Managing Dominant People
Handling Strong, Challenging Personalities
Do you know what characteristic links many political leaders, top business executives – and even psychopaths?
They share a trait called "fearless dominance." They are typically great crisis managers, because they remain calm under pressure and are confident taking bold action in the face of daunting risks. They can also be influential and charismatic, and effective in getting the job done.
However, the danger comes if their assertiveness crosses the line into intimidation or even bullying. Someone with a dominant character can monopolize discussions and disregard social norms, which can discourage their colleagues and lower morale.
In this article, we'll examine the characteristics and behaviors of people with dominant personalities. We'll discuss what you can do to harness their strengths and moderate their weaknesses, so they can excel as part of your team.
What Is a Dominant Personality?
According to American academics Dr Cameron Anderson and Gavin J. Kilduff, the dominant personality trait "involves the tendency to behave in assertive, forceful, and self-assured ways."
Anderson and Kilduff disagreed with a popular theory that dominant individuals use heavy-handed, aggressive tactics, such as bullying and intimidation, to get ahead. Instead, they argued that such people attained influence by demonstrating their competence and value to their teams. Their study found that dominant team members "may ascend group hierarchies by appearing helpful to the group's overall success, as opposed to by aggressively grabbing power."
Interestingly, their research also showed that some people viewed more forceful colleagues as being more competent, even if their talents didn't match their assertiveness. Those who did so equated competence with behavior such as speaking up in groups and being the first to answer questions.
How to Recognize a Dominant Personality
It's not hard to spot dominant people. Typically they will be – or want to be – in a leadership position. They may exhibit several of the following behaviors and traits:
- Self-confidence: their strong self-belief can come across as arrogance or bravado.
- Directness: dominant people usually get right to the point and can be quite blunt in their communication.
- Decisiveness: they can make quick decisions, often with little input from others.
- Assertiveness: they tend to take the lead in situations and commonly monopolize discussions and meetings. They may even seem aggressive at times.
- Impatience: dominant people like to make progress. They tend to avoid getting bogged down in details and can give little time to contributions from colleagues.
Keep in mind that this article is meant as a general guide. Each person is unique, so allow for individual differences in your approach to managing dominant people.
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Working With a Dominant Person
The good news is that there are many advantages to having dominant personalities on your team.
They make strong leaders, particularly in times of crisis, and they may also excel at handling stressful situations and heavy workloads. Their energy can encourage fellow team members to stay focused on their tasks and targets. If they have the enthusiasm to match their force of character, they may be happy to take on new challenges. And they aren't afraid to take risks.
Unfortunately, the negative aspects of dominant personalities can sometimes outweigh the benefits they bring to the workplace.
Some people can feel intimidated by a colleague's strength of character. Dominant people may ride roughshod over others' feelings. Their blunt approach can "rub people up the wrong way," and their lack of empathy can create personal conflicts.
Even worse, when they are frustrated, dominant people may not be able to control their temper, tone or body language. This can wreck any chance they have of building and maintaining positive relationships with their fellow team members.
And it can be frustrating trying to deal with their perceived arrogance and self-importance.
How did you feel when your ideas or suggestions fell on the deaf ears of a leader or co-worker who was fixated on his or her own point of view? A dominant leader may be prone to barking out orders rather than seeking consensus, and daring to offer an alternative course of action may make him argumentative. Such behavior can knock staff morale and make them feel that their opinions don't matter.
A consequence of having one forceful character "hog center stage" is that some team members may not feel comfortable sharing their opinions, and good ideas may be lost.
This article focuses on managing people who display strong, dominant characteristics. Sometimes this behavior can cross the line from treating work aggressively to treating people aggressively. If a dominant person has intentionally distressed you or other team members, your situation may require a different approach. For more information, see our article on workplace bullying.
How to Manage a Dominant Personality
A dominant team member may not realize how her behavior affects her colleagues. She may mean well but simply does not understand that her actions are causing problems.
