May 15

Problem Leaders Demand Attention

Here’s what you can do with a brilliant but ineffective leader.

The problem usually looks like this: one of your smartest, most knowledgeable, and top performers don’t always treat others with respect. They work great with their boss or bosses’ boss but with their peers and others in the organization there seems to be a lot of ‘noise’. People don’t trust the person and they hold back because they are concerned about being thrown under the bus or being manipulated.

What many CEOs do, is look the other way. This might include saying nothing and expecting the leader to figure it out, asking someone else to confront the leader (HR is sometimes the bearer of bad news), or sharing ‘feedback’ with the leader. All three signal to the high performer that it’s not a big priority or a big issue. Some high performers hear it as they should be ‘nicer’ to others and try to get along.

Why don’t CEO’s confront high performers? Put yourself in their shoes for a minute. It’s hard because they often don’t see the problem firsthand. Secondly, they don’t know how big the problem is. Maybe the problem is being overblown. Third, they don’t want to lose a big contributor. These are the conscious reasons.
Two important questions to consider:

What’s the cost of looking the other way?
Why do we act as if it doesn’t matter?

If a thief came into your home, stole what they wanted, and came back and did it again and again, would you let them? Of course not! When the behavior has gone on long enough that the organization sees the bad behavior, like cancer, it affects the culture.

“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, shame on both of us.” ― Stephen King

Therefore, the cost is significant because the culture affects everyone in the organization. When some people get away with repeated bad behavior because they have an elevated status, we find out that person is like royalty. They can walk on people. They can treat people with disrespect because they are not going to be called out. They can basically do whatever they want, however they want.

What’s the cost of letting cancer go untreated in a body – death. Same for an organization.


The stranger question is: why do we act as if it doesn’t matter? I think the biggest reason is FEAR. Fear often is an emotion the CEO tries to ignore. Unconsciously, a CEO doesn’t confront a high performer because they don’t like conflict. They may think that based on their experience, confronting a super smart person almost always ends up in some form of disagreement or debate. Some CEOs just don’t have the energy to confront and debate. Additionally, the CEO might be concerned the confrontation will come off the wrong way and the person will feel attacked. They don’t want to piss off a high performer due to a ‘soft’ (interpersonal skill) issue when the person has big projects and/or is accountable for revenue & profit.

There are three types of high performers behaving poorly. Those who are aware of their behavior, those who are unaware but not open to change, and those who are unaware and open to change. Unaware high performers need their blind spot revealed to them in a way that they will do something about it. Knowing that some may want to change, and others do not, means the CEO must decide if the high performer is going to held accountable to change or not. If they are not willing to change, a CEO must make the tough call.

Asking them to “work on” something is not going to cut it. High performers often can change if they want to, they just need to know that it is critical that they do change.

I recently worked with a client who changed their behavior dramatically in a six-month period. When finished, I complimented them on how much they changed, and why they were able to change so much. They answered that they thought they were going to lose their job if they didn’t change, so they had a huge amount of motivation.

The high performer who is aware of their bad behavior scares me a little because they may be choosing it to have power and control. Everything is a choice and if they choose to act in a way that disrespects other people, it says a lot about that person’s values and character. I personally would ask them to leave if they choose not to change.

People can change! High achievers don’t always know how to change but they deserve a chance. It starts by giving them direct feedback and explaining that it is a requirement to change. I also am a firm believer that helping them change by giving them a coach helps the process tremendously.

Take a small risk and hold your high performers accountable. When you hold everyone accountable to the same standard of treating others with respect, your positive culture will be reinforced, and most importantly; your organization will benefit because their emotional safety will be protected.


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Don Frericks

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