I was in my mid-20s, interviewing a candidate to be my assistant. She would be my first, and I had yet to develop my interviewing skills. I welcomed her into my office and asked her the first of a series of prepared questions. She answered the first question and then stared at me sideways. As I continued, this behavior became more pronounced. I felt as if she was angry at me or that she was daring me to disagree with her.
However, despite her aggressive posture, her answers were good. Most importantly, she appeared to be well organized, a trait that I sorely needed.
She performed her job well, but others avoided her. They were afraid to ask her for help, and soon, all the things I hoped she would handle were routed through me. Furthermore, she created tension whenever people gathered for lunch or to celebrate an event. Finally, my boss confronted me about her impact on the culture, and I knew she had to go.
This experience was my first hire and encounter with how a minor derailer (aggression) can create major organizational problems.
Minor vs. Major Derailers
A minor derailer is a character issue that can be managed or changed through the individual’s coaching, therapy, or focus efforts of the individual. A major derailer is much more difficult to change. Psybil® measures two major derailers and six minor ones. The Major derailers are self-deception and misanthropy (bullies). People with these major derailers either do not see the need to change or lack the desire. The minor derailers create discomfort, which inspires the investment in change.
Note: Psychologists use the terms ego-syntonic and ego-dystonic to describe these conditions. Syntonic refers to character issues that facilitate someone’s ego or identity. Dystonic means the character issue negatively aligns with their ego and makes them uncomfortable.
Do Minor Character Issues Create Major Organizational Issues?
The short answer is yes. Minor derailers often breed a toxic culture within teams and between coworkers.
In the latest round of development for Psybil, we asked our clients what was missing. These conversations led to the development of eight new scales. Six of these scales measure minor derailers:
At moderate levels, this characteristic adds perspective and creativity to the organization. At extremely low levels, this characteristic fails to add another perspective and predicts change aversion. At the extreme high end, enforcing compliance or instituting organizational norms becomes a battle.
At moderate levels, this characteristic is assertive and is a key indicator of leadership. At extremely low levels, this characteristic is a pushover and easily taken advantage of. At the extreme high end, it predicts anger outbursts and loss of composure.
At moderate levels, this characteristic reflects healthy empathy levels and is a core characteristic of social intelligence. At extremely low levels, it reflects the difficulty in creating genuine emotional connections with others. At extremely high levels, it reveals high emotionality and predicts that emotions are often overwhelming.
At moderate levels, this reflects an easy-going countenance. At extremely low, this reflects contentiousness. At extremely high levels, it reveals a desire to sacrifice progress and creative conflicts for harmony.
At moderate levels, this reflects detail orientation and a drive for excellence. At extremely low, this reflects sloppy work and a penchant for shortcuts. At extremely high, it reflects an anxious reaction to achieve an unrealistic standard and correlates with low productivity.
At moderate levels, it predicts a high level of productivity. At extremely low levels, it reflects regular fatigue and low productivity. At extremely high levels, it predicts a lack of focus and hyperactivity
What Our Clients Are Saying About Employees with These Minor Derailers
The following are first-hand accounts of extreme scorers and their impact on their organizations. These comments reflect similar accounts from other leaders that I left out in favor of concision.
“When I interviewed him, he seemed slightly eccentric, but his resume was solid. A month after he started, we had an important client event where we planned to introduce him. He showed up in an untucked Hawaiian shirt and plaid sports jacket. At the cocktail hour, I overheard someone refer to him as a clown and wondered if he was part of a gag. He quit when we told him we were postponing his introduction and why.”
In this case, the unconventional employee had a stronger need to express his unique identity than support the organization. Highly unconventional employees are iconoclasts and almost always prioritize their ego over the organization’s success. They struggle to understand others with more conventional perspectives and may judge them for not “thinking for themselves.”
Impact of Highly Unconventional People On The Organization
An informal survey revealed the following organizational impacts of extremely unconventional people.
- Disruption and Resistance: Iconoclasts often disrupt established processes, routines, and hierarchies, creating conflict and tension with those who are more comfortable with the existing ways of doing things.
