Q: This is my challenge, which I hope makes the cut. I’m a VP of a public service organization. Our Senior Leadership Team has five members plus the CEO. All of us are highly collaborative except one member. His highest priority is sucking up to the CEO, and he does very little to be a team player or to collaborate or meet deadlines with the rest of us. When the CEO is out of the office, the team member rarely even comes to work (“working at home”). His behavior severely damages the team dynamic, and we have very low trust on the team overall since the CEO is oblivious to the problem (or doesn’t care). When people ask the CEO for advice, he just says that we should force this guy to do his job. I’ve tried a lot of things, but nothing seems to work (going out to lunch with him to build rapport, introducing team norms, reading The Speed of Trust and implementing exercises from it, etc.). I’d love your ideas.
A: Good for you for trying to improve this situation by taking some risks and reaching out to the difficult team member. Unfortunately, the likelihood of success in these efforts is relatively low precisely because the CEO isn’t dealing with the situation. The first piece of advice I’d give you is to find out whether the CEO doesn’t know or doesn’t care. Those are two very different scenarios.
If he doesn’t know, then please tell him. However, I’m guessing the CEO is not completely in the dark about this. Many CEOs and senior executives would do anything to avoid having to confront a difficult team member, especially a senior one. The truth is, until the leader takes on these destructive behaviors, others have little chance of success.
That means someone on the team, perhaps you, will have to take the risk of helping the CEO understand why this situation is so problematic, and why he needs to have the courage to deal with it. One of the better approaches I’ve used is asking the CEO if he understands the impact that this one executive’s behavior is having on the rest of the team and the organization at large. I’d also like to ask him how he would feel if one or two of his best executives left the company. This often gives a reluctant executive a jolt. The prospect of losing a model team member because you are not confronting a difficult one is something that no one likes to consider.
Now, if the CEO is unwilling to do this, and continues to insist that everyone else needs to coach the difficult team member, I’d say that you have identified a pretty significant limitation in the CEO’s repertoire and that you’ll need to consider that limitation as you ponder your future. I’m not saying you would have to leave, but you’d have to find peace in knowing that your leader isn’t willing to do his job. That may be a situation that stimulates a career change at some point in the future for you.