Corrosive Executive Behavior . . .

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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 13meetingmistakes13accountabilities 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

john@johnrchildress.com

About johnrchildress

John Childress is currently Visiting Professor in Strategy and Culture at IE Business School in Madrid and a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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