failing.

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