The calls and emails come in like I’m a 911 operator.
“Our VP of Sales threw a stapler at our VP of Marketing.”
“Our CEO screamed at her assistant, who then quit. It’s the third time this year.”
“We have an executive who is a superstar, but he gets angry all the time. His team is walking on eggshells.”
I call leaders like this “screamers”—regardless of whether they are screaming, throwing, name-calling, or slamming doors. Officially this behavior is labeled “Excitable” and it’s one of the eleven derailers able to be identified using the Hogan Development Survey, which is popularly known as the Hogan Dark Side assessment.
How Emotional Outbursts Get Justified
The remarkable thing about “excitable” behaviors is that while they seem extreme and problematic to everyone around, the offending executive usually doesn’t see it as a problem. It’s a classic blind spot.
Take Elliot, for example. When I met him several years ago, he was a director of product management at a large pharmaceutical company. Higher-ups flagged his volatile nature, and HR had the task to correct it. At first, Elliot completely rejected the need for change.
“I thought I was supposed to be authentic? Isn’t that all the rage? Sure, I do scream at my team. But only when they deserve it. It’s emotional honesty, and you know what? It gets results. If they don’t want me screaming, they should stop screwing up.”
And to be fair to Elliot, his excitable nature likely led to his prior success. Initially, his emotion was probably viewed by those above as “passion”—a sign that he really cares, that he’s a fighter for the company and its goals.
The Difference Between Passion and Excitability
So how do you know if an executive might have a problem in this area? When has a leader strayed from just being excited, to being excitable? Ask yourself these questions:
Does the leader’s emotional expression improve or degrade team productivity?
Does the leader’s team have much higher rates of turnover than comparable teams?
Could the leader’s emotional expression be viewed as disrespectful to team members?
Does the leader’s emotional expression call into question their ability to make sound decisions in times of change or crisis?
While it was evident to others that Elliot would need to change to reach the next level in his career, it was only after Elliot better understood the negative impact of his angry outbursts that he agreed too.
The Impact of Volatile Behaviors at Work
When it comes to potential career-derailing behaviors, the impact needs to be understood across three groups:
Typically, we tend to modulate our emotions and behaviors most when we’re engaging with our manager, less when we’re around peers, and often not at all when we’re with our direct reports. If our boss sees our excitable outburst, they will undoubtedly view it for what it is, but probably won’t know how to address it.
If we have a reputation for excitability and volatility among peers, they will likely practice avoidance. Of course, peers are typically our rivals for upward mobility, so the more politically savvy ones will spread the word about our volatility or even look for ways to trigger it in front of our boss.
Sadly, it’s the direct reports who bear the brunt of our derailing behavior. Emotional volatility is the opposite of psychological safety, and reporting team members may suffer from disengagement, an unwillingness to share ideas or problems, or to take risks for fear of failure, and of course, are far more likely to resign. In extreme cases, team members may resort to legal action with claims of a hostile work environment.
5 Coaching Strategies
There are five steps for coaching a derailing behavior:
Self-Awareness and Motivation
Develop modulation strategies
Elliot’s self-awareness increased with the use of both a Hogan assessment and a 360-survey. His initial reluctance faded away once he realized that he genuinely had a reputation for emotional volatility, and people thought he lacked “executive presence” and couldn’t handle the pressure that would come with more responsibilities. He understood that his self-serving behavior was going to be a career limiter.
His motivation increased with coaching questions like:
How would you like to work for a person who had similar traits and behaviors?
Have you had previous feedback that you can be emotionally volatile? When? By whom?
Elliot came to understand that derailing behaviors often occur when negative feelings arise. These feelings can include stress, fear, hunger, and fatigue. We explored his previous outbursts:
What was going on at the time?
Who was involved?
How did your feelings change? How did they build before your outbursts?
Were there similar situations that didn’t trigger an emotional outburst? What was different about it?
Elliot created a list of modulation strategies including a morning review of meetings and deadlines that might elicit a strong emotional response, a “feeling your feelings” exercise at the beginning of potentially triggering events, mindfulness and breathing exercises, and even tactics to reduce general feelings of discomfort.
It can be helpful to think of modulation tactics as “if-then” contingencies:
If I miss lunch, I will eat a protein bar as soon as I realize it.
If I feel myself getting angry, I will do one cycle of box breathing.
If a team member produces sub-standard work, I will count to 10 and deliver effective feedback.
With a nod to Elliot’s frustration over his team’s performance, he was taught simple frameworks for giving effective feedback, including the BIG model (Behavior, Impact, Get Agreement).
To stay on track, Elliot created a simplified set of reminders using the start, stop, continue framework:
Start reviewing the calendar for hot spots, and self-monitor for frustration and anger.
Stop yelling, shouting, cursing, and other uncontrolled outbursts.
Continue showing passion; continue being excited (just not excitable).
Elliot’s use of modulation tactics wasn’t immediate, or perfect; they rarely are. However, there was a quick improvement, and while he ended up leaving his company about a year later, it was for a bigger role in another life science company, and his reputation was as a passionate leader, not a volatile leader.