- Lack of Cohesion: Because iconoclasts pursue their unconventional ideas without considering the organization’s goals, it is the equivalent of one rower pulling the boat in a different direction than the rest of the team. This slows down progress and causes the others to adjust constantly.
- Inefficient Resource Allocation: For every good “out of the box idea,” many more are not feasible. This is because they are not considering the organization’s needs when generating ideas. Therefore, these ideas divert resources away from more viable initiatives.
- Poor Risk Management: Iconoclasts often take bigger risks pursuing their unconventional ideas. When these risks fail, they impact the organization’s reputation, financial stability, and employee morale.
- Communication Challenges: Iconoclasts struggle to communicate their ideas to more traditional team members. The result is frustration from both sides and poor execution.
- Alienation of Stakeholders: When their ideas are too out of alignment with the organization’s mission and values, it often alienates customers, employees, and investors.
- Burnout and Exhaustion: Iconoclasts’ relentless pursuit of unconventional ideas exhausts other team members.
- Loss of Focus: When an organization falls for every clever, unconventional idea, it might lose focus on its core objectives and strategies. This scattered approach leads to inefficiencies.
- Erosion of Trust in Their Capabilities: Team members become skeptical of their ideas and motives when iconoclasts repeatedly introduce strange ideas that fail. Highly rational coworkers doubt them when they challenge conventional wisdom without data and become skeptical of their ideas and motives.
“Initially, I loved her passion, which seemed to drive her to get shit done. Soon, she earned the nickname “Little General” because she bulldozed obstacles quicker than anyone I had ever seen. One day, I heard her screaming at someone on her team, and the next day, that employee resigned and gave a scathing review of her during her exit interview. After a month, half her team was gone, so we hired a coach. It seemed to work for about six months, but then the magic wore off.”
For some, aggression is a technique they turn off and on when useful. It is easy to predict when these people are going to be angry. For others, poor anger control drives their behavior, and they are unpredictable. Others around them feel like they are walking on eggshells, and the unpredictability creates high anxiety.
Impact of Aggressive People On the Organization
Whereas highly unconventional members have a variety of impacts, almost everyone we spoke with about the impact of anger referred to toxicity. When asked to elaborate, two primary issues arose. The first was a culture of fear where people avoided sharing their ideas. The second was a tense atmosphere that triggered their best employees to seek other jobs. One CHRO told me that the poor employees stay and put up with the abuse because they don’t believe they have other options; the good ones leave quickly because they likely already had a headhunter calling them. When the good ones leave, it inspires the other good ones to follow. The result is a reduction in overall work quality and productivity.
“_____’s emotions were an incredible time suck. She would derail meetings with sob stories rarely relevant to our business. One week, I calculated that she was in my office for three hours crying about one thing or another. The worst thing is that if I try to refocus on the task at hand, I look like a jerk while she sniffles through the rest of the meeting.”
Sentimentality is part of our genetic wiring. Some people develop techniques to manage their feelings and express them appropriately. For those with poor emotional control, their emotions are so compelling, they precede the organization’s purpose. Furthermore, they assume everyone else would experience the same thing if they knew the truth. As a result, work is treated as a therapy session.
Impact of Highly Sensitive People On the Organization
- Stress and Burnout: Highly emotionally sensitive individuals can be more prone to experiencing stress and burnout due to heightened emotional responses. This can lead to decreased productivity, absenteeism, and difficulty managing their workload.
- Conflict and Communication Challenges: Sensitive individuals might struggle with handling disagreements or conflicts professionally. They might take criticism personally or need help expressing their opinions without becoming emotionally overwhelmed. This can hinder effective communication and collaboration within teams.
- Overreaction to Changes: Changes within an organization are inevitable, but emotionally sensitive individuals might struggle to adapt. Their strong emotional reactions can lead to resistance or difficulty accepting new policies, procedures, or leadership directions.
- Impact on Decision-Making: Emotionally sensitive people might struggle with making objective decisions, as their emotions can cloud their judgment. They might make decisions based on their feelings rather than rational analysis, potentially leading to less effective choices.
