Some men have thousands of reasons why they cannot do what they want to, when all they need is one reason why they can. ~Martha Graham
Over the three decades I have been conducting senior executive strategy workshops and working with leadership teams on transformation, turnarounds and culture change, I have observed all types of behaviour. Most overt displays of executive behaviour occur in group meetings.
In most meetings, individuals can behave as they please (within limits) and not get challenged openly. Most senior executives will not engage with a disruptive or badly behaving peer for a variety of reasons. “I don’t want to engage with this guy since he may get back at me sometime” or “it’s not my job to comment on my peer’s behaviour, that’s the CEO’s job and if she allows it, then I just have to tolerate it”.
Some behaviours by senior executives are irritating, others are extremely corrosive and undermine the fabric of team cohesion, trust, alignment and respect. Often these corrosive behaviours come from “cowardly” executives. Those who will not confront openly or even engage in good positive debate or healthy conflict. They hide behind false pretences and instead of standing up and “owning” their discontent or problems, tend to go into feigned “questioning” mode. I say feigned because while they are (in their own mind) attacking something they don’t like or understand, they often do it obliquely and in such a way as to not create a full-blown reaction by the other executive.
For example, I recently witnessed the following in a senior executive Quarterly Review Meeting. A member of the senior team tasked with establishing a new function that cut horizontally across numerous departments, was giving a presentation on how the new “horizontal business process” would work and what the various touch points and accountabilities were within other departments. After a few minutes of well prepared explanation, one of her peers stood up, interrupted and started asking quite aggressive questions (with pointed finger to emphasize his statements). Rather than make direct statements, this agitated executive tried, unsuccessfully, to disguise his lack of trust in the plans and his overall displeasure with the process by asking “helpful”(=loaded) questions. Now remember, this new function and process was agreed several months ago by the entire senior team (at least they all agreed outwardly).
Here are the types of “helpful” questions that cowardly executives often use to vent their frustration and displeasure or to derail the project:
- Are you certain you have thought fully about . . .?
- How are you going to make certain that ….. doesn’t happen?
- How are you going to control for . . . ?
- Where is the data to support your process?
- You didn’t talk with all my people about this so I’m having a hard time fully supporting it!
- Don’t you think this is too incomplete a process to begin right now? I think we should wait for more data and a better plan!
- I can’t agree with your conclusion because I haven’t seen all the data and I’m not certain about your assumptions.
- It seems like this is moving too fast and we might wind up with some unanticipated problems that we can’t afford right now!
So, in this case, about 20 minutes was taken up by the presenter trying to listen (respectfully) and cater to this derailing and disruptive behaviour. Why do I label this corrosive? Because the cohesive trust and respect that a good team needs to break new ground and create significant business improvements is deeply eroded by this type of mistrust.
Unfortunately, this type of behaviour is all too common, and when it tends to be commonplace, there usually are no clear behavioural ground rules, or the CEO is not aware of the damage being caused.
Negative and corrosive behaviour persists because people are allowed to get away with it. No one confronts them. No one sits them down and provides constructive feedback. Coachable moments go by quickly and the damage is done.
Does your team have clear groundrules on appropriate and inappropriate behaviours? Do executives have the commitment and courage to give each other constructive feedback?
Remember, organizations are reflections of their leaders . . . that’s the good news and the bad news!
John R Childress