Taking executive teams from passive-aggressiveness to accountability

A few simple steps can stamp out passive aggressive behavior in teams, and create better accountability instead, says Mark Murphy:

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Apr 6, 2023

In an ideal world, executive teams would role model all the best behaviors they want every other leader in their organization to demonstrate.

Executives would hold each other accountable; they would surface and resolve disagreements; they would expect people to speak candidly yet respectfully, and they would have people commit to decisions without a hint of passive-aggressiveness or backstabbing.

If only we lived in the real world!

Unfortunately, in our recent How Effective Is Your Executive Leadership Team? study, we discovered that executive teams struggle just as much as every other team.

For example, the research revealed that only 17% of executives strongly agree that their executive team holds each other accountable.

Only 19% of top executives strongly agreed that when a decision is made, everyone is fully committed without backstabbing or passive-aggressiveness.

Even worse is that when executives don’t hold each other accountable or commit to decisions without passive-aggressiveness, the damage is far worse than when it happens with a team of frontline employees.

Top teams magnify dysfunction

The power and stature of top leaders means that they magnify any dysfunctions on the executive team and set a dangerous precedent for everyone else in the company.

There are actions, however, that executive teams can take, to prevent or correct these challenges.


First, they could conduct an anonymous survey of their executive team members using the questions referenced above:

  • On our executive team, we hold each other accountable.
  • On our executive team, when we’ve made a decision, everyone is fully committed with no backstabbing or passive-aggressiveness.

As detailed in the recent report on employee surveys, leaders will want to use a 7-point survey scale ranging from Always to Never. Mistakenly using the standard 5-point scale on this type of survey will cause your scores to bunch up and thus prevent you from seeing any subtle dysfunctions lurking among the executives.

The primary purpose of this survey is to surface the extent to which there are issues that need fixing.

Nobody in a group enjoys admitting that there are challenges, let alone members of the company’s highest-ranking group. But virtually every team has at least a few challenges or opportunities, and the only way to kickstart the improvements is to admit the scope of the problem.

Better decision buy-in

Second, start forcing greater commitment to, or disagreement with, every decision.

For example, every time your executive team makes a decision and everyone has ostensibly agreed, ask each member of the team to answer this question: “If someone outside of this group asked you about the other options we considered but didn’t choose, what would your answer be?”

By asking every single executive this question, you’re surfacing any latent disagreements that, if left unspoken or unresolved, would become passive-aggressiveness or backstabbing.

When an executive answers that question by saying, “I would be honest and say that I don’t agree with the decision we made,” you and the other executives have the opportunity to address that head-on.

It’s a clearly unacceptable answer, and you can fix it by either overcoming that executive’s objections or directly confronting the passive aggressiveness. Either way, you surfaced a problem you didn’t know existed – a problem that would have blown up as soon as your meeting adjourned.

Blind-test decisions

Third, after you’ve surfaced latent disagreements, don’t adjourn your executive team meeting until you’ve performed a blind test of your group’s decisions.

Near the end of your meeting, ask every executive to write down what they believe the group decided during the meeting. It’s shocking to see the extent to which even the most talented group of executives don’t have the same understanding of the group’s decisions. And this simple exercise will reveal those misunderstandings before executives leave the meeting misaligned.

Great executive teams don’t happen by accident; they’re formed through candor, accountability, and a willingness to surface and solve tough issues.

The good news is that the steps aren’t complicated, and any executive team willing to confront these challenges directly is virtually assured of success.

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