From Maria von Trapp to Vlad the Impaler (and Back Again): The Tale of a Mission-Driven Bully

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In last week’s Oh Behave! blog post, I wrote about three different ways of getting bullies into an organization. Hiring a Sociopath and Incentivizing Bad Behaviour were two of them. The third pathway was one I dubbed the Mission-Driven Path. You can read more about these very different pathways here.

Maria was one of those Mission-Driven bullies. A principled and brilliant engineer, she had been one of the first hires of a start-up firm that focused on technologies for environmental restoration. Her talent, passion and interpersonal skills were credited with much of the company’s early success in both technical excellence AND innovative workplace culture.

But then they lost a major grant, putting several key initiatives in danger. Maria began working around the clock to try and ensure that projects went ahead and no jobs were lost. She became ragged from stress and from lack of sleep. And that was the point when, according to the company’s founder, “The ever-cheerful leader that we’d teasingly nicknamed Maria von Trapp turned into our very own Vlad the Impaler.” Three critical ‘ingredients’– passion for a cause, a threat to the organization’s viability, and massive personal depletion — had come together to create a bully out of a most unlikely candidate.

Maria began publicly berating her staff for not working as hard as she was. She cut people off mid-sentence and rejected all ideas that didn’t originate from her own mind. She was easily triggered into verbal tirades and displays of temper.

The owner was candid about his own mistakes in dealing with Maria’s metamorphosis. He admitted, “First I dismissed and then I downplayed the complaints that came my way. I told people that she was under a lot of stress trying to save some important projects, and I asked them to cut her some slack.”

But when unusual silences began to reign in their normally spirited lunchroom, and absenteeism mounted, and finally two people quit, he could no longer ignore the evidence: Maria was a problem. So his question for me was … wait for it….

How do you solve a problem like Maria?

The approach had to be multi-pronged in this case, as harm had been done to the workplace culture as well as to individuals. The recovery plan had to start at the top. The owner took immediate and public responsibility for addressing the damage he’d allowed Maria to do to herself and her team by not intervening sooner. He made a firm commitment to solving his company’s cash flow crunch, “the thing that got us into this mess in the first place”. He reallocated Maria’s patently ridiculous and unmanageable workload. He implemented new policies around overtime, and insisted that ALL employees take the vacation time that was due them.

At the same time, staff were invited to participate in the creation of bespoke Respectful Workplace guidelines. Crucially, in the months that followed, team members were given time to learn and practice effective means of having difficult conversations.

As for Maria, aka Vlad? She was ordered to take time off, time that was needed to address her state of utter mental and physical depletion. As soon as she was reasonably restored, she began working with me to develop strategies for repairing the damage she had caused to her team, herself, and her reputation.

Maria was a terrific coaching client, as it turned out. She possessed the trifecta of qualities deemed crucial for coaching success by Dr. Marshall Goldsmith: namely, courage, humility and discipline. Maria already had these characteristics in abundance, which made my job easier. Other Mission-Driven bullies I’ve worked with have had to wrestle with their own pride and defensiveness before they could make progress. The willingness to do so is one of the things that differentiates people who can be reintegrated into the team from those who need to move on.

This company was lucky. The team forgave Maria, the owner dealt with his cash flow problems, and  the organization recovered both financially and relationally. What is clear, however, is that prevention remains the best cure for this problem. The take home message for business owners? Pay attention to cash reserves. Create Respectful Workplace guidelines, and use infractions as training opportunities. And finally, actively combat the tendency of loyal, passionate employees to sacrifice their well-being for your company’s benefit. Failure to do so may bite you in the neck.

Here are some additional resources:

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith

The Bully-Free Workplace by Gary Namie and Ruth Namie

Sleep Well, Lead Better – article from Harvard Business Review

How do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? (Come on, you know you want to listen to it!)

Stop Creating Bullies in Your Organization

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Once again this week, I was contacted by a company whose employees are alleging bullying and harassment from one of their leaders.  Once again, the company involved expressed shock about the emergence of the misbehaviour. Whenever I field these calls, I usually am told something along the lines of,  “He/she has always been such a good person / a sweetheart / an ethical stalwart. We can’t understand what’s happened!” I CAN understand it, and I feel for all concerned.

I’ve learned that there are several different ways to get a bully in the workplace.

Route #1: The sociopath.

