Disruptive leaders may like to move fast and break things, but working for them takes an extra level of tact and strategy.
Casting oneself as a disruptive leader is in vogue these days, suggesting a bold, take-no-prisoners management style that ignites new trends and crushes competitors.
Disruptive bosses can be charming and charismatic. More than 35% of this year’s college grads want to work for an inspiring leader, and 16% hope to sign on with a fast-growing, entrepreneurial company, according to a recent survey of 53,237 students by Universum, an employer-branding research and consulting firm.
“The term ‘disrupter’ has become sexy—a résumé-boosting point,” says Nancy Halpern, a New York leadership-development consultant.
But some disruptive bosses have a dark side—a tendency to discourage collaboration, quash dissent and bury people under one absurd deadline after another. How do you avoid being crushed when you work for a speeding train?
Disruptive leaders can be inspiring or destructive. Michelle Quinn Smith has worked for both kinds. A past supervisor, a senior executive at a biotech firm, was visionary, innovative and fiercely competitive without being overbearing. She motivated and inspired employees, and was open to dissenting views, says Ms. Smith, a senior director of human resources at a Cambridge, Mass., scientific venture-capital firm. “I remember her saying, ‘I’m not successful unless everyone on my team is successful,’ ” she says.
Ms. Smith later worked for an executive who was equally competitive and innovative, but she was also self-absorbed and controlling. When Ms. Smith asked her during a staff conference call to explain one of her decisions, the executive acted as if Ms. Smith was challenging her authority and refused to speak to her for a long time afterward. “It was as if there was an invisible force field around her. If you bumped into it, you’d say, ‘Oh, that was painful. I didn’t see that coming,’ ” Ms. Smith says.
Disruptive leaders often have strengths that appeal to hiring managers and boards of directors, says Scott Gregory, CEO of Hogan Assessments, a leading maker of workplace personality tests. Many are able to promise big things and make them happen. They show drive, ambition and persistence in the face of challenges. “These kinds of characters have a seductive quality,” he says.
Their self-confidence sometimes veers into arrogance, however. And the same characteristics that make them appealing also prevent them from collaborating smoothly with others. “They’re not team leaders. They’re big, bold, individual performers,” Dr. Gregory says.
Dan Kurber’s leader at a previous employer was skilled at implementing new ideas. The executive was so intensely focused on increasing revenue, however, that employees went on high alert at the least downtick in sales data, says Mr. Kurber, a Wisconsin human-resources executive. The executive was also dominant and short-tempered, making subordinates reluctant to voice dissent or speak up in meetings.
Dana Brownlee calls such managers tornado bosses because of their destructive impact. They may be in such a rush to make a decision that they interrupt and intimidate subordinates, communicating a lack of trust, she says. “In the meeting everybody nods and smiles. They don’t want to invoke the ire of the boss,” says Ms. Brownlee of Atlanta, a corporate trainer and author of “The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up.” Not until after the meeting do employees say what they really think, she says.
In leading a charge, tornado bosses may focus so single-mindedly on one objective that they neglect other needs, Ms. Halpern says. An executive at one company she has worked with was promoted because he always hit his revenue targets, she says. In his determination to reach his goals, he often neglected the needs of his team. “He would yell at people, harass people and confuse people,” she says. “But he always met his numbers.”
That approach can be especially tough on employees who take a systematic, detail-oriented approach to their work.
Morale among all employees tends to fall, Ms. Halpern says. “There’s no psychological safety.”
Growing awareness of such issues is raising questions about disruptive leadership, even in Silicon Valley, where wildly successful startups made the “move fast and break things” mantra famous. An internal study by human-resource managers at Google in 2015 found the most important attribute of productive teams is psychological safety. For teams to reach their full potential, members must be able to take risks without feeling insecure or fearing that colleagues will embarrass them, researchers found.
Entrepreneurial leaders are taking note. Many founders of startups in Union Square Ventures’s portfolio are practicing being more open and vulnerable with employees in describing their mistakes and shortcomings, says Bethany Crystal, general manager of the venture fund’s network, which helps startups collaborate on building strong businesses and workplace cultures.
To work smoothly with a tornado boss, figure out whether you have complementary skills and fill in where the manager is weak, Dr. Gregory says. Understand your own hot buttons well enough to keep him or her from triggering an angry or defensive response.
Tornado bosses might say they welcome feedback, but tend to trounce anyone who offers any, Ms. Brownlee says. Talk privately with colleagues before offering suggestions to learn the manager’s preferences.
A diplomatic way to take part in decision-making is to affirm the boss’s ideas first, then point out potential obstacles, says Achim Nowak, an executive coach and author in Hollywood, Fla. Say, “I’m not disagreeing. I want this to be successful, so let’s be sure we consider these things,” he says. And don’t take any blowback personally.
If a dominating boss becomes too oppressive, Mr. Kurber says, consider advice he received from a trusted mentor: “Is the cost of staying greater than the risk of leaving?”
Working With a Tornado Boss? Try This:
* Cultivate an ability to change course quickly.
* Ask the boss for help prioritizing projects to avoid overload.
* Don’t take your manager’s impulsive or overbearing behavior personally.
* Use your skills to complement the boss’s strengths.
* Learn from the disrupter’s positive traits, such as social confidence and persistence.
* Know your own hot buttons to avoid reacting defensively.
* Ask colleagues for advice before offering the boss feedback.