Passive Aggressive CEOs Destroy Companies

David Mandell
Oct 14, 2020

I’ve had two calls in the last week or so from CEOs I speak with often, both related to the same thing — not acting quickly enough to defuse real turmoil within the executive team. That’s just in the last week or so. This is an incredibly common issue that can have disastrous effects on a startup.

Most of us have a tendency to shy away from difficult issues between people. They’re messy. They’re scary. We don’t want to confront our friend(s) with things we’re not happy about. These are natural feelings, And we use them to justify a delay in action. Instead, we focus on the things we’re good at or comfortable with — we just need to get this code shipped, or we just need to finalize this funding, or I really have to focus on these other issues first before I can pay attention to that.

Of course these are all lies we tell ourselves so we don’t have to deal with the difficult, sticky, uncomfortable emotions surrounding the conflict among humans. For most, it’s a learned skill that’s doesn’t come naturally. Several of the CEOs I know can’t even shake someone’s hand and look them in the eye, let alone confront them in a productive manner about real issues.

Looking someone else in the eye and expressing frustration, or even potentially having to fire the other individual, is incredibly hard for most people. And it should be. If you’ve lost your emotional empathy for others, you’ve lost a great asset as a leader. But your responsibility is ultimately to the success of the business and you need to make decisions within that context.

So dealing with these kinds of people issues quickly and clearly is critical. It’s one of the primary jobs of a CEO. Creating an organization full of properly motivated and highly functioning people is absolutely the CEOs job. It can’t be delegated to a ‘Head of People’ role. The phrase, ‘people work for people, not companies,’ is spot on for the key senior people you want to help move your organization forward quickly and efficiently. And when they are clear on expectations and objectives, the good ones focus and execute.

So what’s the best way to handle these discussions and manage expectations effectively, in a way that helps both sides and, as a result, helps the company move forward?

Personally, I’ve always tried to rely on a framework that I heard somewhere along the way that seems to set up expectations correctly and facilitates a two-way conversation for resolving the issues. I’ve found it to be incredibly effective and productive. It’s also acted as a key foundation for one of my goals as a leader — no one should ever be surprised they are getting fired. I can’t say I’ve ever lived up to that goal completely, but I continually strive to get closer.

I don’t take credit for the framework, I’ve simply pieced it together from different people I’ve heard. If you know who created it, please reply and I’ll provide the proper credit here. But here is how the conversation works for me:

  1. There’s something I’m concerned about. Here’s exactly what it is. Do you agree?
  2. What do you prepose we do about it?
  3. How long should we give it?
  4. What do you think we should do if it doesn’t succeed?

Sounds simple. But to do it right, you have to truly listen to understand, not to reply and/or fix. It’s a real challenge is to let go of what you believe to be true and listen with the intent of understanding, not fixing, during the conversation. Many times we believe we know what’s going on when we are actually kidding ourselves. There could be underlying problems you’re missing that are creating the issue. Is the issue because someone is lacking needed resources? Is the issue that you are missing the customer reaction? Is it a personal issue that is temporarily causing a business issue that you can provide some time/space/understanding to help resolve and then create a better situation? The goal of the first part of the conversation is to truly understand. Not to accuse or blame. It’s easy to simply point and blame, but striving to understand is how we move us and our businesses forward.

The second part of the conversation is about working together to develop a solution for the issue. Again, it isn’t about telling someone what to do, it’s about deciding together what an appropriate action is to work towards a resolution.

Are you starting to get a theme here?

The third part is about creating a time box for the resolution so there is real clarity of expectations around the proposed solution. I have no idea what the time box should be — again, that’s a result of a conversation around the depth of the issue, resources needed to get it resolved and many other factors. It’s not a quick decision. But the key is to decide together based on real data and goals.

Part four is where most people drop the ball.

“What do you think we should do if it doesn’t succeed?”

This is the hard part of the discussion where real consequences get communicated and agreed to. What do WE need to do to make sure that the COMPANY gets the results it needs? The highlight is to illustrate that this shouldn’t be a binary decision from the CEO. In the best case — which I will admit isn’t always possible — the entire context is around what is best for the company, and what decisions should we make to put the company in the best position possible.

It could be that someone needs to get reassigned to a different job that they can perform better. I could mean bringing someone senior in above the him or her. And yes, it also could mean that this isn’t the best job for that employee and the decision should be made that they should move on.

Whatever the decision, clarity around it should not be left until after the decided upon time box. It should be clear going in. That way, there are no surprises. Many times, the employee will understand that if they can’t get this done, then they need to move on and he or she will make the decision for you. But the real point, is to work together around mutually agreed upon company needs and the urgency and effect that person’s activities have on the whole.

In the overwhelming world of the CEO, it’s all too easy to ignore things that are emotionally difficult to deal with. There’s always something else you could be doing and always a good self-justified excuse to be doing it. But few things destroy companies quicker than co-founder or Exec team issues. Don’t ignore them ever. Don’t let passive aggression be the reason your company fails.

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