- Decreased Resilience: In high-pressure situations, emotionally sensitive individuals might have difficulty maintaining their composure and resilience. This can lead to decreased performance during critical moments or crises.
- Negative Team Dynamics: If not managed properly, the emotional sensitivity of one individual can affect the entire team. Conflict between team members and misunderstandings can arise if colleagues need to understand or account for the emotional needs of their sensitive peers.
- Drain on Management and Resources: Supervisors and managers might need to invest extra time and effort in supporting emotionally sensitive employees, which could divert resources and attention from other important tasks.
- Perceived as Overly Dramatic: In some cases, highly emotionally sensitive individuals might be perceived as overly dramatic or attention-seeking, affecting their professional reputation and relationships with colleagues.
“He is just too f-ing nice. Promoting him was a disaster. Every decision is determined by the last person he spoke to and how happy it would make them. No one takes his leadership seriously.”
Extreme Amicability is fear disguised as nice. Initially, people with very high amicability seem genuinely interested in our ideas. However, their goal is not to incorporate our ideas into the plan or to solve our problems. Their true motive is to minimize their discomfort.
Impact on the Organization
The people we interviewed had much to say about highly amicable leaders. I tried to condense them into the following:
- Poor decision-making: Overly amicable leaders may need help to make difficult decisions, leading to indecision or delays.
- Lack of Accountability: Highly amicable leaders might struggle to hold team members accountable because they do not enforce boundaries.
- Conflict Avoidance: Highly amicable people avoid confronting conflicts or addressing issues directly, leading to unresolved tensions and problems that can escalate over time.
- Ineffective Feedback: Highly amicable leaders sugarcoat or avoid feedback, so employees rarely know where they stand.
- Undermining Authority: When leaders prioritize being liked over asserting their authority, they can unintentionally undermine their credibility and effectiveness.
- Stifling Innovation: An overly amicable leader often hesitates to challenge the status quo, especially if they fear that doing so might upset others.
“It’s so bad we turned his name into a verb. Whenever someone _____ ed it. It means they missed the deadline by making numerous unnecessary revisions that had the net effect of making the document worse.”
At its core, anxiety and a need to control generates perfectionism. At some point in their life, they received praise for managing their anxiety through perfectionism. However, their energy has diminishing returns as they edge closer to perfecting things. The repeated attempts to reach perfection often have the opposite effect, creating more anxiety. It’s important to note that there’s a distinction between striving for high-quality work and pursuing perfectionism to an unhealthy extent.
Impact on the Organization
- Decreased Productivity: Perfectionists spend excessive time on tasks to make them flawless, leading to delays and reduced overall productivity.
- High-Stress Levels: Perfectionists often experience additional stress and anxiety due to their unrealistically high standards. This stress is contagious and increases others’ stress levels.
- Limited Innovation: Perfectionists tend to fear making mistakes or failing. This fear can stifle creativity and innovation as employees may hesitate to take risks or propose new ideas for fear of failing to meet impossibly high standards.
- Lack of Agility: A perfectionist mindset can make adapting to changes or unexpected challenges difficult.
- Micromanagement: Perfectionists might micromanage to ensure that employees complete tasks perfectly. This behavior can erode trust within the team, limit autonomy, and hinder employees’ professional development.
- Interpersonal Tension: Perfectionists may set unrealistic expectations for others, leading to strained relationships within the team. Team members may feel demotivated or resentful when they perceive their efforts are not meeting standards.
“When he said that his wife calls him the Energizer Bunny, I had no idea what I was getting into. Unfocused random emails would hit my inbox after midnight. I thought that guy was on drugs, but he didn’t even drink. Then I saw it for myself… we were at a corporate retreat. Dinner and drinks wrapped up by 10:30, and he was ready to go out. He convinced some of the younger members to hit a whiskey bar nearby. The crazy part was that he was fresh as a daisy the next morning, but the two he took with him looked like they had been run over… the bad thing about working with him was that all the gains we made with his productivity were lost trying to get him to focus.”
