Unpredictable leadership is dangerous, not disruptive
One of my clients Anneka* proudly shared the story of how in her early 20s her first boss told her that she was difficult to work out. This sense of pride in being unreadable was something that she continued to see as admirable trait.
“I like to keep my team on their toes; just when they think they have got me figured out they realise they haven’t.”
Being unpredictable was a life and leadership strategy that Anneka deployed believing it created the opportunity for people to step up and that it created a bit of intrigue. What it did in reality was create uncertainty, fear, mistrust and set a culture of unhelpful and destructive game playing.
Anneka’s strategy of unpredictability created a lot of noise in the workplace — none of it helpful. Time was wasted as her colleagues and team members struggled to work out how to navigate Anneka’s leadership; to predict what she wanted, which was as predictable as Melbourne’s weather. Her team members spent countless hours dealing with the fallout that happens when people are trying to work in an unstable and unpredictable environment.
The poster child for the unpredictable leader is the current US President Donald Trump, who I believe is displaying a childlike joy for playing games and gambling with the fates of others.
For Anneka, the fallout from her choice of seeing unpredictability as a strength was a storm that had been crashing through her life and the lives of others. The casualties became too many to ignore.
She was given a choice: change her style or leave the organisation she worked for. The hardest part of this process was acknowledging the problem, which she was unable to do at the time. For too long Anneka saw herself as someone who had bad luck with hires, blamed others for missed deadlines and poor team performance and avoided her personal accountability. The reality was that she was a game player; her strategy of unpredictability mixed with a lack of emotional maturity decimated her team.
Dealing with an unpredictable leader or colleague
It is exhausting and challenging to have to deal with an unpredictable person. They create havoc and remove the feeling of safety — a key need for a team and culture to survive and thrive. Amy Edmonson’s TEDx talk on Building a psychologically safe workplace is a valuable resource to tap into.
Below are some suggestions to help if you are dealing with an unpredictable leader.
It can be incredibly challenging to have empathy when faced with unreasonable behaviours. Taking time to think about the person who is acting the way they are is beneficial for you and them. We never know what people bring into a room; their pasts, their fears and their blind spots. Having empathy does not mean you condone or accept unreasonable behaviours, however, the process of thinking of the other person with compassion will change how you feel and approach the situation. The most valuable aspect of this is that it helps to depersonalise and distance their behaviours from you. It’s often not about us.
A key decision is whether you are willing and/or able to remain in the situation. What questions need to be answered to assess this? Sometimes it will be clear, and sometimes more information can be useful.
Write down the scenarios you are faced with. It can be helpful to keep a journal for a week to a month (depending on the severity of the situation you are in). Once you have a collection look for the themes.
1. What impact is this situation having on you/your life? Are you waking up at night worrying about work and encounters with the person? Grade it from 0 (harmless) to 10 (debilitating).
2. Ask yourself: what has been ignited in me? Developing an understanding of the potential triggers can be incredibly useful. It helps us to understand if our responses are coming from our present self, the situation, or a heightened response from our past.
4. Ask for help: Who in your life/network can provide you with a balanced view? We can become accustomed to unreasonable behaviours and begin to accept them as normal. They are not normal and remain unacceptable.
It’s never okay for someone else’s poor self management and behaviour to impact negatively on our lives.
Set personal and professional boundaries. Be clear about what these are for you. Clarity here will help you to communicate in a constructive manner.
“Spontaneity is a meticulously prepared art” – Oscar Wilde
Looking back over the themes from the journaling exercise will help to create responses that you can lean into when needed. Harold Payne at TEDxDelrayBeach shows us how to improvise in his TEDx talk. Payne says that to be prepared and look spontaneous takes preparation, stretching yourself and involves some risk. What that risk is may be different for each of us.
1. Identify the key risk factors for you and grade them.
2. Are they real or perceived?
3. What evidence do you have to support your view of the risk?
4. Create a list of resources to help you — who would you call? If an Employee Assistance Program is available in your organisation, know how to access this for ease. Consider reading Janine Garner’s book From Me to We to get some great strategies about building your key networks.
Seeking an outside perspective about the situation is an important step. Choose a trusted mentor/advisor who isn’t involved. Take some time to do the work prior to a conversation so that it is a constructive conversation rather than an emotional dump.
We all need to clear at times — if possible get out into nature, go for a walk, a run or write in a journal. Say all the things you need to say to get it out of your system in a safe place where you won’t be heard. Rinse and repeat! Sometimes it takes a few cycles to take the heat out of the dialogue.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, remove yourself from the situation and seek advice. Then go back to the earlier steps to help move forward.
It would be quite a few years before Anneka was ready to work on disrupting her pattern of negative disruption. Whilst she made some progress Anneka remained attached to her belief that others needed to adapt to her style of leadership.
There can be traits of this style in all of us. Identify yours so that the disrupting you are doing is for innovation and benefiting others, rather than derailing and decimating.
*Anneka’s name was changed for privacy.
This blog was first published in SmartCompany