One of the most difficult challenges for business leaders is maintaining good interpersonal relations in the workplace. Each of us is painfully aware of the serious legal and financial consequences when reports of negative interactions with others go unaddressed. The problem is magnified if senior managers or the business owners themselves are the ones behaving poorly.
The governing documents of a business generally impose significant responsibilities on the owners, and employment agreements often govern the conduct to which employees are held accountable, standards that everyone should observe. Thus, regardless of our position within an organization, we are expected to act appropriately and professionally in the workplace. This expectation generally includes being courteous and respectful of the rights and dignity of co-workers, customers and patients alike and working cooperatively. Most organizations also use some form of employee handbook that adds an additional layer of responsibility and establishes standards in the workplace.
Negative interactions with others, such as engaging in harsh criticism, belittling the efforts of another person, using coarse language, raising the voice at another or intimidating a subordinate, demonstrate a general lack of cooperation with other employees. This behavior adversely affects morale, interferes with business operations, and reflects poorly on the public reputation and professionalism of the organization. What affects one person truly affects all in a closely-held organization or small business.
Unless the conduct is of such a serious nature that termination of employment is unavoidable, most organizations attempt to handle emerging behavior problems informally. A common difficulty is addressing the problem with a senior manager or owner who has a prickly, garrulous personality. In such instances, the leader may soft-pedal the message or excuse the behavior. In the worst case, the person will ignore any critical remarks directed at him or her. In many instances, the problem will recur necessitating a stronger intervention.
How, then, is an organization to confront such a difficult personality in a way that is both respectful and successful? Here are some strategies:
- Schedule a private meeting with at least two other senior managers present.
- Highlight the success enjoyed by the organization to date and the person’s past contributions to the organization.
- Emphasize the desire to work well together for many years to come.
- Cite the important standards everyone is expected to maintain.
- Note that difficulties in interpersonal communications may involve anyone but that the present conversation is focused on reports concerning a specific person.
- Emphasize that what affects one person affects everyone.
- Iterate that your goal is to talk about the reports and offer recommendations.
- Identify the personal risks involved.
- Talk about the financial and business risks, including legal exposure, if any.
- Set expectations going forward.
- Offer recommendations and proposed corrective measures.
- Conclude with the expectation that there will be no further problems and that if there are, the organization will take a more formal response, including disciplinary action.
Coping with a misbehaving senior manager or business owner can be stressful, but you will only postpone the inevitable emergence of a major problem by kicking the can down the road. Better to acknowledge that a problem exists early and take the necessary measures to address it.