To maintain morale and unity within your team, you'll need to encourage her to downplay her negative traits and maximize her strengths.
The following tips can help.
How to Minimize the Negative Effects of Dominant Behavior
- Approach dominant people on their level. Always keep your conversations targeted and brief to keep their attention. Make eye contact, skip the small talk, and don't ramble. Speak confidently and don't back down. To prevent arguments, avoid making generalizations and support your assertions with evidence. If the dominant person tries to interrupt or talk over you, put a stop to it immediately.
- Discuss the impact of their behavior. A dominant person may not actually realize how his behavior is affecting the rest of the team. Talk privately with him to explain your concerns, using specific examples. Use role playing to encourage him to take more constructive, positive approaches with his co-workers.
- Treat them with respect. Dominant people want others to hear and appreciate their opinions. Show respect for them and their viewpoints. Remain calm, and address them with empathy. What motivates their behavior? Do they want to feel important? Do they feel insecure and crave more respect? Showing compassion can tone down the more aggressive side of their personality.
- Encourage teamwork. Your dominant team member may spend little time socializing and building relationships with her colleagues, who in turn may find it difficult to collaborate with her. Consider ways of improving your team dynamics. Coach her on how to be a good team player. Your whole team can likely benefit from team-building exercises, especially in building trust.
- Conduct personality testing. Psychometric testing can enrich your understanding of your team, and encourage your team members to learn more about themselves and one another. As a result, they'll be able to build stronger relationships within the team. Personality assessments such as the Big Five Personality Traits test and the DiSC® Profile can provide in-depth insights that may prove useful in strengthening your team.
To avoid singling out particular team members, it may be best to have everyone take a personality test.
How to Bring out the Best in Dominant People
You can take a number of steps to enhance their natural strengths.
Assign them challenging work. Many people with dominant personalities enjoy being challenged at work, so try to find projects that will test their skills and abilities.
Figure out what drives them with McClelland's Human Motivation Theory, Sirota's Three-Factor Theory or Amabile and Kramer's Progress Theory. Many dominant people enjoy power, so they might excel in goal-oriented projects. Set them meaningful, SMART goals, and also consider using more ambitious stretch goals.
- Recognize their work. Like all team members, dominant people enjoy being praised for their ideas and work. Uncovering what motivates them will help you design constructive feedback and rewards that will boost their engagement.
- Let them chart their own course. If they work well independently, assign them individual projects that only require them to have limited contact with the rest of the team. When assigning work, focus on the "what," and let them figure out the "how."
Don't constrain their big ideas. Dominant people often come up with bold, creative solutions. And even if their ideas are impractical or risky, it may be difficult to change their view.
But, rather than stifle their enthusiasm by pointing out the flaws, suggest ways their ideas could become even more effective. If you have an alternative suggestion, explain how it may offer a quicker route to your desired results.
To encourage dominant people to think their decisions through thoroughly before taking action, consider coaching them on making decisions. Use tools such as ORAPAPA and the Ladder of Inference to ensure that ideas are robust.
It's often easy to identify your dominant team members by their high levels of self-confidence and assertiveness. They may be direct in their communications, quick to make decisions, and impatient with details and social chitchat.
They are often natural leaders, but the "flip side of the coin" is that their behavior can also create conflict within a team. To minimize this, mirror their behavior and discuss the impact of their behavior respectfully, yet confidently. Encouraging teamwork with their colleagues can also improve your team's productivity.
To get the best from them, assign them challenging, individual projects. Set ambitious goals for them and recognize their achievements. Allow them to direct their own projects, but keep a close eye on their tendency to forge ahead without fully considering potential risks and pitfalls.
Apply This to Your Life
- Take a personality assessment such as the Big Five Personality Traits test, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the DiSC Profile to assess your own traits, and determine how dominant you are.
- Think about your team members' personalities. Do any of them display traits or behaviors typically associated with a dominant personality? If so, what strategies can you employ to harness their strengths and minimize their weaknesses?