Globe & Mail, February 22, 2008
Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.
At a recent event, I struck up a conversation with a newly retired executive I'd met socially a few times in the past.
He looked at me blankly, so I assumed he didn't remember me. We talked stiffly about his work, where he lives and trips he has taken. And then, just as we were winding up, he said something that indicated he knew exactly who I was and where we had previously met.
It's not the first time I've had such an experience. Supercilious, aloof, self-satisfied, constipated and emotionally flat - these are all characteristics I've come across many times in certain people in organizations. Their behaviour can have a profound effect on work interactions.
People who demonstrate this kind of unwelcoming style are typically, but not always, men, and, regardless of gender, they are more likely to be older and in executive roles. They leave other people squirming in their midst, and can undermine their effectiveness.
For example, say you have a conversation with a co-worker or boss who is completely blank-faced, giving off no signals of how they are reacting to what you are saying.
If you're like many people sensitive to how others respond, you're likely to think the person disapproves of you or thinks you are stupid. That may make you feel uncomfortable or embarrassed, and you may find yourself blathering or withdrawing. Either way, you end up failing to have the conversation you set out to, your performance has been impaired, and everyone's work quality suffers.
I told a friend who is adept with words the story about meeting that man and sought a single phrase to capture his kind of style.
What would you call them? I asked.
"Arrogant assholes," she replied.
But are they really? Many long-time staffers say they adore that man. They may not have liked him at first, but when they got to know him, they say he was actually very nice.
That's a common comment about those who have this kind of interpersonal style. In fact, these people are giving off signals that aren't indicative of who they really are.
Many people who others initially experience as condescending jerks actually don't believe they are superior. Rather, their behaviour is often a result of underlying insecurities or social discomfort.
The psychological causes for their off-putting style vary. Some are actually introverts who withdraw because they feel awkward in social interactions. Unfortunately, others experience the reticence as criticism or condescension. They think: "He doesn't like my work, and that's why he is saying so little." Or, "He thinks he's better than me, or I'm not worth talking to."
These introverts may have started this trajectory of aloofness as gifted or self-conscious children. They were more sensitive and interpersonally clumsy; staying outside the group or saying little became a form of defensive self-protection that continued into adulthood.
Others are aggressive, insecure Type As, who define everything in terms of status. By holding their cards close to their chests and keeping others guessing about what they're thinking, they maintain the upper hand. They see interpersonal interactions as a competitive sport.
Whatever is behind it, an off-putting style is particularly prevalent among older men. Many had remote fathers they have modelled. Or they had critical, demanding parents who they pleased by being tough. They grew up at a time when expressing emotion, especially if you were a guy, was considered a sign of weakness. Equally unwelcome were showing all your cards or being too effusive.
An entire generation of men was shaped that way. The role model of the day was the rugged individualist, like Clint Eastwood, not today's tender-hearted hero, like Brad Pitt.
The corporation continued the socialization, quickly promoting people with this style. The reticence was equated with self-discipline, confidence and leadership, based on an underlying sports model of winning and losing. That's why so many of these constipated types can now be found at the top.
It's not just older male executives who exhibit a style that can make other people squirm. Many midlife women in the upper ranks also have it. These are the women often described as a bitch, queen bee, ball-breaker or mini-man.
Their journeys, however, were different. When these women started their corporate climb, the gold standard for success was male. To be taken seriously, they eschewed more feminine and welcoming behaviours in favour of more masculine ones.
In essence, these women modelled the men, controlling the expression of emotion, dampening effusiveness and avoiding the use of adjectives. Even as more women have risen to higher roles, some still believe they have to act like men to be successful. Witness Sen. Hillary Clinton's refusal to be featured in last month's Vogue, because, according to editor Anna Wintour, she thought she would look too "feminine."
Many such women struggled with being seen as too feminine, to avoid the epithet of soft and "mommsy," and not feminine enough, to avoid the epithet of ball-breaker.
Another reason for their remoteness was an underlying defensiveness. One client who has held several senior management jobs characterized the men who run her company as "bullies. She said she has cultivated a kind of detachment for two reasons - first, as a way to protect herself from what she described as the meanness at the management table, and second, because "if you display emotion, they think you're weak and they've won."
Detachment is still more prevalent among men. Women care more about being liked and making others feel good about themselves.
They are also quicker to pick up non-verbal cues. So when they pick up that others are feeling ill at ease, they change their behaviour to be more welcoming.
But not everyone is put off by those characteristics of stiffness. I got together with two clients a few weeks ago who report to the same executive. I've met her. She gives new meaning to the phrase Arctic wind.
One client, who is highly ambitious and task-focused, likes her. She says the work she does is challenging and she doesn't care whether her boss praises or is even warm to her.
The other describes her as a "cold witch." She said she goes home and cries every night.
Often, how we react to someone says as much about who we are as about who the other person is.
Competitive workers, for example, tend to project their own insecurities; they deduce information about who has the power from their interactions.
When they perceive someone as feeling superior, whether true or not, they turn into passive-aggressive mode.
In contrast, those who care more about being liked tend to withdraw from conversations where the other person seems so supercilious and cold.
Women are quicker to detect and be more affected by warmth and coldness. And they are also more sensitive to the use of adjectives. When the boss says, "This report was okay," as opposed to "Great summary," they are more likely to hear disapproval: "I didn't like this report."
Similarly, women place a higher value on making a human connection. An emotionally flat conversational pattern does the opposite -it shuts you down.
Which is exactly what happened to me when I talked to that man. Just like a woman, my initial reaction was to be self-conscious and ill-at-ease, and think that he somehow found me lacking. Then I got tougher and thought, "what a self-important jerk. He really is a nasty person."
Finally, I tried to justify his behaviour with the perspective that he might just be shy and an ill-at-ease mass of insecurities himself.
The truth? Who knows, but best to give people the benefit of the doubt.
WITHIN YOU, WITHOUT YOU
What's your problem?
As organizations place a higher premium on emotional intelligence, your behaviour may be interfering with your effectiveness. Here are some tips to make you more approachable:
How are you seen?
The image you project may be very different from what you feel inside. Although you may simply be shy, your reticence may be interpreted as arrogance. Similarly, you may think you are showing confidence by being self-contained, but others may see you as a condescending jerk.
Put others at ease
If you feel awkward in socially, find ways to relax and foster conversation: Smile, ask a question, make a personal comment.
You may think you're being matter-of-fact in your economy of expression, but it may not be heard that way. Adding colour to a conversation will give a better sense of what you are thinking, so they will not interpret your reticence as being judgmental.
Walk in their shoes
Think about how you would feel if you were on the receiving end of getting no feedback or being given cold responses.
Don't play games
Conversations are not about winning and losing, they are about exchanging information. Show appreciation for what others have to say.
Are you dealing with someone whose behaviour discombobulates you? Here are ways to better handle them:
What motivates them?
Don't presume that what you see is what you really get. They may, in fact, be shy or feeling insecure.
Look at your own feelings
Don't project your own insecurities or overinterpret someone else's behaviour or words. Take things at face value.
Avoid a power struggle
If you feel someone is indeed arrogant, take the high road.
When you're feeling uncomfortable and start to focus on your own feelings, you will undermine your effectiveness; focus instead on what is actually being said, not how it's making you feel.
Don't be cowed
You may be feeling intimidated by someone, whose intention is to throw you off kilter. Stay the course and communicate what you have to say.
Put them at ease
If someone's remoteness reflects their being introverted, make them feel comfortable by, for example, smiling or telling a joke.
Know when to walk away
If someone is genuinely nasty and enjoying making you squirm, cut them short.