There are many ways that leaders and co-workers can detract from the performance of those around them. They can be purposely mean spirited, sexually or racially offensive, or downright cruel. While it’s hard for most of us to fathom, for some people, demeaning others brings satisfaction or a sense of superiority. But that’s not always what motivates abusive behavior.
For self-styled, high-performing perfectionists, special pressures may arise when they have to work with team members to deliver results. When errors occur (which, of course they will from time to time) in this team setting, the perfectionist’s reaction may be to explode with rage. This can include screaming, cursing, hurling insults, humiliating, and then ignoring anyone who fails to meet their standards. These professionals, whatever their fields, often become better known for these eruptions than they do for their skills.
I’ve met quite a few of the hot-tempered individuals I just described; but I’ve spoken with even more people whose organizations are committed to reigning in such behavior. For years, I’ve consistently heard the same explanations (excuses): “This person’s a perfectionist, and he’s great at what he does.” Or, “He’s obsessed with getting the best results. When mistakes happen that he can’t control or something isn’t just the way he wants, he loses his temper.” And, here’s another: “She’s just trying to make sure she won’t have to deal with the same mistake again.”
Obviously, these rationales don’t justify such conduct. More to the point, they sow the seeds for future disasters. Here’s what can happen. In the medical profession, a surgeon with a hair-trigger temper can cause those around him or her to remain quiet during surgery instead of speaking up when they notice a complication needing immediate attention. Or a physician’s anger over a treatment issue can get a nurse so flustered that he delivers a fatal dose of what should have been a minor pharmacological treatment. The same pattern has led to surgeries on the wrong limb or organ. The victims of these eruptions often become conditioned to expect temper blasts; and this further detracts them from fully focusing on patient issues. While it may not be intentional, tantrums or other types of abusive behavior have serious side effects – maiming and killing the innocent.
To prevent such conduct, the first step, of course, is to set standards and hold everyone accountable – no exceptions. But communicating rules isn’t enough to get these individuals to break these habits as long as they believe they’re acting in the name of excellence. It’s going to take additional steps to salvage the work of these talented, but risky performers.
- First, perfectionists have to recognize that volcanic behavior can disrupt focus and concentration and lead to increased quality or safety errors. Industry examples will help substantiate this consequence, as will comments that co-workers make in anonymous surveys and in discussion settings.
- And, in the context of coaching or learning experiences, offenders can learn to recognize that heavy-handed, overactive conduct (including their own) could potentially lead to heightened risk in the workplace.
- Finally, getting disruptive performers to moderate their behavior involves replacing bad habits with good ones. They need to understand how to address issues in terms of what to say, the tone and body language of their messages, and that it is best to deliver criticism in quiet, more private areas.
- If their behavior does cross normal boundaries, they also need to understand and know how to apologize.
Once these talented, but destructive, performers begin to recognize their behavior is counter to the very goals for which they strive, hopefully they’ll begin to practice new habits that will lead them and their respective organizations to positive outcomes. If they don’t, organizations should be prepared to face a stark choice – either tolerate disruptive performers, accepting the harm their behaviors engender, or remove offenders to safeguard not only their values, but also their overarching responsibilities. That can literally be a matter of life and death.