The executive leaders of a large technology business recently “retired” a very senior executive who was well known to be disproportionately self-absorbed, harmful to the culture, frightening to those he influenced, and not personally trustworthy. He had been a “big producer” – so the board, the CEO, and the senior executive team rationalized his harmful ramifications. Like the sun shining through a monsoon, removing such a person is very rare. It is a courageous decision for most organizations. It offers an important opportunity for that organization to take fuller advantage of what occurred. The following explains how a company can grow after taking such action.
What is the norm for organizations? Most organizations have cultures with a significant amount of fear and anxiety. These emotions are not due to the company’s mission or the hazardous nature of the work, or the failing infrastructure of their office buildings or stores or factories. No, the fear and anxiety are due to the presence of a threatening, self-absorbed, abusive or manipulative individuals in roles of authority – often executive authority.
Organizational culture reflects those in authority, whose characteristics pervade and become the norm. Where fear and insecurity preside, the culture distorts to a “psycho-logic” that inverts core human values and written guidelines of the most reasonable plans and employee handbooks. Such fearful and insecure cultural dilemmas are rarely resolved — despite well-constructed culture expeditions or training programs or the best of intentions.
Disrespect can be traumatic. It has an impact. Traumatic memory embedded in any human culture containing callous disregard for human rights and dignity triggers a self-protective – “turtle-into-shell” – reaction from those who were disrespected, and from those empathetic bystanders sensitive to the impact. Where disrespect is normalized, this response lasts long after the offending act ended — and people remember and recoil later when they again perceive sufficient provocation.
This is the fundamental reason why culture journeys must remove provocateurs.
Although totally commendable, it’s completely rare for any organization to consciously and premeditatively remove a member of senior management who acted with culture-damaging tendencies. To do so takes a rare combination of executive leadership consciousness, courage, and consensus. Perhaps because of recent attention to the topic, there are far more stories of executives being removed for sexual harassment than senior-level people being removed for the damages due to narcissistic personality disorder, particularly if they have been promoted and received bonuses for rainmaking.
Obviously, the presence of a senior executive who has been culturally destructive indicates the trauma within the same culture caused by people in authority who act with various levels of harm. Yet, when such a rare and noble eviction happens, the high stress surrounding it can give way to relief and unwarranted relaxation. This relaxation is the predictable reflex of the calm after the storm. But, instead of relaxing, management needs to take advantage of the removal by consciously and systematically transforming the culture from the top down. The rare opportunity has presented itself.
Our mental models of social behavior, like a leader and team member, are acquired by emulation. Those who were mentored and promoted by a destructive executive should be reviewed, retraining or removed. Then the entire organization should thoughtfully and systematically be reformed.
What should a company do to create this transformation? A company in the throws of this type of firing should immediately take three actions:
- The right place to begin is to conduct a multi-day, offsite conference of the Board of Directors and the C-Suite, effectively planned and predisposed for maximum success. Preparation and planning would include generating a report of findings and recommendations based on confidential, 1:1 interviews with all participants. This top-level offsite conference would focus on creating systematic and accountable methods for removing all-cause and trace of insensitive, disrespectful and mean-spirited “leader behavior” from the organization at every level. The process developed at the off-site conference will be authorized at the executive-level and would be implemented throughout each hierarchy, business unit, and cost center of the enterprise. Creating these methods will be a significant step towards increasing the probability that the goals and spirit of the culture journey will become the new cultural norm throughout the company.
- As part of developing a new culture of trust and integrity, the company should refrain from using the fired executive’s name, for there is no value in being mean spirited or vindictive. The executive should be allowed to depart peacefully. He should be instructed to depart and not return to the office. Nor should his advice about his replacement be sought. His replacement must be carefully selected to be free of the characteristics or loyalties that qualified him for removal. In fact, nothing should occur that dilutes the original spirit and intent of his removal; he should be removed from the culture, consciously and comprehensively, to be consistent with the core problem and the courageous remedy.
- The board of directors and the CEO must be accountable for planning, achieving, and sustaining a transformed culture.
The inspired outcome is an enterprise in which human potential is embraced with great respect, and all pursue worthy goals with constructive spirit and collaboration, free of harmful provocateurs and supported all the way to the top.
How are you following through to create your sustainably brilliant culture?