Beware the Charming Psychopath

Once again, Bob told our manager that he would be willing to take on the largest and highest-profile project in the business. Pleased with the eagerness of our coworker to volunteer, our manager smiled and gave him a thumbs-up at his initiative. But the rest of us on Bob’s team shuddered inside. When our coworker committed to the project, he was essentially committing the rest of us, because he was not about to lift a finger to get the project to completion. We knew that working with Bob meant we would be cajoled, conned, manipulated, shamed, and otherwise maneuvered into doing tasks none of us had signed up for. We also knew that, upon successful completion of the project, Bob would take all the credit.

At first glance, an outsider would wonder why we did not have the chutzpah to stand up to Bob, walk away, tell our manager, or choose to take any number of other actions that would circumvent the inevitable problems ahead. In hindsight, we would have those same thoughts. How is it that a coworker, and an equal on the organizational chart, can get away with doing so little work and still get so much credit?

Psychopaths in the Workplace

Employees with personality traits like Bob’s are known as “high-functioning psychopaths.” Although Bob’s behavior is characterized by traits of psychopathy, they are not to the degree of individuals who are institutionalized perpetrators of crime and punishment. Instead, high-functioning psychopaths are driven individuals whose success is often at the expense of others and who display the following types of behaviors:

  • Consistent and persistent manipulation of others, especially those who get in their way.
  • Masterful deception (exaggerating or outright lying) to get their way.
  • Crafty deflections (distractions or half-truths) when confronted about their behavior.

With regard to accountability, charming psychopaths can be so slippery that pinning them down is like “nailing jello to a wall.” You often sense that something is wrong, but you just can’t put your finger on what it is. The truth is that employees like Bob can be extremely charming and personable at the same time they are being ruthless and vindictive. Charming psychopaths are particularly good at managing up, and those higher in the ranks of the organization somehow miss seeing the underlying—and undermining—behaviors.

Psychopathic Behavior

Unlike many personality disorders that are rooted in anxiety, the psychopath has difficulty feeling at all. They crave power and control over people. The hallmark of the psychopath is an inability to experience remorse or empathy. Often, they themselves have no feelings at all. In this regard, the only relationships the psychopath is able to sustain are those that narcissistically serve his/her own interests. These relationships involve a truly sadomasochistic dynamic, in which the recipient of the psychopath’s behavior tolerates the abuse and manipulation that the psychopath dishes out. However, even these relationships tend to be short-lived.

In contrast to the anxiety normal humans feel under pressure, psychopaths become fearless and more focused on their target or goal. The psychopath has an uncanny ability to read people and exploit their vulnerabilities. Hence, in the workplace, the psychopath is able to identify the most vulnerable of coworkers and exploit them to his/her end. They are guiltless, callous, self-centered, and can be superficially charming. Because of their unbridled confidence, they can be very attractive, initially, with their charm and stories of success. They can have the very characteristics that can appeal to executives in management, who can confuse their superficial charm as charismatic leadership. In fact, it is not unusual to see high-functioning psychopaths in the highest levels of an organization. Their focus and ability to get things done, even nefariously, can serve them well.

How Corporate Psychopaths Work

In our example of Bob volunteering himself and, by default, his coworkers to take on a very important, high-profile project, we see Bob’s craft at work at a high level. Although Bob may attend an initial meeting aimed at organizing the project, do not expect him to leave that meeting with any meaningful responsibilities, if any at all. As a master of deflection, he may say things like, “Mary would be great to handle those details,” or “Those issues fall right into John’s skillset.” In these unwanted, unsolicited, and unauthorized delegations of duty are implied compliments to his coworkers, making them difficult to oppose, especially publicly. Initially, Bob’s employees were taken off-guard by his charm until later, when it was too late and they realized they had been duped. When requested to take on any responsibilities himself, Bob will have any number of reasonable-sounding excuses to decline. However, he will want to be at the progress meetings with the manager and may even facilitate those meetings to make certain he appears to be in charge and receives the credit.

Behind the scenes, Bob is constantly “stirring the pot” and creating dissension among team members, knowing that his lack of involvement will be overlooked in the midst of the dramas and conflicts he instigates. By creating confusion, Bob provides himself assurance that, if the project should fail, he has the team’s dysfunction to blame.

Three Ways to Deal

How do you deal with this kind of personality in the workplace? Keep in mind that the chances of psychopaths changing their behavior is nil! Corporate psychopaths have an entrenched personality style that allows them to incredibly adept at maneuvering and counter-maneuvering for self-serving purposes. So when you encounter high-functioning psychopaths, keep these tips in mind.

1. Distance Yourself

You do not want to be another body left in their destructive wake. As soon as you are able to identify any high-functioning psychopath (the sooner the better), work to distance yourself. You do not want to be on the same team or affiliated with them on any project. Decline opportunities to work together as politely as possible. If the psychopath is your manager, very quickly find another part of the organization in which to work—or another job!

2. Watch Your Back

Workplace psychopaths can be ruthless and have no trouble bending the truth or outright lying. Which is why confronting them comes with great risk. Remember, they are at their best at times when normal people are anxious and fearful. Confronting them will not lead to any changes in their behavior; and once confronted, they will actively set out to destroy you to coworkers, your manager, or anyone else who will listen to them.

3. Depersonalize

The greatest weapon that a psychopath has is to manipulate you in a way that makes you doubt the way you think about yourself, rendering you more vulnerable to his/her maneuvering. Remember that psychopaths’ behavior is about them, not about you, and do not take their compliments to heart any more than you take their condemnation to heart. You are no better or worse than when you first met them, and you are hopefully more aware. Do not lose a sense of who you are in working with them.