The easiest way to get a bully on the payroll is simply to hire a sociopath, someone who lacks both the empathy and the capacity for guilt that are present in most human beings. (If you can’t find a sociopath, you could always settle for a narcissist.) Such people often turn in great results, but they do so by manipulating and exploiting their staff and co-workers, creating favourites and outcasts, and resorting to lying, cheating, disavowing or blaming in order to make themselves look good.

These kinds of bullies arrive ready-made. They usually have left tell-tale paths of destruction behind them, in every other organization that they have worked for. Prevention is the best cure for dealing with them. We need to get better at screening out sociopaths and narcissists during the interviewing and hiring process. If and when they do slither into our tent, we must act decisively and rapidly in response to their ethical violations.

Let me be really clear, here: Do NOT attempt to offer these people rehabilitative coaching. Fire them.

Route #2: The incentive path.

Another pathway to getting a workplace bully is by creating the conditions for employees’ personal ambitions to grow overdeveloped and unchecked. In their hyper-focused efforts to meet a target, merit a bonus, or kiss up to a superior, some managers can start to view their staff as mere tools that can be treated aggressively and set aside dismissively. Such leaders can sometimes be turned back into decent human beings through rapid and unambiguous feedback about their effects on others. If this has happened in your company, you will need to take the additional step of re-thinking or even eliminating your incentive programmes, as they can become unwitting crucibles for all kinds of unethical, aggressive behaviours.

Route #3: The mission-driven path.

The third path to bullying is what I’ve come to think of as the mission-driven path. In my experience, this kind of bully-out-of-the-blue phenomenon is especially apt to emerge in charitable organizations, social enterprises, family businesses, or start-up companies that have undergone rapid growth. It happens when you (1) take fine, fine people who are deeply committed to their employer, (2) work them so hard that they become physically exhausted and mentally depleted, and then (3) cut their budgets or staffing so deeply that they fear the company’s survival (or the success of the mission) is in jeopardy. They start to drive everyone relentlessly – including, most especially, themselves — in their frenetic attempts to keep everything afloat. Characterologically, these people are about as far from sociopaths as it is possible to get; behaviourally, however, they can look awfully similar in a time of crisis.

If one of your best people seems to be morphing into Genghis Khan, you’ll need to push ‘Reset’ in a hurry. I’ll write more about this in a subsequent post. In the meantime, ensure that your company has Respectful Workplace guidelines in place. Then TRAIN PEOPLE in how to use those guidelines to engage in respectful, assertive conversations about behaviours of concern.

Here are some additional resources:

The Bully-Free Workplace by Gary Namie and Ruth Namie

Take the Bully by the Horns by Sam Horn

Any of Dan Ariely’s scholarly articles and blog posts on Incentives – start with

Introducing a new coaching blog for emerging leaders: Oh Behave!

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Much of my coaching is aimed at helping leaders tweak a few key behaviours that are lowering the ceiling on their effectiveness. These often involve addressing some things that the leaders need to STOP doing, and an additional few things that they must START and CONTINUE doing. Repeatedly. ‘Til kingdom comes.

Leaders’ attempts to change their behaviour often flag quickly, the result of one or more of the following factors:

  1. They choose the wrong thing to change
  2. They don’t know what triggers or maintains their bad habits
  3. They don’t have adequate reminders or supports in place to keep their efforts going
  4. They have no way of getting regular, honest feedback from key team members who are in a position to observe them
  5. Something else comes up

Behavioural coaching is one methodology used by successful leaders to overcome these problems, and to keep themselves on a growth trajectory.

Oh Behave! Is a new blog series aimed at highlighting some of the best and some of the worst of leadership behaviours. I hope you will find it both interesting and helpful.

via Gfycat

Implementation Support is the Best Value-Add

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Article originally appeared on The New Wholesaler Masterminds Radio Show.

A question for you wholesalers: Have you ever had the experience of giving great advice to somebody who seemed really receptive to it, only to then watch the advice go unimplemented?

Yeah, I thought so. Me, too. It makes me yearn to work with potted plants, some days. But somehow I am always drawn back to the challenge of working with people and their money, and of helping others do the same.

In my work as a professor, a financial industry consultant, and a wealth psychologist, I spend a great deal of my time digging deeply into a few key issues:

1. What makes it so hard for people to do the right things for their professional or personal well-being?

2. What can be done to help them make and sustain meaningful behavior change?

In this podcast, Rob Shore and I explored some of the answers that have been emerging from this work. Most of the interview focused on the phenomenon of Transition Fatigue, a state of mental depletion that can set in following major life changes such as divorce, death of a parent or spouse, or a business merger.

