Healthcare Informatics and Technology Investors
Healthcare Informatics and Technology Investors


About Team Role Theory

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Dr. Meredith Belbin

Behavior vs. Personality



How Dad's Shouting Can Breed an Office Tyrant

Lars Dalgaard used to behave like a jerk at work. As a junior manager climbing through the ranks years ago at a consumer-products company, he was so viciously 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 recognized 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 champion CEO, the Rambo" who discounted people's feelings. Now that he is conscious of the problem, he says he has changed his ways. He has even established a "no-jerks" policy at his company, forbidding similar conduct by others.

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

Sylvia LaFair, a White Haven, Pa., leadership coach and psychologist has discovered 13 unique patterns of office behavior—and the family dynamics that probably shaped them. Among the types are the "persecutor" who micromanages or abuses others. This individual often grew up with abuse or neglect. The "denier" pretends troubles don't exist; this individual 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 states.

The "super-achiever" is determined to excel at everything, breeding resentment by walking over other individuals. They were often called on in childhood to make up for family disgrace or disaster. Another case, 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 ambitions for the youngster, triggering a repetition of the pattern. Dr. LaFair documents the various patterns in a 2009 book, "Don't Bring It To Work."

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

With coaching, he recognized 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 frequently told to be quiet. Then, as his three siblings became older, he had to fight for attention. "Whoever could talk the loudest would be heard," he says. While being an aggressive talker served him back then, it was intimidating to co-workers and "shut everybody down," he says. Aware of the pattern, he talks 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 affected to become conscious of them. But there are ground rules for raising the matter, Dr. LaFair says: Make honest observations in short, elementary sentences, without blaming or attacking the other individual. Wait for it to sink in and listen carefully to the response. Ask questions. This can help your co-worker become aware of how his or her bad demeanor is affecting others—the initial 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 articulate 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 impacting 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 acting the victim?

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

Other employers promote consciousness by issuing office-wide bans on bad behavior. Robert W. Baird & Co., Milwaukee, a financial-services firm, has a no jerks regulation; Paul Purcell, chairman, president and chief executive, estimates he has discharged more than 25 wrongdoers in the last five years, including individuals who "hurt and disparage other people," or who put their own pursuits ahead of clients or the firm. When he talks 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 measure up."

Aware 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 impacts them, and apologizes for missteps. Posters about SuccessFactors' "no-jerks" regulation are hung throughout the workplace, Mr. Dalgaard says. The company has won awards as one of the better places to work in its area.