From an Angry Bullying Person to Positively Progressing in His Relationships
by Rachel Schaming, Executive Coach, PCC
A well-known law firm referred a partner (Larry) to me. Over the previous couple of years, Larry’s conduct had devolved into a pattern of publicly humiliating chastisements – particularly towards young associates and support employees. Shaming, threatening, and instilling fear in others were dominant patterns in his conduct. Turnover in his department had reached an intolerable level. The law firm wanted significant changes in Larry’s conduct or his departure would be imminent.
The first thing Larry and I worked on was defining his personal and professional purpose and values – specifically around the impact he most wanted in his profession and his personal life. The principles included gathering data and information before acting; preparing versus blurting out a response or position on a matter; the importance of questions versus answers when engaging in dialog with others; understanding the needs, fears, and motivations of the audience; framing and setting the context when entering a dialog; and thinking through what he wanted as an outcome for these important conversations.
Larry quickly gained insight into the destructive path he was on. He became aware that drifting from his values was creating serious internal conflicts. His method of coping with the internal conflict was to attack others. He recognized his drive to control and manipulate his associates was to create fear in them. Larry realized he needed to resolve the conflicts in his work life. We worked on scripts to support him in preparing for upcoming pivotal conversations. Larry labored in preparing the scripts – particularly in recognizing his pattern of rationalizations. His main rationalization was, “All the partners treat the associates like this.”
My coaching centered on barriers Larry was creating by hanging on to his rationalizations. I asked him what he saw as consequences if he refused to change how he was approaching the challenges in his work life. Larry quickly recognized he needed to let go of his rationalizations. He was able to articulate that a consequence for hanging on to his rationalizations was to be released from the partnership. Further, he feared loss of client relationships, his community activities, and personal esteem. Larry needed support in how to identify rationalizations and the steps to navigate through them. Once this awareness dawned with Larry, he was able to catch himself before stating a rationalization.
Larry and I worked through the cringe moment conversations he needed to have with his associates. In preparing for the meeting with them, Larry expressed to me his embarrassment and contrition for his past bullying conduct. We discussed what he wanted to accomplish in the meeting. He stated he wanted to ask for forgiveness for his past conduct and he wanted to give his associates permission to confront him if he slipped.
Over a two-week period, Larry worked on his script and practiced with me. Larry was clear about the actions he wanted to take in meeting with the associates. He expressed concern that they might resist his apology and disbelieve his sincerity based on his history with them. He recognized he would need to gain their trust over time by his actions versus simply the words of his script. Larry recognized this was a long-term process versus a short-term, one-time conversation. Larry asked me to attend this meeting as an observer. Larry began each cringe moment conversation by thanking those present. In a voice choked with emotion, he said:
Over the past several weeks, I have been working with a coach to gain insight into my bullying conduct. At first, I was very angry that I was being asked to work on my conduct. I have come to know that my words and actions caused you and others great pain. I am sorry and ask your forgiveness.
The room was completely silent. There were tears. One by one each associate gave Larry a hug and expressed forgiveness. After the meeting Larry shared, “I have never felt more authentic and truer to myself as I do in this moment.” Larry recognized that while forgiveness was stated in the meeting with the associates, he would need to be mindful of his actions and words with the associates going forward.
How did he go from an angry, bullying person to one who felt great attrition and desired a different path forward? The process started with empathy and non-judgment from me, the coach. I also provided relevant data as to how Larry was being perceived. Initial conversations involved navigating Larry’s initial defensiveness, discomfort, and embarrassment. I used language that invited Larry to identify his values and inquired how he might use them in taking action. I asked, “If you were to act on your values – what would you say or do?”
At the eight-week mark in the coaching, Larry was demonstrating markedly improved conduct in his interactions with others. He reported relationships at work with his associates and partners was progressing positively. Larry was most proud of the shift in his relationships with his teenage children. When I asked him what led to the shifts, he replied, “I am consciously living my values.” He added that he makes it a point to ask others about their values and how he might be of support to them.
About Rachel Schaming, Executive Coach
Rachel specializes in supporting institutions, organizations, and leaders in preparing for and managing pivotal conversations, such as giving feedback on employee conduct issues, terminations, downsizing and layoff conversations.
Rachel is on a mission to preserve workplace relationships by making challenging conversations positive and respectful.