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The Help Desk: the Science behind navigating human relationships at work

Office life can be a source of conflict and emotional pain no matter where you are on the career ladder. Alyson Meister uses the latest research to help tackle any problems you may face.


When the micro-manager is YOU

I’ve received the results from the 360° feedback survey, and I’ve been called a micro-manager by my direct reports. I’m shocked (and don’t necessarily agree) – do I have to address this? How?

One of the most difficult – yet developmental – aspects of 360° feedback is that it can shine a glaring light on our blindspots. Our natural tendency may be to react in a defensive (or even aggressive) manner, which blocks learning and growth. So, the first thing you should do if you’ve received uncomfortable feedback is: sit with it. Don’t do anything … yet. Instead, accept the feedback (even if you disagree) and have a good night’s sleep.

Next: reflect. Consider what might be true; think about how you manage your people on a day-to-day basis. What level of detail and oversight do you request? Consider what this kind of oversight gives you (a sense of security? control? trust?).

Then envision what leadership culture you want to create and role model. High-performing teams have leaders who empower members to use their strengths and take ownership of their responsibilities.

Finally: act. Leadership is a learned behavior, and bad habits can be unlearned. This involves experimenting with different leadership styles, which can change others’ perceptions of you. Have self-compassion as well.

Equity Leadership Program


The Star Performer is a Jerk

One of my direct reports is a star performer when it comes to meeting sales targets but is not at all a team player. This causes tensions on the team, and I am not sure what I should do.

While star performers might boost team results in the short term, if this comes at the cost of eroding your team’s overall engagement and culture, it can have disastrous long-term consequences. As Jack Welch, theformer Chairman and CEO of General Electric, observed, “CEOs can talk and blab all day about culture. But everyone knows who the jerks are.”

As the team’s leader, what you do makes a statement about the behavior you’re willing to accept. Addressing this starts with a difficult conversation: providing your star some tough feedback about how their behavior is received, and the impact this has on others. He or she might need help or development opportunities (for example, coaching or mentoring) to learn new ways of interacting. If nothing works, the impact of a few toxic individuals can drag down an entire business. Either find a more suitable role for this person or part ways.

You’re the ‘diversity hire’

I’ve been appointed to a senior management role, and as a woman (in a male-dominated industry), I have been told by two new colleagues that I was a “diversity hire”. This is really upsetting, what should I do?

The good news is that organizations are acknowledging their role in entrenching systemic bias and inequity and discovering the benefits of a diverse workforce. Comments like “you’re a diversity hire” can be micro-aggressions that imply that diversity and merit could never go hand-in-hand.

Such situations can only be addressed when organizations challenge their biased notions of merit and build a culture of inclusion. The onus is on your hiring manager to communicate why you are the best person for this role, and how others are to treat you. They might emphasize the culminated values of your skills and life experience, as well as how you reflect a broader group of partners, clients and stakeholders. Senior leaders with strong reputations can help to sing your praises.

You could try to educate your colleagues directly about your experience, and the harmful impact of this statement. In addition, finding and using ongoing support systems can help build your resilience through camaraderie. Finally secure some quick wins to gain credibility. However, watch out, minorities often work so hard to “prove” their worth that it results in burnout.


Alyson Meister - IMD Professor

Alyson Meister

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD

Alyson Meister is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior and Director of the Future Leaders program at IMD Business School. Specializing in the development of globally oriented, adaptive, and inclusive organizations, she has worked with executives, teams, and organizations from professional services to industrial goods and technology. She also serves as co-chair of One Mind at Work’s Scientific Advisory Committee, with a focus on advancing mental health in the workplace. Follow her on Twitter: @alymeister.


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