The bottom line is two-fold: first, you cannot change the behavior of high-functioning psychopaths; and second, you do not want to change your own behavior in response to theirs. Be aware, be on guard, and be yourself.

Hard Conversations? Just Do It!

Recently, a client called me to ask for my counsel regarding an upcoming performance discussion with one of his subordinates. He told me about the individual’s declining performance, including several instances of the employee failing to deliver on agreed-upon projects. The employee was contrite and apologetic, but his performance had not improved. In addition, the employee had experienced some personal problems over the past year, for which my client had made several allowances. It was clear that my client had delayed the discussion for some time and could delay no more. The time had come for a direct and unambiguous performance discussion.

My client expressed significant apprehension about having the discussion and asked my advice on how to handle the meeting.  Violations of company policy or ethical standards are easier to address because they are cut and dried. However, discussions about performance issues are not always as clear-cut. Such issues tend to be more about the behaviors of employees, which are more difficult to discuss because they may cause employees to feel defensive, embarrassed, or nervous.

My experience is that when leaders have faced difficult personnel decisions, they never say, “I wish I would have waited longer before taking action.” Quite the contrary! They always say, “I wish I would have taken action sooner.” The effects of waiting to take some kind of corrective action include loss of time and productivity. More important, leaders who are slow to address performance issues risk demonstrating a lack of credibility and confidence to subordinates and colleagues.

Why do managers consistently delay the timing and directness of difficult performance conversations? The major reason they procrastinate is a lack of self-confidence. They are uncomfortable having potentially tense and contentious discussions in which they do not feel in control of the outcome. In addition, I see leaders delay having these discussions because they want so much to be liked and admired that they would rather be taken advantage of than risk hurting someone’s feelings. The greatest error leaders can make is to lose sight that such conversations need to be unemotional reviews of the facts of the individual’s performance, not emotional displays of feelings.

There are three things managers need to keep in mind before having difficult performance discussions with their employees:

1: Data. Come to the meeting prepared with clear data about the individual’s performance. To have a productive performance discussion, it is critical for managers to have provided clear expectations for work behavior and responsibilities (including quality, quantity, and timeliness of efforts), as well as to have documented instances when expected behaviors or deliverables were not met.

2: Focus. Have a clear agenda about what you are going to discuss, and stick to it. Because the meeting will be based on facts and not opinions, the tone of the meeting should be professional and any degree of emotion should be minimal. The manager can always respond to difficult retorts by the subordinate by staying calm and guiding the discussion back to the facts at hand.

3: Plan. Prior to the meeting, decide with clarity what changes are required, what the expected outcomes should be, and by when you expect to see improvements. In meetings of such importance, it is unfair and unprofessional to make it up as you go. If the manager does not have a plan, including the consequences for failing to meet expectations, the outcome of the meeting will be sub-optimal. A less-than-good outcome is not beneficial for either the individual or the organization.

The key to having difficult performance discussions is preparation, along with a commitment to keeping the conversations factual, focused, and outcome-oriented. My client took this advice to heart and went into the meeting prepared with the facts, an agenda that he followed, and an outcome in mind. He kept the meeting factual and non-emotional; and though the discussion was not an easy one, the client and his subordinate left the meeting with a clear and unambiguous plan. Furthermore, it was agreed that if the subordinate followed the plan, he would be successful, but that if he wasn’t able to follow the plan, he would be either reassigned or terminated. As is often the case, my client’s post-meeting evaluation was, “I should have had this meeting a long time ago!”

The next time you are faced with having a difficult conversation, make sure to plan ahead, have data to support your positions, keep the discussion focused, and go into the meeting with an idea of the desired outcome. Being prepared will make these interactions more productive, and you will waste less time and energy worrying beforehand.

Managing the Passive-Aggressive Employee

We all know passive-aggressive employees. They are consistently late—for meetings, with assignments, even for social engagements—and tend to procrastinate and “forget” to complete a task or deadline. They may even be so bold as to ask their manager to send them reminders to get something done. Now that is audacity! No matter what “tricks” are put in place to manage their passive-aggressive behavior (e.g., scheduling them to arrive 30 minutes early, telling them a deadline is due two weeks before the actual due date, etc.), any possible gains they make quickly erode and they revert to their former ways. In addition, passive-aggressive employees can be characterized as being closed to new ideas and stubbornly holding onto their own point of view, even in the presence of data to the contrary. They may play clueless instead of defending their point of view, but the closed-mindedness remains. These manipulative patterns of behavior can also pervade their personal lives. It is only when these individuals offer benefits that far outweigh their liabilities that managers, employees, and friends tolerate—and adjust to or excuse—the disrespectful or manipulative behavior.

Passive-aggressive employees always have a reasonable excuse for being tardy (when they offer one at all)—the traffic was heavy, they had a physical problem, the dog ate their assignment, their computer went down, and so on. When decisions are made in their absence because the decision could not wait, they often show emotions ranging from disappointment to sullenness or rage that their input was not solicited. Managers joke that these folks will be “late to their own funeral.” Although these laggards may be the target of our light-hearted joking, over time, their consistent and ongoing tardiness, stubbornness, and sense of entitlement can result in lost productivity, loss of team unity, lower team morale, frustration, and resentment from managers and coworkers. These employees may be agreeable, apologetic, and possibly remorseful when challenged about their behavior; however, when confronted, they can also become defensive and even seem to be insulted!

