Dealing with aggressive senior managers

When presenting recommendations to aggressive senior managers, some can be quick to give their agreement, some can be non-committal, and some can be overly challenging and aggressive. Being aggressively challenged by a senior manager can be a highly uncomfortable, disconcerting and demotivating experience, particularly if it happens in front of others – one that can be tough to handle at the time and can leave us cold afterwards.

Walking in their shoes

Senior managers might challenge you for a number of reasons. At its most benign, you might have just caught a senior manager at a bad time when they are excessively under pressure, over-stretched or tired after a tough day. Or it might be for more positive reasons, for example they want to test the recommendations to ensure that there are no downsides and that they have been well thought through. However, in some circumstances it might be for more Machiavellian reasons, such as a desire to make a project or set of recommendations go away. When under attack, it is important to be simultaneously firm, by confidently holding one’s ground – yet empathetic, by listening to their questions and concerns with the aim of understanding what is really concerning them and negotiating a win-win solution. Below is a technique that I call “Shoot Me in the Heart” that has helped me to hold my ground when aggressively challenged by a senior manager who wanted to make the project I was working on go away.

“Shoot Me in the Heart”

A senior Board member found the work I was doing threatening to his power base and so was constantly on the attack, taking every opportunity to undermine me in front of his team and peers.  For example, in one Board meeting, he disagreed with my data and fact base, and thereby my recommendations, citing his team as much more capable of running the project. In that meeting, the aggression caused me to close in on myself – by crossing my arms, dropping my shoulders and hunching forward in my chair, in essence, to protect my body. This physical sign of nervousness encouraged him to attack me even more. When I realized this, I consciously opened up my body – by making myself bigger, throwing my shoulders wider, and sitting back in my chair in a more relaxed way, with my arms open and either alongside my body or placed on the arms of the chair. When I did this, two things happened. Firstly, I felt more relaxed, confident and in control – and my nervousness reduced. In a sense, by physically relaxing, my mind seemed to mentally relax too, making me less on the defensive. Secondly, my ‘attacker’ was visibly surprised by the move – he expected me to be cowed but instead I had given him a ‘clear shot at my heart’ – implying that I had every reason to be confident and thus he should engage. At the end of the meeting, he actually complimented me, for the one and only time, saying ‘Ruth, I have never seen eye to eye with you, but I am actually impressed by the work you’re doing’. I’ve found this “Shoot Me in the Heart” technique incredibly effective at turning an aggressive meeting into a constructive one, and to earning the respect of aggressive senior managers who I had rarely seen eye to eye with.

In summary

To get the Board members on-board, marketers should not shy away from challenging conversations with Board members. When under pressure, the trick is to recognize when you’re closing in on yourself, and throw your shoulders back with confidence – whilst simultaneously staying firm in what you’re recommending and why, and asking questions to understand what’s really concerning them and how to find a mutually beneficial win-win solution. See how Ruth helps clients through consulting, training, speaking and coaching. Connect with Ruth on LinkedIn here.

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