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Three steps to dealing with badly behaved leaders (also known as jerks)

A recent article* from McKinsey is addressed to leaders who may be the source of workplace dysfunction – or jerks, as the author calls them. What can be done about it?

In our experience, bad behaviour can range from plain rudeness and incivility, through bad management practices, exclusion and bullying. The effects of a small number of such people can be devastating on the organisation: “Bullying bosses impose costs on people and organizations that are manifold—and often hidden. Hundreds of experiments show that encounters with rude, insulting, and demeaning people undermine others’ performance, including their decision-making skills, productivity, creativity, and willingness to work harder and help co-workers”.

How do organisations deal with leaders who are causing harm and disharmony?


1. Looking in the mirror

‘Wise leaders …start by taking a look in the mirror’. That presupposes you have a wise leader to start with, or at least one that is aware of her or his behaviours and their effect on others! Some managers may be initially excused due to lack of awareness of their own failings. Most are open to being told directly, some benefit from anonymised, structured feedback through a 360 Degree Feedback mechanism. Others benefit from having a mentor or coach. But lack of awareness is something that can be solved with feedback and data.

Once lack of awareness has been addressed, the individual’s willingness to learn and change is the next thing to tackle.

2. Willingness to change

Feedback, coaching and mentoring are not going to be helpful if the individual doesn’t have the motivation or interest to change their behaviours. Some years ago, I worked with an executive who had been recruited from an industry with a very different culture to the organisation in which we were both working. This executive was frustrated at our collegiate and consultative culture, whereas he had come from a place where he just told people to get on and do the job. He had been recruited for his industry experience but had brought along a completely different set of acceptable leader behaviours. He was abrasive, occasionally rude, and was demotivating his new team.

This guy told me ‘he was who he was’, had been very successful and didn’t see why he should change. His feedback from his boss and colleagues told him the opposite.

In the end, he decided he would not change, and moved on – and of course this is the crux. If a leader feels that her or his behaviours are OK, or that they don’t want to change, then you are pushing against a closed door.

3. Real consequences that bite

Ultimately organisations who value a good working culture are prepared to clearly state what are acceptable – and unacceptable – behaviours for them. There is a willingness (from the top) to discuss, assess and measure those behaviours as assiduously and carefully as they measure the delivery of services, professional skills and sales – as part of the ongoing performance evaluation.

And they are prepared to lose ‘high performers’ if they are causing collateral damage through toxic and disruptive behaviours – as our friend and coach Gill Todd puts it, to ‘take them out of the boat’. That can be the hardest thing of all.

Defining and measuring behaviours and culture

The work that we do at Track allows our clients to define good behaviours in their own language. They can  then measure, consistently through a bespoke 360 degree assessment, how those behaviours are being observed in managers and leaders.  Using a tailored approach we can link the behaviours we are seeing, team performance and organisational success.

*Memo to the CEO: Are you the source of workplace dysfunction? Robert Sutton, McKinsey Quarterly, September 2017