HR Roundtable: What Do You Do With Problem Leaders?

Article main image
Sep 8, 2017

The (Cincinnati) Roundtable reconvened in August after taking a break for the July 4th holiday. To get the energy up for everyone, the topic seemed to be poised to get people involved. We discussed the idea of approachability and leadership. To get everyone talking, the small groups considered the following questions:

  1. What do you, or companies, do with ineffective leaders?
  2. What do you do with leaders who are jerks?
  3. How can you teach approachability and why is it important?

Steve cautioned the small groups to not get hung up with a cloud of negativity on Question #2 because there are some solid things about HR that should remain more constant. The energy level popped up when everyone began chatting, and here’s what they had to report out when they covered all of the questions.

1. What do you, or companies, do with ineffective leaders?

Promote them — This was amazing that this was the first response given. However, it came out first because it’s true! Organizations are notorious for allowing people to be ineffective and just accepting this is the norm. It’s the, “Yeah, we now he/she isn’t good, but he/she is a nice person.” Nice is awesome and is a phenomenal characteristic that is needed. Organizations also need you to be someone who performs and contributes.

Ignore them — It’s astonishing how people can be anonymous within the fabric of a company, even at the leadership level. It really is. Think about it. A person has earned, or has been given, a leadership role and if they conform and don’t rock the boat, we’re good. Have you ever wondered why we allow people to settle? It may feel comfortable, but how long will that approach work? It’s not fair to employees to be anonymous. We need to step in and make sure they’re noticed and exist.

Tolerate them and keep them in cubbyholes — This is another reality of company practice, but it isn’t healthy. You tend to see this in people who are specialists who bring a highly-focused set of skills. It may be very difficult to secure this skillset, so we are more thankful to have someone with an expertise vs. wondering if they’re effective or not. Don’t fall into this trap!

Fire them — It’s interesting that HR people cringe when we say these words out loud. I agree that we should never be geeked about someone losing their job. We should always remember that this situation changes someone’s life. However, allowing someone to just float within an organization isn’t good for that person or the company. Separation may be the best decision for all involved.

2. What do you do with leaders who are jerks?

I know the word “jerk” sounds a bit harsh, but if we’re honest, we use much worse adjectives to describe people who are difficult in our companies. We try to cover it up and talk “around” this to be politically correct, but it’s hypocritical at the same time. So, Steve pushed the attendees to be more candid about leaders who are difficult. This question was about people who are consistently horrible.

Avoid them — This is a more drastic approach than the ineffective leaders mentioned before. If people are difficult, we’ll do our best to not interact with them at all. We hope that the difficult leader will “get it” when people avoid them, but that rarely happens. Most people felt that the leader continues to be difficult and may even enjoy that people are avoiding them. Please note that this stance helps no one.

Gossip about them — We have to own this as HR people! Organizations have conversations about difficult leaders (and employees in general) every day. However, the conversations usually occur with other people who are not the people who are difficult. That is sad and unacceptable. We need to quit talking around people and talk to them instead. There is no value in gossip by any employee ever.

Pass the trash — This is exactly the response that was given, and it is an unfortunate practice that occurs too often. Instead of addressing, or working with, someone who is difficult, we move them to another role or department. We should be more vocal as HR leaders to step in and not allow this to occur because it never has a good outcome.

Coach, train and mentor them — I didn’t want to you to think that every response was negative about difficult leaders. There is the positive approach: to work with someone and make them aware of how challenging they are. It’s not fun or easy to do, but it is the best approach. They were hired for a reason at some time. If they were worth bringing on to the company, they’re worth the time to address and invest in. It doesn’t mean that it will always result in a positive outcome, but it’s solid HR.

Fire them — Yes, it had to be noted again. This is not as common an occurrence as terminating someone who is ineffective. We’re more hesitant to terminate jerks because we fear their reaction. It makes sense because we already tolerate their poor behavior and are working from a fear based position already. Keeping difficult leaders reflects poorly on your company’s culture. Get some courage, evaluate your options and act. Making the cut may be the best move you can make.

3. How can you teach approachability and why is it important?

Remember that “different” doesn’t equal “difficult”– It’s astonishing that a profession that desires legitimate diversity struggles with the reality that every person is different. All humans have unique personalities, styles and approaches to their work. We need to get more consistent as a profession that differences are strengths before we can venture into the area of approachability. It’s time for HR to have a serious reset!

Have the conversations you’re avoiding — Leaders shouldn’t work in a vacuum, a silo, or on an island. The conversations that are happening about someone’s behavior need to happen directly with the person. We will be stronger organizations when we have candid conversations. HR needs to set the model for this and insist that this be the norm and not the exception.

Focus on opportunities and not challenges — HR constantly tries to reveal the weaknesses and challenges of a person, and then say “Don’t do that anymore.” Never has worked. Never will. Take the time to discuss the feedback and observations you have and that you receive from others. Then, see how you can look for opportunities to address and improve the situation. This can take many forms; you need to see what works best in your organization and culture. Make it fit who you are culturally vs. trying to just copy what other companies do. Build an approach that can be realistic, tangible and sustainable.

Create the atmosphere of approachability — This isn’t the call for a program. It’s the call for HR to set the expectation that in order to be a leader, you need to be approachable. If you can’t do that, then you’re not allowed to lead. That is a HUGE step to ask an organization to consider, but it works. Eliminate the practice of settling once and for all. You’ll be amazed at how people respond when they know that leaders truly are approachable.

Take the steps to teach approachability — This is an incredible opportunity for HR to thrive and add value to an organization. If you’re able to make your leaders more effective and approachable, think of how much more your company has the chance to succeed as a whole. If you aren’t doing this now in HR, reevaluate how you’re practicing and see how you can do this as a significant part of all that HR does in your company.

Be approachable yourself first! — I know this should be the first bullet point in this section of the summary, but I felt it was stronger to end with this. HR has notoriously been aloof in organizations. We don’t have time to go into why we’ve ever thought this was an effective approach because it hasn’t been. Too many HR folks don’t enjoy what they do because they’ve taken the stance of practicing what they do at arm’s length. Change that today. I mean it. Today.

You deserve this personally and professionally. Set the example of what approachability should look like by practicing it yourself. To do that, you need a tool and I have one for you. I highly recommend that you check out the work of Phillip Wilson and get his Approachability Playbook. It is an incredible read that is also highly practical and useful regardless of your industry. Here is his site, and I hope you visit it to get his book so that you can make approachability a reality in your organization!

So grateful that the Roundtable got back together after the one month hiatus.