How to deal with difficult leaders

As the moral compass of the organisation HR must tackle problematic leaders. Here's how to deal with four different difficult CEOs

In the swathe of stories about misbehaving leaders hitting the headlines recently, HR has been widely criticised for standing back rather than stepping in. At worst the function has been accused of colluding with wayward leaders to cover up, or even enable, their bad behaviour.

But it’s not easy to challenge the CEO, says Kate Griffiths-Lambeth, group HRD at Charles Stanley. However, HR is in a unique position to do so as it is “expected to be the moral compass for the organisation”.

“If HR can’t speak out who can?” she asks.

Speaking up may feel “uncomfortable or even career-limiting”, Griffiths-Lambeth concedes, but “if you can get your message across without causing offence and have the courage to state what others hesitate to voice, it can be the making of you”.

There are two key requirements if HR is to be able to effectively challenge a CEO’s bad behaviour, says founder of 10Eighty Michael Moran: confidence and the CEO’s trust.

“Often HR hasn’t got that critical confidence to stick its head above the parapet,” he says. HRDs can grow in confidence by thinking “‘if the CEO doesn’t like what I’m saying and gets rid of me then the company is not right for me, and that’s OK because I have highly-employable skills and I will be more successful somewhere that aligns better with my values’”, he adds.

On the matter of trust, Moran says it’s a long-term challenge for HR to become the CEO’s “trusted advisor”, estimating it takes around 18 months to build from scratch.

Karen Meager, co-author of Real Leaders for the Real World, echoes this need for HR to steer leaders in the right direction: “It’s vital that you are not seen by them as the ‘blocker’; then they will just go around you and you will lose any influence you have.”

So here’s how to manage a wayward CEO in four different ‘leaders behaving badly’ scenarios.

The Philip Green who is accused of sexual harassment

If a CEO engages in sexually-inappropriate behaviour they’re coming from one of two places, according to Meager.

“Either they crave power so use their behaviour to control and have power over others,” she says. “Or they crave popularity and want to make connections so much with people that they don’t realise their behaviour is inappropriate.”

Meager remembers one CEO who fell into the latter camp; he was “touchy-feely” and liked hugging everyone but was “devastated” when he learnt people found it “creepy”. Typically these CEOs just need compassionate feedback from the HRD for them to change their behaviour.

However, in Meager’s experience the former camp is more common. While in this scenario it’s tempting to encourage them to see the situation from multiple perspectives this probably won’t work in most cases: “CEOs who engage in this behaviour […] don’t care about the impact on others, they really only care about the impact on themselves”. So focus on that by getting to know them and understanding “what makes them tick”, she says. “Talk to them about the consequences for them of stopping or doing different behaviour; either in terms of what it will get them or what bad things will happen to them if they continue.”

As Dan Peyton, London managing partner at McGuireWoods, reiterates, make sure they understand not just the corporate consequences but also the personal ones: “And don’t forget to mention the negative media attention and the possibility of criminal prosecution.”

The Anna Wintour who is formidably intimidating

It’s not rocket science: if employees are scared of the CEO because of his/her intimidating behaviour they’re likely to be less creative, less productive and more stressed.

But it’s hard to stand up to these characters, so it’s crucial HRDs do so in order to role model this to other employees.

“You’ve got to have the self-confidence to stand up when the CEO is coming at you shouting,” says Moran. “To say ‘I don’t want to talk to you now. This behaviour is not acceptable. When you’ve calmed down we’ll have a conversation’.”

This is more effective when done in a public setting, he adds: “Calling the behaviour out when everyone is watching, like on the trading floor, is much more effective than if you’re in a room alone together. Walk away, leaving them there ranting and raving.”

According to Sue Paterson, co-author of The Fear-Free Organization, HR must first decide if this leader is ‘difficult’ or ‘toxic’. The former tend to upset, irritate and lack empathy but can be helped to change by improving their self-awareness. Toxic leaders are a different matter, she says. They are manipulative, abusive, aggressive, antagonistic and secretive. In these cases recording evidence of bullying and following through on complaints openly and fairly is vital.

“Dealing with toxic people involves showing zero tolerance for aggression. There should be no room in any organisation for toxic people,” she adds.

The Boris Johnson who makes politically-incorrect comments

As head of development at Pearn Kandola Stuart Duff says, this is the type of behaviour people are most likely to ignore. These leaders are often dismissed as simply ‘eccentric’ or ‘attention-grabbing’, absolving them of responsibility for their actions.

“However, it’s clear from our research that behaviour that denigrates or belittles other people and their values can significantly affect employee engagement and wellbeing,” he says.

HR needs to be very clear about what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable remarks, explaining the impact on others and on productivity.

“Dealing directly with the individual is essential to lift the mood and confidence of everyone around them,” says Duff. “Not dealing with this type of behaviour brings everyone down and risks promoting inappropriate comments from others, on the basis that people will often follow and mimic a leader’s behaviour.”

Sometimes, however, despite all your best strategies – using data to explain the consequences, coaching/mentoring and unconscious bias training – a CEO will continue to make unacceptable comments.

In this case you have no option but to escalate it to the board, says Griffiths-Lambeth, potentially leading to a grievance process or legal action. She recalls a case when a female MD received an email from her CEO telling her to have an abortion because the company needed her: “This was not the first time the CEO had put pressure on female staff to do unacceptable things in the interests of the business. So the MD raised a formal grievance, took the issue to tribunal and the CEO was fired by the board.”

The Elon Musk who runs riot on social media

This particular breed of wayward leader is so common today that workplace software company Qnary has even coined a name for it: the CEO Icarus Syndrome.

“This is when an executive flies too close to the Sun with their social media posts and ultimately leaves the organisation liable to legal troubles and mainstream fury,” says Bant Breen, CEO at Qnary. “Like Icarus ignoring his father, these executives rarely listen to counsel from HR or anyone else, as they strongly believe they personify and intuitively know what is right for their brands and organisations.”

Basically, says Breen, you’ve got to stop them because “there’s far too much at stake to allow a CEO to post unchecked, unfiltered and unmonitored”. Pointing to Qnary research that found more than 56% of consumers who follow a business leader on social media are more likely to buy from that company, he argues there’s a direct commercial benefit to having a digitally-present CEO. As such booting them off social media isn’t an option; but their presence should be managed.

Breen's top tips are:

1. Set up a monitoring and cyber security capability to track and notify you of posts, so you can remove/ amend/explain posts straight away.

2. Persuade your CEO to use a platform that evaluates posts for social media and legal compliance before they’re shared.

3. Create a digital footprint for the executive incorporating all social media channel handles; this stops others buying handles and impersonating the CEO.

4. Send the CEO on social media training, complete with simulations of what happens when posts are published.

5. Map out a protocol and plan for positive and negative scenarios.

6. Help prepare a content strategy to reflect the core beliefs the CEO and company stand for.

7. Support them to build an audience of supporters that will, fingers crossed, balance any fury resulting from an errant post.