What’s the difference between disruptive and unpredictable leadership?

Donald_Trump_2015_BigHead“We have to be unpredictable.”

Donald Trump – USA President

Often in the media we hear about disruptive technology changing our lives and the workplace. For example, Uber disrupting the cosy taxi industry in Australia, or Amazon shaking up the retail industry. Disruptive technology is not new. Motor cars and the railways disrupted horse drawn transport.

Recently I was speaking to a good friend about his current work situation. Having known him for over 20 years I was disturbed to hear his normally positive and enthusiastic voice very subdued and hesitant. It was not a pleasant conversation. However, my friend’s story was different. The disrupter was not technology, but his unpredictable boss.

Unpredictable managers are not organisational psychopaths.  They are more easily identified. Although they may engage in manipulative behaviour behind the scenes, a large proportion of their behaviour is clearly visible to their work colleagues and subordinates.

Whilst some companies need to have disruptive leaders to provide positive direction and leadership to break out of their inertia or poor performance, unpredictable leadership is a different story.

The boss’s behaviour was unpredictable and disruptive in a negative way. Meetings were arranged that had no planned agenda, team members were ridiculed in meetings and the goal posts were often unclear and seemed to keep changing. This unpredictability created a lot of “noise” in the workplace. None of this was helpful as much time was wasted by team members as they struggled to work out how to navigate his leadership, whilst trying to predict what he wanted. It became clear that this was a strategy to hide his lack of understanding of the business or industry, lack or emotional intelligence, empathy and maturity under the guise of ‘keeping people on their toes’.

He was quoted as saying: “I like to keep my subordinates on their toes because just when they think they have got me figured out they realise they haven’t.”

Time was wasted as the team spent unnecessary hours dealing with the fallout of working in an unstable and unpredictable environment. The environment was one of uncertainty, fear and mistrust. This created a culture of unhelpful and destructive game playing. The best staff began leaving the company, profitability dropped and customer service suffered. His behaviour was both unpredictable and disruptive in a negative way. The opposite to this behaviour is having a consistent style and track record which people can learn to trust. In other words being authentic. This blog is worth reading. Authentic Leadership

The current US President, although a political disrupter to the established order, displays the characteristics of an unpredictable leader. His tweets and outbursts are unpredictable and often abusive whilst appearing to play games and gamble with the fates of others.

Dealing with an unpredictable manager is certainly a challenge as its exhausting both physically and mentally. This was how my friend was feeling. The previous feelings of safety and being part of a team under the previous management were now lost.

So how do you deal with unpredictable managers?

Here are some suggestions.

  1. Try and ignite empathy

This is a challenge when being faced daily with unreasonable behaviours. However, if you try to think about why the person is acting this way, it can be beneficial for you both. People bring all sorts of baggage from their past.  Whilst having empathy does not condone unreasonable behaviour, it can help in trying to manage the situation. I can remember being confronted with unacceptable behaviour from a manager. However, when I took into account that the person had suffered a recent family tragedy, it helped me deal with situation better by depersonalising the behaviour.

  1. Making a decision

The decision is whether you are able to remain in, or continue to tolerate the difficult situation.  Ask yourself some questions to clarify your options:

  1. Is it impacting adversely on my life?
  2. If so, how much?
  3. What can I control and what is outside of my control?
  4. Is there someone I can ask to help me?

For example, if the situation is affecting your health or personal relationships and you cannot control the situation you may decide to leave the organisation and/or seek professional assistance.

  1. What are your professional or personal boundaries?

Good employees and managers have clear boundaries, both personally and professionally. The recent issue regarding sexual harassment in the entertainment industry is a good example. Certain behaviour is unacceptable and if your professional and personal boundaries are breached then you probably should consider a plan to exit.

  1. Seek perspective

Often, we get emotionally involved in such situations so seeking an outside perspective can be an important step. When I was faced with unacceptable behaviour I sought out an outside advisor or mentor to try and take the emotion out of the situation. It however, took me some time to undertake this course of action. This was after much emotional anguish which was impacting on my family. I eventually left the organisation. It was liberating.

In concluding, it is essential that you seek out some clear thinking time.

Some suggestions include, take a walk around the block, visit the gym or make notes in a journal so you can reflect. Such actions help you from becoming overwhelmed and you can go through the suggested steps in dealing with your unpredictable and therefore disruptive manager.

As leaders, we all have all witnessed disruptive behaviour by others in managing people and organisations. The challenge is to recognise such behaviour and use them for positive outcomes that benefit others, rather through being unpredictable and derailing and decimating people and the organisation.

The decision is as always, how can I manage the current unsatisfactory situation to make it positive?

 

2 thoughts on “What’s the difference between disruptive and unpredictable leadership?

  1. Excellent post, David. Often I think unpredictable leaders aren’t even doing what yours is, ie ‘keeping people on their toes.’ In my experience it’s frequently acting on the spur of the moment, on gut instinct. I knew a Partner who was heading up a large corporate law firm and who was well known for agreeing with the last person who put a case to him. So maybe the first step for leaders is to reflect on their style and work out what it is and whether it’s appropriate.
    I do want to disagree with you one thing, though. I really think ‘authenticity’ has had its day. It’s not a helpful concept, not for leaders nor for anyone else for that matter. A much more helpful one is congruence – ie, acting appropriately for the situation. We are each of us many different parts – leader, team player, partner, parent, offspring, friend – and each requires us to bring out different aspects of our personality. That’s not inauthenticity, just a recognition that the board shorts don’t work at the Board Meeting and the Powerpoint doesn’t go down too well in the pub! (A client of mine in the musical instrument retail industry told me to stop wearing a suit when I went to see him.) Instead it’s a sensitivity to what works best in each different situation, in terms not just of effectiveness but of what puts others at ease and enables them to bring out the best parts of their selves in that situation.
    What my two points have in common: metacognition is the first step to better, more effective leadership.

    • Thank you Steve for your comments. I’m not sure that I agree with your comment about authenticity ‘having its day’. But that could be a matter of interpretation – by authentic I mean ‘not a fraud’ who portrays themselves as someone they are not. Yes and you should always be aware of the surrounding ‘environment’ and act accordingly (and ethically) – emotional intelligence? As for metacognition (awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes) it certainly has a place in being an effective leader. In regard to unpredictable leaders – this behaviour often hides personality disorders, insecurity, manipulative behaviour, narcism and incompetence.

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