“God, my team,” Jennifer told me. “I have to chew ‘em up and spit ‘em out before they do what I tell them.” She leaned across the table. “I really lit into Jack yesterday...and it worked!  He's been towing the line ever since.”  Jennifer sat back, triumphant.

With a hard-set face, crossed arms and boot-clad feet firm against the floor, she’s as tough as I expected. This is our first session, and thanks to conversations with her supervisor, I have a pretty good perspective on Jennifer’s “communication style” and bulldozing ways: screaming, swearing, badgering, name it, Jennifer does it.  And with pride.

Or so it seems.

Jennifer – like lots of managers – is blind to how her behavior impacts others. And while her crazy-making ways may work now and again, they have also created a culture of resentment, disrespect and resistance in her office.

As we talk more, however, I get a peek into Jennifer’s well-meaning heart: “I just want to do a good job,” she tells me, and I believe her. Defeat and frustration spreads across her face as tears emerge from gray-blue eyes. Despite the apparent bravado, her stress level is stratospheric and her ability to cope is collapsing.

“I get it,” I say with genuine empathy. She is as stuck as the employees who refuse to listen to her.

Like many managers with whom we work, Jennifer needs help developing adaptive skills. Unlike “hard” skills or job-specific skills, an adaptive manager has behaviors that demonstrate self-awareness, emotional agility, empathy and the ability to work well others.  It’s a huge part of what makes a leader successful but is often missed when people are promoted to management (this ties into the Peter’s Principle theory that employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence).

Adaptive skills are crucial and comprised of emotional and social competencies you learned by the time you were around 15 years old.  They include:  

  • How you relate to others and make people feel
  • How you understand and express yourself 
  • How you react and respond
  • How you receive feedback (e.g. do you punish people by being defensive?)
  • How you deal with anxiety
  • How you handle change

In the coming weeks, I’ll help Jennifer become more comfortable with these skills so she can get the best out of her well as herself.  


Learn more:

  1. Read The Currency of Encouragement to see adaptive skills in action.
  2. Watch Adaptive Leadership and Leading Change by Marty Linsky, adjunct lecture at Harvard.
  3. Check out Emotional Intelligence: Why it Matters More than IQ by Daniel Goleman.   

And click here to learn more about our leadership coaching and training.  

By Lynn Baldwin-Rhoades, NCI Consultant