Leadership Dim Sum
Dealing With a Bigmouth, Conflict in the Inner Circle,
and When a Leader Defects
by Rob Galford and Anne Seibold Drapeau

Dealing With a Bigmouth

One member of the leadership team speaks on behalf of the entire team, and speaks inaccurately. Others now have to sweep up the damage. But they’re not comfortable explaining to their people how it happened. They don’t know how to defend the action, even as they understand the importance of maintaining a “united front.”

Things to think about: How does one identify responsibility and authority in a leadership group? Is it appropriate to criticize other members of the group? To whom?

It’s a common fantasy that an “intervention” would work in this scenario. That the group would simply gather around the person in question and tell them their behavior was inappropriate, and that the person would, in turn, dissolve into tears of gratitude for the honest feedback, and never ever let it happen again.

Don’t go there; it won’t work. You’ll likely end up with a member of the top team who is resentful and feels as though he has been attacked. He’ll be thinking defensive thoughts, justifying his behavior, along the lines of “I was just trying to do the right thing. And it’s a good thing I did speak up; if I hadn’t done something, we’d really be in the soup now.”

Instead, you have to wear your listener and facilitator hats, and deal with this on a one-by-one, one-on-one basis. It will require a series of meetings, until the ship is sufficiently righted to the point where people might be able to discuss it in a group meeting, or get past it without a general discussion.

As for what the rest of the team tells their direct reports and the organization at large? The rule of thumb should be to tell as much as possible without resorting to “those hurtful truths.” You – and they – can say that there has been a difference of opinion in this group of people. And that there has even been a difference of opinion about how to handle the difference of opinion! You can say that the message delivered did not reflect a unanimous opinion. But unless there is now a unanimous opinion to offer, you should refrain from voicing another potentially conflicting view.

Tell people, instead, that you know this wasn’t the smoothest way to talk about whatever the issue was, and that you’ll report back when there has been a decision (make sure you do.) And acknowledge that you and the other members of the group have talked about what happened among yourselves, and that you’re working to make sure that that kind of miscommunication doesn’t happen again.

Conflict in the Inner Circle

A major difference of opinion emerges inside the group at the top. Allegiances begin to shift. Factions form. This group, once an effectively functioning inner circle, is now dysfunctional. Distracted by the conflict, everything it tries to deal with seems like a reflection of the problem. Even the easiest decision-making processes seem tainted.

Things to think about: how can you get a team like that back to where it was before the conflict? Do these people need a mediator?

Internal strife at the top always looks different to the various people involved. That’s why this team needs a mediator – from the outside. It doesn’t have to be a long-term engagement. But the goal is to get people to stand in one another’s shoes, and help them regain equilibrium.

Why does it have to be someone from the outside? Because a good mediator will often be able to see “where the fault lies” and deal with it appropriately. We believe it was Winston Churchill who defined a diplomat as “knowing not to stand between the dog and the hydrant.” Don’t ask them to change roles and become an arbitrator half-way through the process. The taking of sides changes the dynamic, and it is not what they’re there for. You don’t want them to become partisans. You want them to help this group get back on track.

When a Leader Defects

One of the key team members defects. Goes over to the competition. Others on the team feel betrayed at first, then individually go through some reflections and self-doubt: Did he know something I don’t know? Should I be as loyal (or as complacent) as I have been?

Things to think about: How do you keep a team functioning when it has sustained this kind of trauma? How does one explain the situation to the company at large? What kind of “checking in” should a leader do with individual members of the inner circle after an event like this?

We cover these issues in detail in Chapter 11, “When People Leave.” For now, though, suffice it to say that a defection at the top does have a greater impact on the organization than does a defection from a lower rank, so this is a big deal. And that even if people seem to be taking things in stride, you should assume that underneath, they are asking questions like “What did that person know that I don’t know?” “Is the grass greener where she’s going?” “Is our company in trouble?” “Should I be looking too?”

Address those questions, even if no one voices them out loud. Talk to people individually, and listen hard. There’s no need to set up a formal series of meetings in this situation; but be sure you do talk with every member of the inner circle quickly. And when the group next meets, don’t be afraid to talk about the situation in public.

Just refrain, if possible, from making blanket statements that will come across as if you are defensive. “There’s nothing wrong here. The deal he got can’t be better than what he had here.” You can acknowledge that there may be a difference of opinion, when it comes to what constitutes a “better compensation package,” for example, and at the same time reaffirm that you do try to tailor the value proposition to individual needs.

Remember that it is OK for people to leave the company. You can’t be expected to be the right place for everyone all the time.

As for the rest of the organization, pay close attention to the direct reports of the person who is leaving. They’re likely to be concerned as well. They’re also likely to feel very vulnerable. With their boss gone, the spotlight is on them. Reassure them of their employment “contract” – what constitutes good performance at your company – so that they can be comfortable that they are doing their jobs, and that the defection won’t necessarily cause them any direct discomfort. Meet with them in small groups; ask for their input about the characteristics of success in their area going forward. What will it take for this group to be successful in the future? How much is that success a function of the people in leadership roles? How much is related to other things?

Rob Galford and Anne Seibold Drapeau are the authors of The Trusted Leader (The Free Press, January 2003). More information on the book is available at http://www.thetrustedleader.com . Robert Galford is Managing Partner of the Center for Executive Development in Boston, and has taught executive education programs at Columbia, Kellogg and, most recently, Harvard. He is the co-author of The Trusted Advisor (with David H. Maister and Charles H. Green). He may be reached at rgalford@thetrustedleader.com . Anne Seibold Drapeau is Chief People Officer of Boston-based Digitas and has held management positions at Pepsi, J.P. Morgan, and FTD. She may be reached at adrapeau@thetrustedleader.com .

The Trusted Leader:
Bringing Out the Best in Your People and Your Company

by Robert Galford and Anne Seibold Drapeau
Free Press, January 2003

Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2005 by Rob Galford and Anne Seibold Drapeau. All rights reserved.

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