The Leader Gone Rogue: Cultural Context, Crisis Management and Team (Re)building 

Guy Sapirstein, PhD

Resilience Consulting, LLC

In the early fall I received a call from a senior leader in a small (80-person) national organization. He was clearly shaken up, and was requesting my assistance with a crisis that had recently unfolded in the organization. We met as quickly as we could, and along with the HR manager described the crisis. It turned out that one of their local directors was “abusing” (their word) her team and had been for several years. Her behavior became so egregious that one of the institutional partners contacted him and said they would no longer work with the director (or allow her access) due to her recent outburst in their facility. She was promptly placed on administrative leave pending an internal investigation.

Engagement Meeting

In my initial meeting with the senior leaders I wanted to learn about the organization’s culture and internal history. I had read their website which outlined explicit values and indicated an organization that strives for the highest ideals and latest approaches to managing its talented group of employees. The senior managers were very articulate in describing the values and principles of the organization. After a little prodding they were also able to point out how the organization did not always live up to those principles. They also spoke about a ‘re-org’ that took place a few years previously and the lingering impact this re-org (which was well conceived but poorly executed) had on the organization.

The Intervention with the Team

After spending time learning about the organization’s history, culture, and structure, I went to meet with the team. We discussed what had been going on, which team members were especially targeted, how the director’s strict instructions to not communicate with the national (corporate) office were constantly reinforced through creating suspicion and fear, and finally, how the team managed to deal with her extremely difficult style. After getting what I thought was enough information to formulate a clear picture, I asked them why they didn’t report her behavior? I was expecting to hear the standard response about fear of retribution, but was shocked at what I actually heard.

The team’s facial expressions revealed that I had touched a raw nerve. All of the team members gave examples of either communicating there was a problem to people at the corporate office, or receiving acknowledgement from corporate staff that there was a known problem with this director. This information cast the situation in a very different light. Not only was the team dealing with an abusive leader, they also had to contend with the organization knowing, yet doing nothing about it. As could be expected there had been some turnover in the team, but their productivity was high despite how they were being treated. They were concerned about having a chance encounter with the suspended leader since she lived in the vicinity of the office and frequented the café they all liked to go to for lunch. As a result, they avoided the café and some changed their routines of getting to work (taking different routes, different methods of transportation, etc.). In individual meetings some of the team members disclosed having nightmares about work, crying when they got home, and all experienced significant levels of stress.

Feedback Meeting with Senior Management

With those insights and new information, I returned to meet with the senior leadership of the organization. They were understandably upset and dismayed upon learning of further details of the events. Their reaction to the team’s assertion that people in the national office were aware of the situation was fascinating. They began with some acknowledgement that this was, in fact, true, but the really interesting development was an inadvertent comment by one of the participants. That individual alluded to the fact that the senior leadership team was also experiencing problematic behavior by one of the executives of the organization.

Now everything made complete sense. The organization had a problematic leadership culture. While the specific incident I was called in to help with was particularly bad, it was simply a matter of degree, rather than being qualitatively different, than what others in the organization were experiencing.  The underlying cultural pattern was the reason that the knowledge of inappropriate behavior was not a sufficient red flag. The leadership culture combined with the poorly executed re-org created the necessary conditions for a mid-level leader to isolate their team from the rest of the organization and mistreat them.

Managing the Crisis and Rebuilding the Team

The three psychological principles for successfully managing crisis situations are “Safety”, “Predictability”, and “Control”. “Safety” refers to perceived or subjective sense of safety (in addition to objective safety), “Predictability” refers to maintaining structure and familiar format, and “Control” is about giving people a sense of ownership over their own destiny.

During my group and individual meetings with the team it became clear that although they had suffered from the leader, they were also resourceful and dedicated to the mission of the organization. Intuitively, they knew that the way to best deal with the situation was to remain as a team throughout the aftermath (leader’s suspension and subsequent termination). Although one or two of the senior team members could have easily stepped into the (formal) leadership role, they elected to maintain the team structure (“predictability”).

The team’s observations about the situation and their recommendations were astute and appropriate.

  • “From the frying pan into the fire”: the team expressed concern (“Safety”) that the new leader would also have poor leadership skills (several team members had experienced a few bad leaders in the current and past positions). They wanted to have an influence (“Control”) on who would fill that role.
  • Bridging the divide: team members acknowledged lingering suspicion of the corporate office, but wanted to have more interaction with corporate staff in order to be better integrated with them.
  • Taking ownership: In follow up meetings the team decided it wanted more leadership and control over its internal process. Since their productivity was high (including during and immediately after the crisis) they felt they did not need micro-management but rather high-level leadership. This translated into the following:
    • Determining the agenda for team meetings (i.e. identifying what they needed help with).
    • Assigning all team members roles in the meetings (e.g. facilitating the meeting, time keeping, taking minutes, providing the high level context, focusing on details, etc.).
    • Defining the role of director as a leader in charge of strategy and direction, ensuring there are no operational gaps, and focusing on higher-level issues (e.g. strategic collaborations). Finally, they expressed the need for the leader to also be a (professional) mentor.

In addition to the team’s observations, recommendations, and requests, there were other recommendations that were relevant to the senior corporate leadership.  The most obvious, yet difficult, was initiating a process of reviewing the organizational leadership. Given examples of other similar situations that occurred in the organization, there appeared to be a systemic problem that needed to be more clearly defined and addressed. Along with that comprehensive review of leadership and culture, it was important for the organization to examine aspects of human resources management.  Specifically, it became obvious from conversations with the team that they were not clear about the role that HR played in the organization (beyond hiring and benefits management). Finally, since there were indications that more than one leader had a problematic style, it would make sense to review the hiring practices and process as well as professional development of the leaders in the organization.

Thoughts and musings

This organization and the crisis (crises?) it experienced are not unusual. In fact, this type of crisis happens quite frequently, only it is typically glossed over rather than systemically addressed. Reflecting over the project several observations and issues come to mind:

·       Poor leadership does not always result in poor productivity: the team described above routinely performed as well if not better than other teams in the organization – not due to the style of the team leader, but rather thanks to the resourcefulness of the team members. They were dedicated to their job and the organization’s mission, and did whatever they could to ensure its success.

·       Just because negative consequences aren’t apparent now, doesn't mean they won’t come back to bite you later: the story of this organization illustrates how faulty organizational processes impact culture and functioning in the long term. The seeds for this situation were sown during the ‘re-org’ several years back and fertilized by similar behavior by one of the executives.

·       Open lines of communication throughout the organization are critical for ensuring the adherence to the cultural values: contributing to the chaos was a process structure that inhibited open and continuous communication between the teams and the corporate office.  This lack of communication made it more difficult to detect dysfunction and respond to it rapidly and effectively.

·       Just because you say it’s so, doesn't make it so: the organization’s website had a page dedicated to its value system. Those values were carefully thought out and articulated. Unfortunately, despite the careful and deliberate planning, the execution was lacking and in practice, the organization was not following its own values.

·       Negative situations can have positive endings: Appropriate resolution to crisis situations can lead to increased team cohesion, self-directed leadership, and overall organizational efficiencies. The team in question proved this very successfully.

Postscript

In the weeks following the termination of the team leader I met again with the team.  We reviewed how things were going internally and in relation to the corporate office. Although a permanent replacement had not been named yet, they were in a good mood, all were motivated, and their performance was above average for the organization.

Before leaving I asked whether they had gone back to the café they all loved but had avoided since the crisis unfolded. Demonstrating that they had reclaimed their sense of safety, and resumed the routines they had avoided for fear of seeing their former leader, they all replied “Yes!”




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