The only reason passive-aggressive employees advance in companies, and in life, is because they are smart, talented, or effectively manipulative. To succeed in the face of often fierce opposition is itself a talent! A hair stylist I know is routinely 30 to 60 minutes late for her clients, but they tolerate her tardiness because she does a good job. Her clients have adjusted their behavior as a means of dealing with her tardiness—but this only serves to reinforce the hair stylist’s passive-aggressive behavior!

Passive-aggressive employees often are unable to change their behavior because it is rooted in anger, deep hostility, and wariness. Their passive aggression represents an inability to express frustration or anger in constructive or direct ways, and a lack of maturity, disrespect, and concern for other people’s feelings. These employees have somehow missed a crucial part of socialization that has to do with the development of empathy, intimacy, and collaboration. Instead, they have successfully been able to get others to conform to their way of conducting themselves, and therefore have little incentive to change. Psychologically, these individuals have never learned to express their hostility in a direct and constructive manner. In fact, they may assert that nothing is wrong and that they are simply disorganized or absent-minded. They will rarely take serious responsibility for their shortcomings or the discomfort and frustration it causes others.

So what is a manager to do? Dealing with passive-aggressive employees is especially difficult because it is unlikely these employees will truly change their behavior. In larger companies, these are the employees who may have gotten “passed around” because of the frustration previous managers have had with them. But there are effective ways to manage passive-aggressive employees.

  1. Establish Individual Contributor Roles: Passive-aggressive employees are not good team players. In fact, they can negatively impact the function and morale of a team. To the extent possible, put passive-aggressive employees into an individual contributor role, in which the work they do is independent of others relying on them.
  2. Set Clear Boundaries: It is critical to set clear boundaries with passive-aggressive employees in terms of expectations, quantity, quality, and timeliness of work. Equally critical is for you to be consistent with your expectations and not waver in the face of seemingly good excuses. The less consistent you are with your expectations and the subsequent consequences, the more likely the negative behavior will continue.
  3. Schedule Regular Performance Meetings: With passive-aggressive employees, reviewing clear and documented assignments in regularly scheduled meetings (at least weekly) is critical to determining whether these employees are completing their assignments. During these meetings you can demonstrate both positive regard for work done as expected and specific feedback where modifications are necessary. Be vigilant against manipulation and in your resolve and expectations.
  4. Manage Emotions: Because passive-aggressive employees have not learned how to express anger or frustration appropriately, encourage them to discuss their feelings when things are not going well. You are not their therapist, of course, but giving them the opportunity to talk about what is really behind their behavior can help create a new paradigm for relating to issues that affect their performance.
  5. Manage Decisively: When old patterns of passive aggression emerge, act quickly and decisively to deal with them. Putting passive-aggressive employees on a performance improvement plan or redeploying them in the face of opposition are wise and sometimes necessary options. Similarly, when new and positive behaviors emerge, being quick to recognize them and reward individuals for their success will reinforce new patterns and ways to move forward.

Success and Self-Esteem

However one defines success, the greatest contributor to success in life is how we see ourselves in relation to the world around us. Our motivations, relationships, work life, personal interests, body image, and even our religious beliefs are all derivatives of the way we see ourselves. In fact, self-esteem controls virtually every aspect of our lives. We may believe that we make decisions independently, but the underlying influence on the choices we make is to maintain the way we see ourselves. That is why making significant changes that require us to take on new challenges or opportunities in our lives can be so difficult—they force us to see ourselves as changeable.

Although the dynamics of self-esteem are not constant over time, they calibrate the range of behaviors we allow ourselves to entertain. For example:

  • If you are a pleaser, then behaving more independently is threatening.
  • If you are a perfectionist, then letting go of some of the details can cause anxiety.
  • If you are a workaholic, then leaving the workplace at a more reasonable time can produce apprehension.

Low self-esteem causes us to unconsciously perpetuate problematic behavior. It is important to realize the past really is prologue to the future, and the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior!

In the work environment, people with low self-esteem get stuck in jobs that reinforce their sense of inferiority. Pleasers often have bosses who are dominant. Perfectionists try to satisfy bosses for whom their work is never quite good enough. Workaholics often have demanding bosses with impossibly high expectations. Dependent employees stay with controlling bosses. In the workplace, the bosses with whom we stay usually reinforce the behaviors and beliefs that maintain the familiar level of self-esteem to which we are accustomed. Self-esteem can be the anchor to which people are tethered or the engine that propels their success.

Of course, changing your level of self-esteem at work matters the most in situations such as being dissatisfied with your job, believing you can aspire to more, having strained relationships outside of work, or no longer tolerating a boss you hate. Developing healthy self-esteem puts you, not others, in the driver’s seat of your life! Those with healthy self-esteem are able to make decisions that are based on positive self-interest, instead of simply reacting to the demands of others.

People with healthy self-esteem exhibit the following types of behaviors:

  • Act in accordance with what they think or believe without excessively worrying about the consequences.
  • Trust their own judgment to make decisions about their lives.
  • Consider themselves to be equal to others, and not wasting energy on comparisons.
  • Experience intimacy without being either dependent or exploitive.
  • Voice differences and finding solutions, without belittling or disrespecting themselves or others.
  • Focus on living in the present, without worrying about the past or the future.
  • Appreciate the value they bring to a situation and that they can be as valuable as the next person in their own unique way.
  • See mistakes, setbacks, and failure as normal parts of living, from which they learn and move on.
  • Are willing to take calculated risks without letting fear of failure stifle them.

