How to manage big egos and defensive leadership, according to ex-White House protocol officer

76% of employees have suffered under a toxic boss – here's how employers can stamp out defensive behaviour

How to manage big egos and defensive leadership, according to ex-White House protocol officer

If there’s one person who’s well versed in managing behaviours, it’s Shelby Scarbrough. A former White House officer, Scarbrough served as protocol visits lead, planning and executing the logistics for foreign visitors to the President of the United State, before branching out into a bevy of entrepreneurial works. Speaking to HRD, she warned against the dangers of big egos in the workplace – adding that if they’re left unchecked it can lead to unethical management.

“Excessive ego can be detrimental to leadership,” says Scarbrough. “A leader who’s overly self-focused may struggle with empathy and have difficulty building strong relationships with others. They may also be more likely to engage in potentially unethical or harmful behaviour in pursuit of their own interests. Through promoting civility and mindfulness of our attitudes and actions, we can work towards balancing the positive aspects of ego with humility and compassion. This ultimately sets a foundation for effective and ethical leadership.”

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Toxic leadership and egos have a way of ruining company culture, destroying morale, and causing complete productivity chaos. A recent report from Monster found that 76% of employees have suffered with a toxic boss, with the most repulsive traits cited as power-hungry (26%), micromanager (18%) and simply incompetent (17%). And while it’s natural that most leaders will have a bad day every now and then, it’s how they handle the stress that separates a poor manager from an inspirational one. Scarbrough’s made it a mission to stamp out egos and defensive behaviours in the workplace, all of which contribute to toxic leadership. The executive understands the tension and mental health issues that could stem from these management mishaps.

“Let's face it, defensive behaviour at work can be a real buzzkill,” she says. “Not only does it create tension and animosity among colleagues, but it can also negatively impact the overall work culture and attitude. Additionally, defensiveness often hinders civility in the workplace, as well as productive communication and collaboration. When I feel the need to go on the defense, I try to take a breath and consider how my actions may affect those around me. I ask myself will my response be honourable, humble, respectful? This small self-check helps me regain composure and not react in fight or flight mode.”

Scarbrough believes that in order to stamp out egos for good, HR leaders need to go further in safeguarding their culture – especially in remote work. Maintaining an authentic culture in the WFH era has presented quite the challenge for employers – with values tending to dilute in a hybrid setting. As such, it’s essential for employers to go the extra mile in pushing a culture of compassion and understanding, even in the face of extreme leadership burnout.

“As HR leaders, it’s important to create a culture of civility within the workplace,” says Scarbrough. “This means addressing and discouraging any behaviour that could be considered defensive. One way to spot this type of behaviour is by observing communication patterns. Is an employee consistently interrupting or speaking over others in meetings? Do they deflect feedback and refuse to take responsibility for their actions? These are red flags for defensive traits.

“It’s crucial to address this promptly and consistently to maintain a positive and productive work environment. Encouraging open and respectful communication can help mitigate such behaviours before they escalate. At the same time, providing employees with tools and resources for conflict resolution can also be beneficial in diffusing tense situations. Ultimately, stamping out defensive behaviour starts with setting a positive example and fostering a culture of respect.”

So how do you manage big egos at work, without upsetting your senior leadership team? Well, it all comes down to emotional intelligence. EI is a rare innate quality to have, and it can be even rarer in the C-suite. Don’t just assume that your leadership teams know how to practice emotional intelligence, or even recognize that their behaviour is becoming defensive – it’s HR’s role to teach them.

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“One way to teach emotional intelligence and compassionate behaviour is through creating a culture of civility,” says Scarbrough. “This means promoting respectful communication and conflict resolution skills, encouraging empathy, and understanding, and modelling compassionate behaviour ourselves. It also involves actively countering negative attitudes and behaviours, such as bullying or discrimination. By developing a culture of civility and compassion, we can foster positive relationships and create a more supportive and inclusive environment for everyone. Ultimately, this can lead to improved mental health and overall wellbeing for individuals and the workplace as a whole.

“The bottom line? Let's all make a conscious effort to leave our defenses at the door and embrace civility in the workplace. It'll make for a much more enjoyable and productive environment for all.”    

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