What are Transitions?

Transitions are life events that lead to major changes in people’s view of themselves. They move us from “I used to be…” to “But now I’m…”.

With that change in identity comes a whole lot of other things: big emotions, steep learning curves, major changes in social support networks. Most transition events also have very big financial implications attached to them (e.g. inheritances; insurance changes; pensions; etc.). As a result, this is the very time that clients are most likely to need sound financial counsel. What financial advisors quickly encounter, however, is the reality that such clients often do not have access to their best thinking.

They’re worn out; they’re overwhelmed; they dither; they make commitments and then don’t act upon them.

The demographics of the financial services profession are such that many advisors (and wholesalers, too) are going through major life transitions of their own, changes that are no different from those facing their clients.

As they hit late middle age, more and more advisors will be coping with ailing parents and truculent teens at the same time they’re trying to position their business for sale or transition. When your customers are going through such major life transitions, you can pretty much count on a higher-than-normal frequency of your calls going unreturned, or paperwork not getting filled out, or appointments getting cancelled with very little notice. This is Transition Fatigue, up close and personal.

It ain’t pretty.

How can you best be of service to folks who may be experiencing Transition Fatigue?

By thinking of every possible way that you can make your advice easier to implement – in short, by easing their load.  Here are three things for you to keep top of mind:

  1. Remember that the default action (which usually means doing or changing nothing) reigns supreme. Every form that customers have to fill out, every click they have to make, every signature they need to provide is a hindrance to their work with you. Eliminate as many of these small steps as possible. With those steps that remain, offer to do as much of the legwork as you possibly can.
  2. Do you know the best predictor of getting through hard times? It’s social support. That can come in many forms – through offering up encouraging words, providing useful information, and using a variety of modalities for letting them know that you are thinking of them and have their back.
  3. Your contact list can be one of your most valuable resources for people undergoing major transitions. When they off-handedly mention their need to contact an attorney or a counsellor, for example, or when they express a wish to find safe housing for their elderly relative, your list of pre-vetted resources can feel like a godsend. This is the very thing that can move people from being stuck to gaining traction.

The financial industry marketplace is awash with suggestions for “value added” experiences and products. Once a customer takes delivery of these experiences and products, however, many of them just lie dead in the water. They create cognitive and/or physical clutter in the lives of busy professionals.

People experiencing Transition Fatigue yearn for clarity, not clutter. They want help in getting the most important tasks done, and they want to feel less stressed and alone in the process.

So here’s a radical idea for you: Think of implementation support as your ‘value add’.

It’s non-polluting and inexpensive. It doesn’t take up space or create clutter. It meets the highest compliance and fiduciary standards. It positions you as a caring, resourceful colleague who knows how to be helpful without being pushy. And it pays dividends in terms of customer retention and referrals.

Nice! Way nicer, I’ve found, than potted plants.

Dr. Moira Somers

Why losing the “pain of paying” could end up hurting

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This article originally appeared at

For most of us, it is completely common to pull out a credit or debit card when at a cash register. Maybe using cash has become the exception. But according to neuropsychologist Dr. Moira Somers, not all forms of spending are equal. She says, “there are some forms of technology that certainly assist in the mindlessness aspect of personal financial management.”

While people have an emotional reaction when seeing bills and coins, credit and debit cards abstract the experience of paying. “You get several iterations away from paying with a chicken and a bucket of honey,” says Dr. Somers. “We are much more aware of the value of money when we fork over cold hard cash, and we don’t feel quite the same about handing over debit or credit cards.” That feeling we experience when forking over cash is what Dr. Somers refers to as “the pain of paying.”

The concept of the pain of paying comes from research done in behavioural economics, including research done by Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Economics at Duke University. One study from Carnegie-Mellon University used fMRIs to look at how people’s experience spending cash differed from spending using credit cards. The researchers found that, while those using cash experienced pleasure from their purchase, they also felt some disgust. Those using cards, on the other hand, says Dr. Sommers, get “…all the activation of the pleasure centres, and all the activation of the please centres… and all the activation of the pleasure centres.”

Dr. Somers says one of the biggest things things is to be conscious of how you are spending you money. That might mean returning to using cash, at least for a while. “There are more ways now that we can torpedo ourselves financially than ever before, I think, in human history,” says Dr. Somers, “and so we just have to be diligent about that.”