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Is Your Boss Jekyll and Hyde?

July 5, 2011
Martin Vantacki, executive vice president of international operations, is personable and loyal to a fault.  He’s a guy that will defend you and stick by you through thick and thin.  Martin’s friends speak highly of him and can easily cite times when he has counseled them and helped them through some of life’s most difficult challenges.  Yet, at the same time, many other people will say that he is vindictive and out to silence anyone who opposes him.  This group of people can quote instances when Martin has seemingly turned on people who objected to his views.

How is it that people can have such polar opposite views of the same person?  Is Martin a loyal, honest, trustworthy leader or is he a vindictive tyrant?  The truth is Martin, and leaders like him, are fully both people.  If you support Martin and agree with his perspectives, then he subconsciously labels you a friend.  But if you disagree with Martin, then he subconsciously labels you a foe, and he will proactively attempt to move you out of his world.

This behavior generally, but not always, stems from an unhealthy need to be respected and in control.  In a nutshell, the Martin’s of the world are insecure and easily feel threatened.  Nothing will change until these individuals understand that their faulty perceptions are the problem.  In other words, “it’s them, not the rest of the world.”  Interestingly, this unproductive behavior is rarely triggered with superiors or people that Martin believes have power over him.  During these interactions, Martin says and does all the right things, contributing even more to the Jekyll and Hyde split perspective.  The victims are almost always subordinates or individuals from outside the organization that Martin perceives as threatening.

For example, one year ago during a meeting, Martin asked for input regarding a new product launch.  Of course, the veteran staff members had learned to either agree with Martin’s ideas or to offer somewhat innocuous advice in an agreeable fashion.  Unfortunately, Jennifer, a sharp new marketing professional came from a job where she was used to speaking up and offering her opinions.  Jennifer announced that she wanted to play ‘devil’s advocate’ and offer some challenging thoughts about why they may want to consider a new direction.

A secure, balanced leader might have responded with, “Jennifer, you make some valid points.  I don’t agree with everything you’re saying but your point about being first to market is a really good one.”  And then Jennifer would have a gold-star for the day, feeling tremendously valued and ready to contribute in the next meeting.  Martin barely heard what Jennifer said and took her challenge as disrespect.  He subconsciously labeled Jennifer a foe and proceeded to find only fault with her.  He slipped a negative ‘Jennifer filter’ over his brain and started assembling examples of her poor work performance. This example might seem unbelievable but it is happening everyday in organizations, with the same leader picking off the best and brightest rising stars.

The most surprising thing about people like Martin is that they are often completely unaware that any of this is happening.  They have perfected their ability to actually disassociate themselves with their dark side.

My advice to people that work for a Martin Vantacki is to either find another job or find a way to achieve a favorable label.  Both choices may be distasteful but you must know that there is little chance that you will change Martin’s behavior.  My advice for an organization employing a Martin Vantacki is to make a decision regarding the ROI for his or her total performance.  Some companies will tolerate this type of personality because of his or her overall strong client relationships, decision making ability and strategic focus.  Clearly there is a price to pay if he stays.  And finally, my advice for all of the Martin Vantacki’s out there is to control your behavior through awareness.  Notice that I did not say change your behavior.  Behavior change is much more unlikely than controlling the behavior that is non-productive. When this happens, you will still feel threatened from time to time, but you will see these threats as irrational, lessening their effect.

The goal is that—at some point—a brash, well-meaning subordinate will be able to object to Martin Vantacki’s perspective, with Martin honestly hearing the message instead of feeling a threat.  In fact, that would be a good goal for any of us.
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Kevin Klinvex Kevin Klinvex was a founding partner of Select International, acquired by PSI. He is a thought leader in organization-wide hiring and retention programs. His work focused on combining powerful testing and assessment tools with the best in web-based delivery and data tracking. Kevin co-authored the best-selling book, Hiring Great People.