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Avoiding the panic room

Always in a rush, some ‘alpha dogs’ can leave colleagues frustrated instead of motivated
By Geoff Kirbyson
February 27 2015 issue

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Gabrielle buzzes around the office, never pausing long enough to have a conversation of more than a few seconds, guzzling coffee, wolfing down snacks, and she’s always late for something more important.

Oh, she’s stressed all right. She’s a flurry of activity, her tension is contagious and she inadvertently quickens the pulses — and moistens the palms — of those around her, particularly junior employees.

Wait, do you know Gabrielle? You’re not alone. Virtually every workplace has somebody like her — just as often, they’re male — stirring up feelings of anxiety, inferiority, desperation and resentment.

You can’t quarantine her — at least not legally — but she must be contained somehow, so she doesn’t adversely affect the work of her fellow employees or worse, the firm’s reputation.

Employees like Gabrielle can be particularly dangerous if they’re a partner or a high performer because others will think they should emulate her in order to succeed and move up the ladder. Then you’ll have an office teeming with people acting like a bunch of headless poultry, says Karen Denega, a Toronto-based professional development coach.

“Then the thinking becomes less clear. Part of the risk of people rushing around is their adrenalin gets up. You can get addicted to that. Then you might not be making the best decisions. You could lose people (from your staff) who don’t want to be that frantic if that’s what’s required of them to make it in the organization,” she says.

Perhaps the only thing that could be worse, Denega says, is if Gabrielle is seen by clients who have come by the office.

“Would you really want to put your trust in someone who is running around like a chicken with their head cut off?” she says.

A number of consequences could befall a “rusher.” First, they could find themselves with less work to do. Second, they could be brought before the partners if the quality of their work — or that of others near them — starts to suffer.

“When I want to put a case in a lawyer’s hands, I want somebody who is poised under pressure, present in the moment and able to master their thoughts and behaviours. They have to learn to pause and not have knee-jerk reactions,” Denega says.

These people are Type-A personalities who are typically very impatient, reluctant to delegate, not easy to trust and usually don’t trust back, says Steve Prentice, a Toronto-based productivity expert at The Bristall Group.

“They have the aggression of alpha dogs. Every pack has to have this aggressive individual, but that doesn’t make them great leaders,” he says. “They move fast and in their wake they leave much more despair and frustration rather than any motivation. They’re a whirlwind of self-focused energy. They’re very self-absorbed and don’t contribute to the collective morale of an office. In fact, they do the opposite.”

So, how should you deal with a rusher? Prentice’s advice is to avoid drawing attention to the annoying characteristics and instead acknowledge their strengths and see how they can be used moving forward.

“You never want to make anybody feel humiliated. Their ego is supercharged and they’re very fragile. The potential (for humiliation) is much greater with a Type-A personality because they operate on energy and anger.”

Sometimes, a partner or senior lawyer could be asked to coach the rusher and mentor them on how to soften the hard edges that are causing morale problems, he says.

“I advise every professional person to have a personal steering committee, even if it’s a committee of one — someone to say, ‘Here’s what I’ve noticed about you. Here’s what you can do better.’ A lot of people say 20 years down the road, ‘I wish I knew then what I know now,’” he says.

“If you want to truly invest in the energy that makes them who they are, you need to sit across the table from them, look them in the eye and say, ‘You’ve got to stop doing this.’ Past history is a far more effective teacher than future theory.”

Cal Sutliff, a New York-based management trainer, has four suggestions to help people minimize the impact of the tornado. First, realize that you’re feeling uncomfortable and stressed by that person. (It’s very easy to be stressed without realizing that you are.)

Second, understand that they can’t make you stressed without your co-operation. Then, decide what kind of person you want to emulate in the office and emulate that person.

“Is this person legitimately a high-level model or are they involved in a charade?” he says.

Lastly, when you realize they can’t intimidate you without your permission, it puts everything in the proper perspective.

Sometimes the firm’s culture is partly to blame when people are constantly trying to one-up each other for early-morning arrivals and burning the midnight oil, particularly if the boss is working late.

“That’s a lot harder to deal with because it has some legitimacy in the culture,” he says.

Second-hand stress comes from being around stressed people, so when a co-worker starts to lose their mind, just leave, he says.

“If you’re smart enough to realize what’s going on, you can go for a walk and wait until they cool down,” he says.

Office chaos often leads to irreparable damage, Prentice says. For example, younger subordinates who try to keep up with the frantic pace set by the rusher will likely burn out in short order and even quit their job.

Sometimes it’s worse if they stick around because you can have two alpha dogs wrestling for the top spot.

“You can’t have two of them in the same pack. It will destroy itself,” he says.

Not every rusher wants to spend every waking moment in panic mode and Denega says a cure is possible. First, they have to realize that clients won’t want to work with scatterbrained professionals. Then, they should consider whether there are external factors causing them to act the way they do. Perhaps the problem is exemplified when a senior partner asks them to do something and they agree immediately, even though they’re already overcommitted with various other projects.

“Is it my own poor time management? Am I addicted to being rushed and seen as important? Everybody has moments when they have to rush but is it chronic? They have to slow down consciously, breathe, stretch and take a pause,” she says.

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