Research has shown that increasing self-esteem is not an impossible task. The main thing that differentiates people with high self-esteem from those with low self-esteem is the development of mastery. Mastery is having proficiency and knowledge in certain skills or areas of expertise. With mastery, you increase your ability to manage the situations that confront you. It begins by taking baby steps outside of your comfort zone:

  1. Identify a skill or aptitude at which you would like to become proficient.
  2. Set a goal to increase your mastery of that skill by a small but noticeable amount within a specified time frame.
  3. Set aside a small amount of time each day to practice improving your mastery of the skill.
  4. When you reach the end of the established time frame, recognize the degree of mastery you have acquired. These moments are when you begin to increase your self-esteem and gain confidence in taking greater risk.

Never underestimate the power of one small change. It can ultimately precipitate a domino effect of removing obstacles in your life. Don’t be afraid to step out. As you gain in skill and confidence, you must make the move to a more active mode of experimentation. This could mean taking on more responsibility, initiating a project unfamiliar to you, or doing work that exposes you to the criticisms of peers or even the public. You will find that your worst fears will be unrealized and that the mastery you felt after acquiring one skill generalizes to experiencing success in new areas. Do not allow yourself to be content with a sense of inferiority or victimization that causes you to settle for less than the happiness you deserve! Improving your self-esteem is up to you, and only you can do it. Well, what are you waiting for?

Working with a Reluctant Boss

It is a strange yet frequent phenomenon to find individuals in management whose performance suggests they don’t want to be in a managerial role. Their behaviors indicate they aren’t comfortable supervising, or even interacting with, subordinates. Setting a vision for the team and providing direction do not seem to be part of these managers’ DNA. Often, the track to raises or advancement at a company is only through the process of managing others. Professionals advance to positions of authority because of their expertise and performance as an individual contributor, despite never wanting to be in management. Consequently, when they are in a new management position, they tend to flounder.

In my consulting, I have seen this pattern (called the “Peter principle”) demonstrated by entrepreneurs as well, especially franchise owners, who have been capable of running one store or unit because they could control and keep track of all of the variables. They may not have been very effective managing people at the unit level, but it was not as evident or important because they did everything themselves and their singular unit was still successful. However, once they opened a second or third unit, their hesitance to manage became evident and they struggled because of a reluctance to engage, delegate, or become more involved within more complex organizational and operational structures.

I have identified a hesitant manager as a reluctant boss. Employees of reluctant bosses complain that their managers

  • rarely give direction;
  • have great difficulty making decisions;
  • are unclear about clarifying company policies, roles, and responsibilities;
  • change their minds and back down in the face of conflict; and
  • have great difficulty holding subordinates accountable.

Employees are often confused by their manager’s changing direction and, at times, feel paralyzed and uncertain about the direction in which they should proceed. Although reluctant managers may be very intelligent, their personalities get in the way of their effectiveness and the ultimate success of their team.

In one-on-one conversations, reluctant bosses will seem to engage and even to have a clear idea of their goals for the team and organization. They appear amenable to suggestions and agree with input from others. Employees leaving these one-on-one meetings may feel that they have some direction at last, only to find their manager makes a 180-degree change shortly thereafter, especially when dealing with employees who challenge them. In addition, when reluctant bosses are told of problems that need to be handled, they may verbally commit to fixing them, only to let them fester. Such behaviors may well be passive-aggressive efforts to resist interaction with others, avoid direct confrontation, and delay in making or committing to decisions.

Reluctant bosses typically suffer from the same problem—a severe lack of confidence. They lack confidence in their ability to make the right decision (as if there is only one right decision) and end up continuously faltering in their management role. As a result, they tend to overcomplicate simple decisions and worry excessively about what others may think. They are “hands-off” managers for fear of upsetting others and would rather do things themselves than have conflict or hold others accountable. When interpersonal conflict is involved, these managers can have irrational beliefs about what might happen if they do hold others accountable. As weak-willed managers, they are highly susceptible to manipulation because they have not created a work environment where there are consequences for poor conduct by employees or customers.

When making decisions, these managers can suffer from LILO (i.e., last in, last out), a condition in which a manager will agree with whomever they spoke with last, but only until the next person comes along. They can be people-pleasers to a pathological extent. But by trying to please everyone, they please no one!

Most of the time, reluctant bosses have some awareness of how their inability to take action or be decisive ultimately causes greater disruption in their organizations. But they lack the inner courage to change their behavior. Confronting reluctant bosses only drives them further away, increases the anxiety they already have, and decreases the likelihood that they will make firm decisions or take action.

When you are unfortunate enough to have such a boss, how do you work to help them and the enterprise to be successful? Ultimately, you may have to serve as both their backbone and spokesperson. Keep in mind that what they need are support and encouragement, not criticism. Here are some tips for working with reluctant bosses in one-on-one situations:

Vision: Ask them what they would like the future of their business to look like. Make sure you are actively listening and not passing judgment. They probably have some idea in their minds of what success looks like. Once they have articulated a clear and focused vision, help them communicate that vision to people throughout the organization and publicly support their view of the future.

Decision-Making: Help them identify the decisions they do not like to make. These typically will be the day-to-day operating decisions. Partner with them and express your willingness to spearhead the implementation of difficult decisions. Doing so will likely involve partnering with other members of the team.

Management: Because of their distaste for conflict, they need reassurance and help with being realistic about the actual consequences of having difficult conversations. It is not that they are unaware of the need to have these conversations, they just don’t know how to discuss tough issues.

All of these suggestions require the employee to take a risk and begin acting more like the manager’s colleague instead of his or her subordinate. However, you may find these managers welcome your assistance and begin leaning on you to help steer and focus the organization. By combining their intelligence and understanding of the business with your ability to execute, you may have a very good team.

