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3 Pieces of Advice to Help You Handle Executives Who Put People Down

One of my COO clients is a consistent champion for positive organizational culture. He invests both time and money in hiring strong people and supporting them to do their best work. But he’s facing a significant challenge in the form of a longtime incumbent executive who consistently behaves badly toward him and her colleagues.

Not long after the COO started in his job, he became aware that this executive was trying to challenge his authority and lording her clout over more junior employees. He recognized that this pattern of behavior was likely to continue because she’d had a close working relationship with the original founder. The stress of dealing with this talented but damaging person became so significant that the COO started taking the situation home with him. 

It was time for him to take more focused action, so we talked about several necessary responses. Each of these steps is important in this sort of situation, but the sequence and timing will vary based on any specific organization’s protocols and relationships.

No More Magical Thinking

The first thing the COO had to do was stop hoping the intrusive executive was going to change enough to make it easy to keep her in her current role. The COO had already given her multiple directives about the behavior he expected for interacting with both him and her colleagues. Her behavior toward him improved slightly, but she continued to act out and make other employees feel uncomfortable and frustrated. And although he had allocated budget for the additional staff she requested and praised her new hires, that wasn’t enough for her—it only seemed to increase her desire for more resources and greater control.

It’s Not Me, It’s You

The COO was concerned that the exec’s lack of change was a failure of his leadership. I appreciated his humility and self-questioning, but at that point, I’d heard enough about the exec’s drama and antics to know that she had practiced these behaviors for many years, so the likelihood of a successful transformation was very low. 

The COO and I did several thought experiments to substantiate her potential value to the organization as well as the damage she was doing. We wanted to understand what it would be like to be her peer or her subordinate, how much she would need to change to be safe for the culture, how much coaching and support the COO had given her, and how much she had actually shifted her behavior. 

We looked at how her fractious relationships with others were impeding collaborative work as well as what the impact would be to the organization if any of the peers and subordinates who had complained about her decided to leave, and we addressed how wasteful it would be for the COO to resign from his own position to avoid her. (This is often an option that a conscientious leader considers.) We came to the clear conclusion that her employment in the current role was not viable; therefore, for the good of the organization, there needed to be a change.

Activate HR 

One of the exec’s direct reports had been so upset by her behavior that he had already gone to HR to make a complaint. I encouraged the COO to acquaint his HR business partner with the situation: first, to get any advice or information about protocols from them; second, to put them on notice that the direct report’s complaint was not an isolated incident. In this kind of situation, the best outcome is that when you’ve met the requirements to move someone like the intrusive exec out, not only will HR agree with your stance, but they will provide a representative to be present at the termination or transfer meeting so that you’re not alone and there is a witness.

Your HR colleague may also be able to help you identify multiple off-ramps for the troublesome exec: to potential roles in other parts of the organization, to a remote assignment, into a consulting role, etc. It’s tremendously helpful if there are options other than direct termination and severance, but do not discount the value of being able to offer a generous severance package. If your HR support does not include identifying exit strategies, find them yourself or delegate that to some other trusted individual.

Involve Your Boss

Think of your boss as a key part of your solutions. Don’t hide the situation, thinking you can handle the entire thing on your own or that your boss will be disappointed in you for not finding a way to retain someone who’s talented but repeatedly disrupts their colleagues. Keep in mind that if your boss is very tolerant of these types of execs—sometimes called “brilliant jerks”—they’ll never be very supportive of your efforts to keep improving the culture.

Make sure your boss understands the situation’s costs and possible outcomes in both dollars and cents and in terms of less quantifiable impacts on team morale, collaboration, and creativity. You don’t need to involve them in every difficult conversation with the harmful person, but you do want them to be aware of all significant potential challenges to your team and productivity—as well as the fact that you’re dealing with the problem in a businesslike, adaptable way. Once your boss fully understands the situation, they may also have other creative ideas for off-ramps. 

Onward and upward—

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