Crucial Skills®

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How to Mentor a Bully

Dear Steve,

I am mentoring an individual who is in a supervisory position. She is very forthright with her direction and criticism of those under her. She has a good relationship with most of the people she works with, but those with soft-spoken personalities often accuse her of bullying. I have known this person for several years and see a lot of potential in her, but I also think her blunt communication style may be a barrier for her. If you were mentoring her, how would you direct her?

Mentor of a HIPO With a Potential No-Go

Dear Mentor of a HIPO With a Potential No-Go,

With most HIPOs (high-potential performers) there are usually opposite and equally powerful no-goes—aspects of a person’s style that have the potential to derail them. Our strengths are often tied to weaknesses, so someone with a lot of potential has to be aware of how and where their strengths turn into liabilities. Many people in this situation instinctively pull back on their strengths in an effort to blunt the impact of those liabilities. However, this is not the most effective way to address them. In your case, I suggest helping your mentee refine her strengths while providing strategies that can help her identify when she is approaching her weakness thresholds. Let me give you an example.

I once worked with a high-performing woman who was extremely direct. She was respected and valued in the organization—except within a subgroup of women who found her to be aggressive, punitive, and other non-family-friendly adjectives. It was interesting because the behavior that was valued so much in one circle was despised and resented in the other. When she first attempted to address how she came across within the subgroup, she was perceived as wishy-washy by the other group. She continued to swing back and forth, trying to satisfy each group. She was stuck!

What ended up helping her were two skills from Crucial Conversations: Talk Tentatively from the STATE family of skills, and the Make It Safe skills. Most people aren’t surprised that Make It Safe skills would make a difference in this kind of situation, but they are a little surprised that the Talk Tentatively skill would. But the Talk Tentatively skill is really about modulating your approach based on who you’re interacting with. Because of this, it’s often a great place to start.

The overarching, driving principle of the STATE section is to advocate in a way that encourages others to respond—and talking tentatively is how you can modulate your approach. You may need to be more tentative with some groups and less with others. For example, I once delivered a session in Singapore to a group of execs who didn’t speak much during the session and never really spoke directly to me—except when we got to STATE. The execs began to buzz amongst themselves and eventually whipped up a low-level hum. Then the hum turned into a collective murmur. “It seems like you’re trying to get us to speak like an American,” they said.

Well yeah, I thought, but only a very timid one. As soon as those words crossed my mind, I realized that “tentative” in the US is different than “tentative” in Singapore. In fact, “tentative” on the East Coast of the US might be different than “tentative” on the West Coast, South, or even the Midwest, and “tentative” with one group might be seen as “bullying” in another.

Here’s the essence of Talk Tentatively: share your conclusions and opinions as such, and leave room for differing opinions. In the case of the HIPO woman I worked with, learning to adjust her degree of tentativeness helped her work with the different groups.

Make It Safe skills pair nicely with Talk Tentatively. This set of skills helps people create and/or restore safety to a conversation when others feel inclined to pull away. It helps individuals clarify their intent so others can focus on what is being said and avoid misinterpreting the message.

One of the best ways to Make It Safe is to take about thirty seconds at the beginning of a conversation (after the exchange of pleasantries) to frame your message with your underlying positive intent. This does two things: (1) it limits the possibility of misunderstanding for the person on the receiving end, and (2) it helps you live up to that positive intent because you’ve made it explicit and therefore easier to connect to throughout the conversation. Positive intent frames can be quite simple: “I would like to get some info from you without taking too much of your time . . . ” or “I’d like to take some time to talk about (fill in the blank here), and my intent is to really understand this from all sides, so . . . ” You can even use this in recovery mode when others become defensive or start to shut down: “My intent here is to provide support, which is why I was asking questions about the project status.” (Tip—this last one works especially well with teenagers!)

Over the years, I’ve found that many intentionally cultivated qualities have a strength and weakness outlet. As you seek to temper the no-go aspects of strengths in yourself or in others, resist the temptation to minimize the strengths. Hopefully some of the ideas I’ve shared here will help address your situation.

Best of Luck,

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9 thoughts on “How to Mentor a Bully”

  1. Cecilia

    Article titles like this mislead people’s understanding. A HIPO is not a bully. A bully may do some of the same behaviors, but always deliberately to cause the other person(s) harm. HIPOs generally do not intend harm; they are people who just may not understand the effect of their blunt style, and mis-labeling them causes them a great deal of harm.
    Can you please address how to deal with a real bully?

    1. Mary

      Thank you. I just read this and was going to respond that using “bully” as a label for the behavior really creates a negative reaction. Why could this not be identified a communication style.

    2. Steve

      The process would actually be pretty similar. Whenever you are coaching someone one you need to help them see how their current behavior is helping or hindering. You help by making the invisible, visible. In other words, help them see connections between their current behavior and values and/or outcomes they already care about. How their behavior affects their ability to work with others, achieve buy in, impacts quality, etc. This requires some careful observation so that you are talking about specific behaviors rather than vague abstractions. you next need to identify the skills, or replacement behaviors to address any gaps around the presenting issue.

      Having said that, I think most people are fearful that while attempting to do the above, they will will get the bully behavior. In these cases, I’ve found that calling out the behavior using specific observations and reinforcing your intent (think mutual purpose here) for addressing the issue in the first place have been really useful. And in some extreme cases where the behavior persists, politely ending the conversation or moving toward the formal discipline process.

    3. Catherine Mattice

      While I agree that not all HIPO’s are bullies, it seems many bullies are HIPO’s, and they’ve learned to act that way because they’ve been rewarded for it. I specialize in coaching this very specific type of person, or abrasive leader, and they usually are well paid and highly valued.

      People who are abrasive, are abrasive because they dislike and even fear incompetence. Any perceived incompetence in others causes them to lash out, due to the anxiety it causes them. And, of couse, they cause anxiety in others due to their behavior.

      My coaching program is focused on helping the abrasive leader reduce anxiety in others, thereby reducing their own. It’s fascinating stuff.

  2. Jennifer

    I agree with the other comment. The HIPO is not intending to “harm” others but is mis-understood. How can the HIPO be true to him/herself in the crowd that perceives them as being a “bully”, but really it is misunderstanding of content/intent by the individuals that are soft-spoken. How can the soft spoken folks feel empowered that it is not an attack by the HIPO, but it is the individual’s style?

  3. Greta

    Please also be careful how you frame women in situations like these. Direct women are easily labeled bullies and other non-family friendly terms by others (including by other women) who are expecting conformance to a gendered social norm. In the wake of this, women face social blow-back for behavior that would be tolerated from a male figure. Being careful out our language helps to reduce stereotyping.

    The advice of adjusting the language and tentativeness of your speech is a successful strategy – especially for women who are navigating gender double-binds in an imperfect world.

    1. Steve

      It really worked well for this leader…and has continued to serve her well to this day.

  4. Leigh

    I have to ask is this lady really a High Performer? Or is she bluffing those who supervise by making the same noises they make? There is a stark difference between a great leader and someone who cracks the whip at any opportunity!

    1. Steve

      This is a question to ask. All the indicators said yes, and in the end people who achieve results at the expense of others usually find that it eventually catches up with them.

      In this case, I’ve been able to keep track of this leader and she’s continued to get better and better. This was partly due to the fact that she actively solicited feedback on the perceptions of her style from different key groups as she moved up and around during her career.

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