The Perils of Perfectionism

Some individuals seek to receive accolades by describing themselves as a perfectionist. This can be a form of “back door bragging,” especially if they disingenuously refer to perfectionism as a curse (e.g., “I can’t help it if I want things to be perfect!”). After all, a person would not want to be identified as the opposite of perfect. Perfectionists explain that their desire to have things just right is the reason they take longer, work harder, or miss deadlines. In addition, they are known to claim they would rather not do a task at all if they cannot do it perfectly. Perfectionists see the world in black and white or dichotomous terms. Being perfectionistic becomes a badge of honor that differentiates them from the rest of the world. However, by requiring perfection of themselves at all times, they become victims of their own irrational thinking that perfection is even possible.

A common but misguided thought in business is that perfection is not only beneficial but critical to success. We have spell-check to make certain our documents are error-free. We are told that “God is in the details.” In sports, the adage is that “practice makes perfect.” Although emphasis on perfection is very important in certain areas, it can be an impediment in others. If you are a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist, there is no argument about wanting a physician or scientist to have a very high degree of precision. This would also be true for areas associated with safety, such as a zero-defect tolerance for problems with automobile airbags. In most professional areas, however, seeking perfection often leads to a diminishing return—the cost in time and money.

Another line of thought that is more relevant to the business professional is captured best by the phrase, “Perfectionism is the enemy of the excellent.” In business, urgency typically does not allow for, or even require, perfect solutions. For example, university studies have found that perfectionistic professors have lower research productivity. Findings showed that a higher level of perfectionism was associated with a lower number of total publications as well as a lower number of first-authored publications.

Psychologically, perfectionism is rooted in insecurity and emanates from a deep-seated fear of failure, which is self-defeating. Some suggest that perfectionism is a form of self-abuse because achieving perfection is an impossible task. In its extreme, perfectionism can be seen in obsessive-compulsive behaviors, including constantly cleaning, checking, and double-checking to make sure everything is in its place. Perfectionists view their professional work as an extension of themselves and do not have clear boundaries between themselves and their career. As a result, they take setbacks and criticism personally, and can have difficulty with authentic self-disclosure on the off-chance they may reveal something akin to a flaw. Perfectionists do not acknowledge that humans are incapable of perfection.

Imagine looking for perfection when there is little or any of it to be found. This explains why perfectionists tend to be pessimistic. Their world is always a glass half-empty. Because of their need for exactness, they do not easily trust or work well with others. They can be critical and judgmental of the work of others. Secretly, they can take pleasure in the failure of others and use it to reinforce their own perfectionism. They can demonstrate excessive control needs, and, as managers, they tend to micromanage others.

Perfectionists epitomize the saying of people who “can’t see the forest for the trees.” The larger context escapes them because they get over-involved in the details. They see the hole in the doughnut, but miss the doughnut altogether. They often procrastinate starting work because of the enormity involved in making their work too exact or meticulous. They do not have internal monitors that keep them from reaching the point of diminishing return in completing their work. They can never settle for “good enough,” because all they can see is what is left undone. Even when they complete a work product, they are dissatisfied. They are constantly “moving the goalposts.” They can think that catastrophic things will occur in the event that they leave something out or make a mistake. In its extreme, perfectionism can be associated with illness, including depression and anorexia, and even suicide.

There is little about forms of perfectionism that is good for the individual or for the business. If you recognize these traits in yourself, here are ways for you to diminish your perfectionistic tendencies (and let yourself enjoy life more).

Join the Human Race

Acknowledge that humans are flawed and the rest of the world seems to live well enough with more lenient standards. Nobody is perfect. Engage in more positive self-talk:

  • All I can do is my best.
  • People will like me even if I make a mistake.
  • People will respect me completing work in a timely manner, rather than taking forever trying to do it perfectly.

This will help you combat the stringent set of internal negative demands you often hear.

Put Things in Perspective

Unless you really are a brain surgeon or rocket scientist, there is little negative consequence for a “good enough” outcome. Before embarking on a task, spend a few minutes thinking about the value of the task and the degree of work actually required. Ask yourself what level of imperfection you can tolerate. Calibrate your work effort to your new, more reasonable standard.

Practice Saying No

When you are requested to do something outside of your work domain, consider turning the work down. Determine what the real consequences are for saying “no.” It will not be as severe as you imagined.

Practice Grace

If you are managing others, become intentional about allowing them to complete work in their own way, without excessive oversight from you. Compliment their work product and you will probably find that they want to please you and take delight in your praise.

Reward Yourself

When you do something that demonstrates that you have reduced your level of perfectionism on a project, engage in something you really enjoy doing, such as being with friends, a nice meal, or some recreational activity. The good feeling of the reward can encourage you to manage your perfectionistic tendencies.

The path to managing perfectionism is not an easy one. It requires practice, patience, and being kind to yourself. The ultimate benefit derived from overcoming perfectionism is that you will have a happier and an even more successful life.

Executive Fitness: Is It Really That Important?

I had the unique opportunity to work with a project management team making a large, innovative addition to a power plant. Because the project included new technology to clean up emissions and was a joint venture with a foreign company, it received significant scrutiny from all parties involved. For the project management team, this was either the largest or most innovative project they had ever worked on. Under the pressure to perform and hit scheduling, quality, and financial targets, the project team faced high and constant levels of stress.

