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What to Do When a Rising Star's Team Can't Stand Him

To learn to play well with others, this corporate tyrant had to gain a “view from the balcony.”

a team of rowers

“John, I need your help.” Those were the first words out of my former colleague’s mouth. As the CFO of a $100 billion division of one of the world’s best-known tech companies, Susan explained that her team was struggling with Daniel, a key player responsible for tens of billions of dollars. He had the potential to be a rising star, but instead, he was on the verge of flaming out.

Daniel’s business prowess was undeniable, and he was great at managing up in the organization. Problem was, he wasn’t so great managing down or sideways. Leaders loved his dynamic get-things-done style and his razor-sharp business acumen. But his juniors were suffering under his command, intimidated by his loud and combative manner, his impatience with opposing points of view, and his disrespect of anyone who fell short of his standards.

It wasn’t just Daniel’s subordinates who felt this way. His peers felt it too. As one of his colleagues put it, “Working with Daniel is like a never-ending trip to the principal’s office.”

Daniel’s behavior had gotten so bad that his team members were jumping ship. If he didn’t clean up his act, Susan told me, his impressive career trajectory could well come to a screeching halt.

I arranged a meeting with Daniel and got to experience his hard-charging style firsthand. His booming voice and brassy declarations announced he was the one in control. But at the same time, I could tell there was much more to this guy. Beneath all this bluster, my instincts told me, was a man held captive by distorted beliefs about leadership in the workplace.

Throughout my 25 years in senior roles at Fortune 100 companies, and in my work as an executive coach, I’d seen this movie play out all too many times. I also knew from experience that if I could help him break out of his tough-guy shell and learn to live more authentically at work, he’d be much more effective.

Not Walking the Talk. To help Daniel more fully tap into his capabilities, I started by helping him dig into his core values – the things that mattered most to him. Oddly enough, deep relationships topped his list, even though he wasn’t remotely demonstrating that priority at work.

When I pointed out he wasn’t living at least one of his core values at work, he paused. After a moment of deep thought, he grudgingly admitted that his domineering style was alienating others, and making him feel “unfulfilled and at times super unhappy.” As the light bulbs began to flicker on, Daniel added “I value deep relationships, yet I’m having shallow and transactional relationships with others at work. That’s not what I want.”

Getting Vulnerable. Now that we were on the same page about the impact of Daniel’s behavior, I helped him understand that the foundation of healthy human interaction is connection. When people are connected, they trust each other more and collaborate better – which makes them more effective. Connecting with others requires putting yourself out there and being vulnerable – in other words, acknowledging your humanity.

To help Daniel experiment with being more vulnerable at work, I encouraged him to look for opportunities to admit he was uncertain or wrong about something, and just see what happened. At that, he suddenly got very quiet. He told me he felt it was too risky to show up as “anything but strong.” I knew this would be hard for him – but I asked him to trust me and try out my suggestion in some low-stakes situations. He agreed to give it a try.

The next time we met, he was brimming with excitement. He was amazed at the results of showing vulnerability. After a few little experiments making himself vulnerable, he told me, people started paying him compliments, telling him how much they appreciated his openness. His peers and team were taking notice, and they liked what they saw.

Curiosity. As we continued to work together, I introduced Daniel to the power of curiosity. I explained that curiosity is the flipside of a know-it-all mindset, and that being curious about others’ points of view is another powerful way to connect with them. When you express curiosity about others and their ideas, they feel your attention and consideration. They feel heard. Curiosity also demonstrates humility, because you can’t be genuinely curious if you think you know it all. In other words, being curious helps people feel heard, while demonstrating your willingness to learn from them, increasing your connection and accessibility. Daniel began experimenting with expressing curiosity and was just as delighted with the results as when he had tried being vulnerable.

View from the Balcony. Through his experiments, Daniel began to develop the ability to observe himself in social situations. I referred to this as seeing himself from the balcony – a phrase to describe the act of paying attention to your behavior in real time, as though watching yourself on stage from the balcony seats. It’s not an easy thing to do, but with a little practice most of us can learn to do it.

As Daniel became more mindful of his behavior, he began to think about how he wanted to appear in different social situations at work – then act on his positive intentions. Through 360-degree feedback interviews and surveys, we augmented Daniel’s growing self-awareness with others’ perceptions of his behavior, giving him more data points for his course correction.

Range. Over the course of our work together, Daniel learned his colleagues perceived him as having only “one speed” – loud, overbearing, and intimidating. Through my coaching, he learned to use a range of styles and modulate his manner, depending on the situation and the people with whom he was interacting. He came to understand that strength, mildness, bravery, sympathy, daring, determination, attentiveness, confidence, and a multitude of other attitudes and postures – not to mention loud voices and soothing tones – all have their time and season at work. As he later told me, “I learned to visualize my meetings beforehand, and consider how to purposefully act, using range as a powerful tool.”

Letting Go of Limiting Beliefs. Step by step, Daniel learned to let go of these limiting beliefs about his relationships with people at work:

  • “People can’t see me as being ‘soft’ or ‘weak’ – I need to be ‘strong’ at all times.”

  • “Delivering results matters more than anything else and will enable me to overcome my lack of emotional intelligence.”

  • “The ‘people/feeling’ stuff is not for me.”

  • “Work-related relationships are meant to be transactional, a means to an end. No need to forge deep relationships at work.”

Disaster Averted. A few months into our coaching engagement, I checked with Susan to see if she’d noticed any changes in Daniel. She excitedly reported that Daniel’s behavior had dramatically improved – along with his effectiveness. By applying the practices I taught him, Daniel was connecting with people like never before and his levels of collaboration reached new highs. He told me how much happier he was at work and at home. He also noted with relief that he no longer felt compelled to act like the “tough guy” all the time. Just a few months later, Daniel was tapped to take on new responsibilities at his company, continuing his high-growth career path.

If you’ve read this far, I bet you identify with Daniel. Or Susan. Or the folks around them. No matter where you see yourself in the picture, it’s very likely that someone needs to let go of some limiting beliefs. That said, you can only change yourself – so my question for you is this: what limiting beliefs are holding you back?

If your instinct is to answer, “I don’t have any problematic limiting beliefs,” well – that’s a problem right there. Maybe it’s time to get some insight from someone who can help, and gain your own “view from the balcony.”


Note: Some identifying details in this article have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

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