A Daily Slog reader asks for help in dealing with an aggressive CEO who channels his anger at a colleague.
I have a finely balanced relationship with my CEO, in that he can be aggressive and fly off the handle under pressure but I have learned to recognise the triggers and deal with it accordingly.
A colleague at the same level as me within the management team, unfortunately, hasn’t figured this out and seems to constantly be at the receiving end of his aggression. I know this is not her fault and the blame lies with him and I have tried to give her some tips in dealing with him. He seems to take particular pleasure at undermining my colleague at our management meetings, which is particularly embarrassing for her to have our colleagues see this, and it seems to set the tone for how others treat her.
How can I stand up for her without putting myself in the firing line of his aggression or is this just an expected downside of life at a senior level?
Well done on developing a solution for your own relationship with the CEO, this demonstrates great emotional intelligence on your behalf. Secondly, how wonderful that your colleague has someone who cares enough to try and figure out a way forward.
It sounds like that you have tried to help your colleague already, however she is not hearing you. The reason she cannot take on board your tips and suggestions is that she has a singular narrative, a story in which the ending is always the same. This story is facilitating her in losing focus and clarity when the CEO is speaking to her. Only one person can change the story in your colleagues head and that is herself. I have broken my answer into sections as there are a number of ways to deal with this situation and they may not all happen at once but over time.
It may be related to how the CEO manages his stress and the funnel for an outlet of his stress is your colleague.
As you have rightly determined, this is more to do with the CEO, than you or your colleagues. There are multiple reasons this happens, it may be related to how the CEO manages his stress and the funnel for an outlet of his stress is your colleague. It may be that your colleague reminds your CEO, often sub-consciously, of someone he has negative feelings towards. Whatever the reasons, your colleague cannot remove the drivers of this behaviours, however she does have the power to deal with how it makes her feel and thus how she reacts.
What can I do today?
Firstly, your colleague needs to develop some coping techniques that help her when she is in the boardroom. A very simple technique is to pause — take a few deep breaths, count to three and speak. This will allow her emotional response to subside and to enable her to think clearly and be articulate in her speaking.
A very good visual technique that may help her, is to suggest that she arrives at the board room early, sit in the seat that she will be sitting in, finds a spot on the floor where she can place her feet firmly on the ground, closes her eyes and imagines a lightning bolt of confidence shooting up from that spot, providing her with a sense of calm and confidence. Stay with this visualisation, she need to allow herself feel that lightning bolt. How does it feel, physically and emotionally, hold those thoughts for a few moments. Become comfortable with the thoughts until they feel normal. At the meeting when the spotlight is on her, she can place her feet on the floor, take a deep breath and remember the experience of feeling calm and confident. Both of these simple but powerful techniques should help her deal with the panic in the moment — and what is easier, than taking a deep breath and counting to three?
Would it be possible to spend some time with him socially, over lunch or coffee, anything that helps her to get to know him a little better and for him to interact with her outside of the boardroom.
How do I change the dynamic?
You don’t say if other people in the boardroom meeting have a similar experience as your colleague, or if they feel the same as you do about how the CEO speaks to members of his team.
Can your colleague approach one or two influential members of the team and have a conversation with them on how she feels in the meeting. She can tell them that she is working on it, and seek their support if she is struggling in the moment. If one or two people can back her, it can move the meeting on and no longer be about one person.
How well does your colleague know the CEO on a personal level? Would it be possible to spend some time with him socially, over lunch or coffee, anything that helps her to get to know him a little better and for him to interact with her outside of the boardroom. Again this will help remove the ‘story’ of the boardroom that has been built up.
What else can the team do together?
A strong team need strong foundations. These foundations are really difficult to build when the team runs into a problem. After all, we would never teach someone to swim as they are drowning. A team needs some guidance on how to behave so that all the team members can contribute as best they can — what can often be helpful is if the team have a team charter. A charter can be quite short covering; what are the team trying to achieve, what behaviours will help them, how will success be measured. Every quarter the team can review the charter and score themselves against it (this can be completed anonymously).Then the team take the scores and figure out what they can do to improve any priorities. If you have a HR or training Manager, they can often help facilitate this element on behalf of the team.
If none of the above are options I would suggest you seek out your friendly HR person and have a chat in confidence, they can often have a good view on the people involved and can support a strategy to help you and your colleague.
Above all else, know that you have tried to positively impact this relationship but only those directly affected can ultimately change the dynamic.
First written for The Daily Slog: https://www.thedailyslog.com/684-2/