As my work with the project team continued into its fourth month, it became apparent that the team had unhealthy diets and poor exercise habits. With few exceptions, team members reported very low levels of physical activity with the common excuse of not having enough time or energy at the end of the day to work out. In addition, many of them believed they got sufficient exercise on-site during the day to fulfill any exercise regimen. I systematically poked holes in their excuses and, in the end, they all agreed that more exercise would be beneficial. I threw down the gauntlet and challenged them to work out daily over the next 30 days, and also agreed to complete the challenge myself. Each challenge participant had to either complete some form of workout or walk 10,000 steps a day, and all had apps on their smartphones to monitor their activity. I provided the team with a 30-day spreadsheet to track our progress, and our work began.

I wondered if my challenge would really help them cope with their stress or just add yet another task to their already busy schedules. The mood-boosting benefits of exercise were clear in the results of a research study conducted at Princeton University (Journal of Neuroscience, May 2014). The researchers found that, when people are stressed, exercise changes the part of the brain that regulates anxiety and calms excitatory circuits that lead to anxiety. Findings from other studies have determined that exercise increases the brain’s level of dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for a feeling of contentment. Finally, scientists at the University of Illinois (Nature, July 1999) found that exercise improves the brain’s ability to focus and concentrate and enhances overall brain cognition. Taken collectively, during a period of prolonged stress, exercise can help reduce anxiety and increase contentment, concentration, and focus. I was confident completing the challenge would pay off.

At the end of the 30-day challenge, our group convened to review how we did. Every team member had a positive experience and said they felt more productive and less stressed. Participating in the challenge made them more aware of the amount they exercised, which motivated them to increase their activity level. One team member increased how much he walked his dog each day and found that both he and his dog had lost weight! The project team noted other benefits, as well. Thanks to team members encouraging one another in their efforts, camaraderie and teamwork improved.

Study after study has demonstrated the health benefits of exercise. However, more emphasis should be given to the benefits of exercise during highly stressful periods of work life. In fact, because the responsibility of managing large projects and people is so critical to both business success and the well-being of those involved, managers and executives should maximize the tools available to them to perform at their best. Regular exercise is an essential part of optimizing health to better manage work life.

Making Decisions: Take This Principle to the Bank

When executives take too long to make important business decisions related to hiring, promoting, or terminating employees, I commonly hear them lament, “I should have done this a long time ago!” This sentiment is especially true when executives deliberate awhile when dealing with employees who have been underperforming or behaving poorly, in spite of the manager’s best efforts to help them change. After mangers decide to let an employee go, it is rarely the case that they look back and think the employee should have been given “one more chance.”

Whether a manager is bringing someone on board or letting them go, there is often regret that the decision was not made sooner. The experience of both relief and regret occurs when executive business decisions are finally made after exhaustive analysis and lengthy deliberation. In both instances, colleagues and employees who have seen executives finally take action say (or think), “It’s about time,” or “What took them so long?”

Why do executives seem to take so long to make decisions that often seem obvious to others? They are overlooking the most basic psychological principle that defines human behavior: The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. People are creatures of habit. The behaviors we demonstrate on a regular basis often originated in childhood and therefore are deeply ingrained in our identity and psyche. As a result, we are typically very predictable, particularly in the interpersonal world of work. Deeply ingrained patterns of behavior are what leaders fail to recognize when working with those closest to them. Such leaders’ relationship with, or investment in, the person or issue distorts their judgment and prevents them from taking action on a decision that seems obvious to everyone else.

In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell discusses another psychological principle called “thin-slicing.” Thin-slicing is the ability to make decisions and inferences based on only scant, but salient, information. This thin-slicing is really pattern recognition, which allows people to see patterns or regularities in data. Results from experiments have determined that judgments made on the basis of thin-slicing can be as accurate, or even more accurate, than those based on more in-depth information. This phenomenon can be explained by the fact that we have an internal history of similar situations or interactions to draw on when making quick judgments. Although these judgments may seem almost instantaneous, they are related to our past experiences. When executives “drag their feet” to make personnel decisions, it is often because they are allowing subsequent information about a person or situation to interfere with their ability to use their instincts or pattern recognition to come to a decision. In other words, they doubt themselves and their skills of perception.

Of course, other psychological issues can interfere with a manager’s ability to “pull the trigger” on either hiring or terminating employees, or making difficult decisions about the business. At all levels, managers tend to procrastinate when making difficult decisions or holding people accountable. Whether this stems from such managers being perfectionists, averse to risk, or cowardly, or from a desire to please others and be liked, the end result is always the same: Once a difficult decision has been made, they nearly always feel a sense of relief about having made the decision and an accompanying sense of regret that they did not make the decision sooner.

By adding thin-slicing to our management arsenal, we can become much more effective and timely decision-makers. Thin-slicing enables us to trust our instincts and recognize that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. The less internal data we use, the more likely we are to rationalize our indecisiveness; and the longer we wait to make difficult decisions, the less likely we are to trust our own judgment. By recognizing that our internal observations, intuitions, and emotions are important considerations, we can make decisions more quickly and with greater confidence than when we ignore them.

In summary, when faced with making a difficult business or personnel decision, remember to:

  1. Recognize the wisdom of your first impressions about the person or situation.
  2. Keep in mind that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.
  3. Make decisions, or have difficult conversations, sooner rather than later.

As more companies and employees work at a rapid pace and with an increasing sense of urgency, it is more important than ever to match the pace of your decision-making to the pace of your company. Is there a decision you have been delaying or rationalizing? You probably know exactly what to do. Go for it!

