What To Do When Power Runs Amuck

Tracy Cocivera Blog

Every so often, I have a client who is working with someone they really, truly loathe. Naturally, we try to change the conversation so that it’s more productive and less antagonistic. But Sylvia was not in that frame of mind. She came to me with an email she wanted to send to her nemesis. Here’s an abridged version of what she came up with.

"Dear Jennifer,

Everybody hates you. No, I mean everybody really, really hates you.

When you first came to this hospital, with your star-studded reputation, we were all so excited to have you join the team. Only we didn’t realize there is no "team" in "Jennifer." From the outside, you continue to hit it out of the park and are lauded for your skill and knowledge. You are the darling of the Board, and the Foundation profiles you on a regular basis because of your star power.

But you know what? You’re not a solo act. You were put in this position to lead a surgical team, not climb on the backs of the team to get even further into the limelight.

We all know something your fans don’t know: You aren’t perfect and you don’t know everything. You have to start acknowledging our expertise and involving us in decisions and projects. You also have to find a way to work with other specialists and departments.

Your ego is getting in the way of your treatment of patients, and that’s where we have to take a stand.

Karma always pays back. The truth will out you and eventually you will get the heave-ho. Then, it's good luck to the next hospital who is crazy enough to take you on.

Best regards,


Was it cathartic? Of course! Was it constructive? Well, no, because she didn’t send it. She couldn’t possibly send it.

This isn’t an isolated situation; we see it in healthcare, finance and professional services. People who rise as individuals are often the very ones who fail when they have to collaborate, take advice and rely on expertise from others. Too often those “stars” refuse to admit they don’t know what they don’t know and instead will bully their teams into approaches that are just plain wrong. When those approaches fail, they quickly find someone to throw under the bus and never admit their part in choosing poorly.

Is this sounding familiar?

It’s also true that those who rise quickly focus on the skills and expertise required to succeed but often don’t spend much time on the soft skills, which would help them transition to leading a team. And the collateral damage is immense. As an aside, I often wonder if they even want to lead a team or prefer to get ahead alone.

What does this mean for Sylvia, who has to work with Jennifer every day? Because she can’t send the email airing her grievances, what can she do to navigate and not get herself flattened in the process?

 In our coaching session, we explored various options that ranged from having a respectfully direct conversation with Jennifer about her impact, using her own power and influence differently in dealings with Jennifer or leveraging other stakeholders whom Jennifer would listen to in order to change how they interact. As we brainstormed the options, we also identified the potential benefits and risks with each option.

In the end, Sylvia decided to enlist some help from other stakeholders whom Jennifer respected. She had tried some of the other approaches in the past and had made no progress. Sylvia delicately shared her experiences with Jennifer with the chief operating officer, who was highly regarded and influential at the hospital.

In their discussion, it became evident that the COO had heard similar feedback about Jennifer from other staff. At the end of their conversation, they both determined the best plan forward would be for the COO to have a conversation with Jennifer about her leadership style. Sylvia came away from the conversation relieved and optimistic, but nervous about any potential repercussions.

The COO had her conversation with Jennifer who agreed to engage in coaching to change her leadership style and unproductive behaviors. Over the next several months, Sylvia experienced positive shifts in how Jennifer interacted with her and, slowly, their relationship started to improve.

To have people want to follow you and work with you, not just survive you, you must invest in your relationships and ensure you are a leader worth following. People are motivated when you treat them with respect, hear their input and make them feel valued. And if the leader not worth following is not willing to shift their behavior, then as a leader yourself, how do you want to step up and change your relationship with them?

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