Energy is a crucial component to success at every level, and this is especially true of executives. Those who also experience difficulty with attention have learned to harness their energy and focus their efforts. For those who have not learned to focus, they are exhausting for everyone else and create chaos.
Impact on the Organization
Most of the people I spoke to about high energy levels were very energetic, so they struggled to identify the downside. Many agreed that they created confusion among their direct reports. Some realized that they set a difficult standard for others to follow. One realized that sending emails late at night or during the weekend made others believe they had to monitor their communication channels constantly and rarely took the time needed to recharge.
When alone, a minor derailer is just annoying. When paired with its nemesis derailer, the toxicity accelerates.
Aggression vs. Sentimentality
As in my initial example, when someone is high on sentimentality, they are extra sensitive to people with high aggression. The tension in response to anger is felt more deeply by the highly sentimental coworkers. As a result, they feel more anxious and are less able to focus on the task at hand. They are also more likely to cry when they are the target of another’s anger outburst. It also takes them longer to recover from their heightened agitation.
Aggressive coworkers perceive themselves as more powerful and may be bullies. When sentimental coworkers cry or react strongly to anger, the aggressive coworker may feel remorse but always perceive the sentimental ones as weak. When the aggressive coworker is also a bully, the sentimental ones become targets.
This relationship dynamic is well represented by the Karpman Drama Triangle, a model that describes the interaction between persecutors (aggressive coworkers), victims (sentimental coworkers), and rescuers. Ironically, some aggressive people are also sensitive, and they shift positions on the triangle. The rescuer may not have any of the derailer characteristics, but their time is lost as they are regularly pulled into the dynamic and to resolve the tension.
Energetic vs. Perfectionism
Energetic people’s failure to manage details irritates perfectionists, especially when they lose focus or miss details. As the perfectionist focuses on the minutiae to achieve a more perfect result, the frenetic activity of the energetic coworker is highly distracting.
The energetic perceive the perfectionist as slow and unproductive. They often fail to see the perfectionist’s time investment in making things better. In many cases, the energetic coworker values productivity over excellence, and these values clash.
Unconventional vs. Amicable
Unconventional people love to rock the boat, which is the opposite of the stability goals of the highly amicable. An unconventional professor of mine once said that maintaining the status quo is spiriticide (a word he made up to suggest it killed the spirit). Therefore, unconventional people invest much energy in being iconoclasts by disrupting the status quo.
Amicable people are committed to keeping the peace. They are naturally easygoing and often uncomfortable with the disruption the unconventional coworkers thrive on. They find that the status quo is the state that creates the least disruption, so work hard to maintain it. However, their style is more passive than assertive, and may not take on their unconventional coworkers directly. When the dynamic is fully active, amicable people are likelier to quit unexpectedly than their coworkers. David Kantor, in his description of the survivor’s heroic mode, captures their response perfectly:
When the dark side emerges, they abandon their emotional links to the situation, in effect turning to stone to avoid feeling pain and ambiguity. In the process, they leave critical issues unaddressed… When emotions start to dominate, they tacitly abandon the group. Dance of Change pg. 267
Appendix: Additional Derailer Scales
The six new minor derailer scales are added to the derailers from the original Suitability Indicator. Those derailers include:
- Need for Acceptance- This scale measures the need for others’ acceptance and affection to maintain their ego functioning.
- Cynicism- This scale measures the level of trust and a belief that people are self centered.
- Need for Recognition- This scale measures the need for successes and contributions to be recognized by others.
- Stress Tolerance- This scale measures current anxiety levels and the ability to tolerate high stress.
- Controlling- This measures the drive to micromanage others and control their actions.
- Ego Drive- This measures arrogance and a need to be treated as special.
- Flattery and Charm- This scale measures over-reliance on disingenuous compliments to manipulate others.
- Victim Stance- This scale measures the belief that others are responsible for misfortune and lack of success.
- Rigid Rule Following- This scale measures the rigid compliance with rules and guidelines.
- Material Focus- This scale measures the need for material items and money to feel satisfied.
- Poor Cognitive Flexibility- This measures the struggle to shift perspective and change opinions in the face of new evidence.