Leveraging Leadership: Effective Delegation

One of the country’s preeminent executive coaches, Marshall Goldsmith, wrote a book with a title that says it all: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Goldsmith insightfully describes that being in an executive management role is not simply “doing more of the same,” but is really making a step-wise difference in how you behave. Chief among these behavioral changes is moving away from doing things yourself to working through others to magnify your impact. In my work with executives who have successfully made this transition, they make a distinction between delegation as a means of simply getting more work “off of their plates” and delegation as a means of leveraging their particular leadership capabilities through others. This latter means of delegation affords them the mental space they require to think about broader company issues, while also enabling them to be intentional about developing their people. The most successful executives are intentional about simultaneously having a strategic impact regarding succession planning. They know how to increase the influence of their leadership through delegating for development and results. They make a major differentiation between simply redistributing work and using work assignments for growth opportunities. They are intentional about determining who should work on key assignments, who should represent their department on company initiatives, and who is willing to step up as opposed to being content with the status quo. In order to become intentional about successful leadership delegation, there are a couple of key areas to consider:

  • Ensuring Quality versus Simply Micro-managing: Executives who have risen in the organization have done so on the basis of their hard work, creativity, and, most importantly, their results. They are consistently competitive with themselves and push themselves to produce high-quality work that also pleases their managers and moves the organization forward. When they move into management ranks, they know they can trust their own work products but do not always trust the work products of others. This need to control is a common remnant of having been rewarded for their work and it creates a natural caution when allowing others to do the work for them. Will the work product be of as high a quality? Will the results be delivered on a timely basis? Will it all get done or will it only be partially completed? This inherent desire to be sure that the work product of their group is equal to what they would have done on their own is a natural, but misguided, tendency. If they do not overcome this tendency, either they will not delegate and end up doing the work themselves, or they will hover over those to whom they have delegated, inadvertently frustrating and undermining their employees. Such managers can create employees who are dependent followers who are unable to think for themselves, or they will experience an exodus of good employees who are more ambitious and creative. They will then wonder why they are left with a team that is only average as opposed to high-performing—a truly self-fulfilling prophecy!
  • Empowering versus Benign Neglect: At the other extreme, there are managers who are willing to delegate but unwilling to hold their employees accountable. Recent management theory has encouraged managers to “empower” their employees to work independently on company issues and initiatives. In my work interviewing executives, many are quick to acknowledge that they empower their people, indicating that they trust them. Unfortunately, their interpretation of empowerment often means benign neglect—the manager “throws the work over the fence” and their employees do, or do not do, the work with little or no guidance or oversight. This can also suggest that the manager lacks the discipline to ensure that the work is being completed, preferably in a timely manner and with a high-quality outcome. Employees of managers who are guilty of “empowerment by benign neglect” often complain of lacking direction and experiencing frustration that there is little distinction between good work and mediocre work being done. Employees begin to lose motivation and become subject to poorer productivity and lower morale. The lack of attention to the employees’ work and the lack of differentiation between good and mediocre work are all signs of managers who are too distant from their employees and often reluctant to have difficult conversations to hold employees accountable. Once again, the good and highly motivated employees leave and the mediocre employees stay behind.
  • The Leveraged Leader—Delegation as Development: Effective leaders recognize that to delegate effectively they must have a uniform process for all of their employees. Ensuring that the delegated work product will be of high quality, with a satisfactory amount of attention devoted to it, and completed in a timely manner is the sine qua non of delegation. Dr. Gerald Kraines of the Levinson Institute has coined a formula for effective delegation: QQT/R—Quality, Quantity, Timeliness/Resources. For all delegated work, the manager must specify expectations regarding the quality of the work, the amount of work to be completed (e.g., how much analysis is enough) and the expected timeliness of the work product. It is the manager’s responsibility to ensure that the employee has adequate resources to get the work completed. Equally important is that the manager follows up, holds people accountable for their work products and provides rewards, when appropriate. Once these expectations are put in place, managers must have a strong working knowledge of their teams in order to choose wisely to whom they will delegate and, most importantly, why. Delegation can be a tremendous opportunity for employee growth—to stretch an employee, to introduce an employee to a new area of work, or to test the skills of an employee. When managers take a longer-term view of their organizations and are intentional about the development of those on their team, they will be able to multiply their impact in the organization now and in the future. That is the true leverage a manager can have through becoming intentional in delegating work and responsibilities.

Clearly there is a balance between those times when the manager needs to be more involved in order to guarantee that the work is done according to specifications, and those times when the manager can adopt a more laissez-faire attitude. In both cases, the versatile leader will be intentional about the work he or she is delegating, why it is being delegated, to whom it is being delegated, and explicit about expectations (QQT/R). In addition, the leveraged manager will be consistent in holding employees accountable for their work while managing employee development and getting quality results. The ultimate objective is to multiply your impact on the organization through your people. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do you use delegation as a means to lighten your load or are you intentional about developing your employees through targeted assignments?
  2. Are you making the greatest impact in your organization through the development of your people?
  3. Are you matching employee needs with employee assignments?
  4. Are you applying the correct amount of attention relative to the criticalness of the issue and the capabilities of your employees?
  5. Are you seeing unexpected defections of key employees for opportunities elsewhere?
  6. Are you seeing more people request positions in your organization than you have openings (a sign that you are a leader who promotes employee development)?
  7. Are employees in your organization being sought out to participate in key assignments (a sign that they are being developed)?
  8. Are you devoting the time that you have gained through delegating to higher-level issues?

