published Monday, May 3rd, 2010

How Dad's Yelling Can Spawn an Office Tyrant

Sue Shellenbarger
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Dealing with Pain-in-the-Neck Co-Workers

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    Lars Dalgaard has a 'no-jerks' policy at his San Mateo, Calif. software firm

Lars Dalgaard used to act like a jerk at work. As a young manager rising through the ranks years ago at a consumer-products company, he was so brutally blunt with subordinates that a coach pulled him aside and told him to be more considerate, says Mr. Dalgaard, founder and chief executive of SuccessFactors, a San Mateo, Calif.-based software company.

He has since realized that an old family pattern was at work, he says. His father was so tough and blunt with him when he was small that he was behaving the same way with others, trying to be "the hero CEO, the Rambo" who ignored people's feelings. Now that he is conscious of the problem, he says he has changed his ways. He has even instituted a "no-jerks" policy at his company, banning similar behavior by others.

We have all worked with at least one office pain in the neck, someone whose irritating and unfathomable behavior annoys co-workers and wrecks teamwork. These foibles often persist beyond reason because they are so deep-rooted, having been learned in the families of people's childhoods. Amid a growing focus on workplace quality, some managers and coaches are now using new techniques to identify the childhood origins of harmful behavior at work and then rout out those patterns through training or outright bans on bad behavior.

Sylvia LaFair, a White Haven, Pa., leadership coach and psychologist has identified 13 different patterns of office behavior—and the family dynamics that likely shaped them. Among the types are the "persecutor" who micromanages or abuses others. This person often grew up with abuse or neglect. The "denier" pretends problems don't exist; this person may have grown up in a family where everyone feared facing unpleasant emotions. "Avoiders" are aware of problems but won't talk about them. In a tense situation, their mantra is, "Gotta go!" "Avoiders" often grew up in judgmental families with weak emotional ties, Dr. LaFair says.

The "super-achiever" is driven to excel at everything, breeding resentment by walking over other people. They were often called on in childhood to make up for family shame or tragedy. Another type, the "martyr," does his or her work and everybody else's too, but drives co-workers away by complaining, she says. The "martyr" often had parents who gave up their dreams for the child, triggering a repeat of the pattern. Dr. LaFair documents the various patterns in a 2009 book, "Don't Bring It To Work."

Barry Ginnetti, president of the GMR Group, a Horsham, Pa., health-care marketing company, says he spotted persecutor traits in himself. He used to wonder why he got so little reaction from co-workers in meetings he ran. "People would just hold back and not say anything" when he finished talking, he says. He would wonder, "Why are you just sitting there?"

With coaching, he realized he was speaking loudly and aggressively, a pattern he acquired as a kid at the family dinner table. As the oldest of four children, he was often told to be quiet. Then, as his three siblings grew older, he had to fight for attention. "Whoever could speak the loudest would be heard," he says. While being an aggressive talker helped him back then, it was intimidating to co-workers and "shut everybody down," he says. Conscious of the pattern, he speaks more softly now, asks questions and listens, saying, "OK, tell me what's on your mind," he says.

The first step toward defusing patterns of bad behavior is for everybody involved to become aware of them. But there are ground rules for raising the issue, Dr. LaFair says: Make truthful observations in short, simple sentences, without blaming or attacking the other person. Wait for it to sink in and listen carefully to the response. Ask questions. This can help your co-worker become conscious of how his or her bad behavior is affecting others—the first step toward change.

I asked Dr. LaFair what I might have done in a situation I faced many years ago, when I had a boss who often yelled and ridiculed my and others' work. "Figure out what you wish you could have said to him, that you weren't able to say at the time," she says. For example, I might have said: "When you yell like that, everything shuts down and I can't even think, let alone get any work done." With luck, that might have initiated a conversation about how his behavior patterns were affecting all of us—an effect I knew he didn't consciously want.

Ask yourself whether you are feeding into the office pain's behavior, Dr. LaFair says. If your boss is a persecutor, for example, are you playing the victim?

Employees can also band together to point out problems, says Robert Sutton, an author of a book on bad workplace behavior and a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University. He says he's seen success when employees keep written records of co-workers behavior and detail the specific effects it has on the workplace.

Other employers raise awareness by issuing office-wide bans on bad behavior. Robert W. Baird & Co., Milwaukee, a financial-services firm, has a no jerks rule; Paul Purcell, chairman, president and chief executive, estimates he has fired more than 25 offenders in the last five years, including people who "hurt and belittle other people," or who put their own interests ahead of clients or the firm. When he speaks to groups of prospective recruits, he warns them: If you're a jerk, "don't come, because we'll figure it out. It will be worse for you than it is for us." Typically, several listeners turn pale, he says, and he suspects that they're thinking, "I wonder if I qualify."

Conscious of his old patterns, SuccessFactors' Mr. Dalgaard says he works hard on building good relationships with employees. He goes out of his way to talk with people and welcome new employees. He asks people to be "brutally honest" with him about how his behavior affects them, and apologizes for missteps. Posters about SuccessFactors' "no-jerks" rule are hung throughout the workplace, Mr. Dalgaard says. The company has won awards as one of the best places to work in its region.

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