Paul Ryan’s Candidacy: Anatomy of a Negotiation

In the vacuum created by the resignation of John Boehner as Speaker of the House, Congressional Republicans have scrambled to find a replacement in a very contentious and divided Republican Party. At a time when the Republican Party’s decision-making is over-influenced by the so-called Freedom Caucus, a group of 38 (out of 435) Representatives who vote together in a unified but radical block, finding someone to both unite and represent the broader interests of the party (and the country) has been a challenge. The first candidate for the Speaker of the House position, Kevin McCarthy (R, CA), dropped out of consideration because he believed that he did not have the support of this group and did not want to risk just “squeaking by” if elected. In attempts to find a person who could represent the interests of the whole party, including this powerful splinter group, Paul Ryan (R, WI) was asked to consider being a candidate for the position.

Ryan’s initial response was that he preferred to remain where he was, as chairman of the powerful House Committee on Ways and Means, and he was not willing to be a candidate for the Speaker position. However, Ryan was asked to reconsider after McCarthy stepped aside. Regardless of your political persuasion, Ryan’s approach to ultimately accepting candidacy is a unique and dynamic view of executive negotiation.

Any time you are the pursued, and not the pursuer, you have greater negotiating power. How you use that power, the parameters of your demands, and the tolerance of the pursuer are the fodder of negotiation. During the negotiation process, there are typically three steps to getting what you want or walking away, as Paul Ryan demonstrated.


Ryan began the negotiation process by not showing any interest in the position. He did not “raise his hand” to embrace the opportunity. In fact, his response to Boehner’s announcement was rather nonchalant. This apparent indifference to seeking the position created a platform for Ryan to be in a stronger negotiating position than if he had sought out the position, as did Kevin McCarthy and Daniel Webster (R, FL). Ryan knew that, once you appear interested, you immediately reduce your ability to negotiate. Anyone who has ever bought a car can relate. Car salesmen know that the very fact that you have taken the energy to show up at the car dealership means you are interested. They have an advantage from the moment you say “hello.” Sociologist Willard Waller coined “The Principle of Least Interest” with reference to who has the power in such interpersonal relationships.

The second, and equally powerful, negotiating tactic used by Ryan was to respectfully decline to be a candidate when party colleagues initially approached him about doing so. This indifference by a seriously viable contender only heightens the intrigue of and interest in him or her. In Ryan’s case, this dynamic continued to strengthen his negotiating position. Finally, when party members kept urging him to be a candidate, he agreed that he would but only under certain circumstances, which was when the real negotiations began!


Going into any negotiation, there is usually some understanding that neither party will get everything it wants. Regardless of the specific desired outcomes, there are limits to what you will ultimately get or give away in order to consummate the deal. Of course, there is always the possibility that one or both parties will walk away, after which there is no negotiation. The area between these extremes is where the back-and-forth negotiation takes place—and involves your concession strategy.

In negotiating, the research is clear that the first one to make a move defines the parameters of the negotiation. This is called “setting the anchor” and is based on the work of Galinsky & Mussweiler (1). According to their research, when a negotiation takes place, whoever makes the first offer (the Anchor Point) obtains a better outcome than if he/she had waited to hear what the offer was. The Anchor should be aggressive but rational. Once Ryan determined that the Speaker’s position was one he would consider, he was quick to “set the anchor.” He determined his Target Point—his ideal outcome and aspiration. He also determined his Walk Away Point—the point at which those items critical to him would not being met. The details of the negotiation then began in earnest (2).

Ryan’s Target Point was that the Freedom Caucus would endorse him and that they would roll back a procedure allowing lawmakers to overthrow a sitting Speaker. Ryan knew that he needed to broker a truce between disgruntled conservatives and a GOP desperate for the unity needed to get the House back on track. After eight years of very low approval ratings, he knew that he needed to once again enable his colleagues to be relevant and moving forward. His Walk Away Point was that he would not be in Washington, D.C., on the weekends, as had previous Speakers, but would be spending the weekends in his home state of Wisconsin with his wife and three children. The enormity of the Speaker’s position has required that the Speaker work weekends to represent the party, broker deals, and generally be present in Washington. However, Ryan would not accept the position at the expense of his family. The area between the Target Point and the Walk Away Point was where there was room for concessions and compromise.


So how did Ryan fare with his concession strategy? The Freedom Caucus would not endorse him, but they did support his candidacy—a concession that was not given to Boehner. Ryan was then able to soften his position from eliminating the rule on overthrowing the Speaker to simply “changing” the rule. However, no one challenged his Walk Away Point and, for now, Ryan will be going to Wisconsin to see his family on the weekends. Thus, Ryan negotiated successfully the major concessions he was willing to make, while preserving that which was the most important to him—time to be with his family. At this point, it seems as if his candidacy is assured and that he will become the next Speaker of the House.

In summary, we have been able to witness the selection of the next Speaker of the House, a position that is third in line for the presidency! In the process, we have seen how someone at the executive level negotiates, compromises, and finally arrives at an arrangement agreeable to both the “buyer and the seller.” The process for effective negotiation includes:

  • Maintaining the right approach in the initial pursuit and not giving up power by appearing too anxious or needy.
  • Setting the parameters for negotiation by:
    1. Knowing ahead, and clarifying, your Target Point and your Walk Away Point.
    2. Setting the Anchor Point early
  • Leaving room for making concessions and always pushing for your goal without relinquishing what is most important to you.

By having a negotiation strategy in place prior to beginning, your chances for getting what you want are increased dramatically.

(1) Adam Galinsky & Thomas Mussweiler. “The Role of Perspective Taking and Negotiator Focus.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2001, Vol. 81. No. 4, 657-699

(2) Joe Hernandez. “Negotiation Mastery Cloudbook.”