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Human Resources

How to tame the bully on executive boards

Published 9 November 2023 in Human Resources • 6 min read

From animal instincts to boardroom battles, the effects of bullying at the top of a company can damage profitability. Heres how to make sure that doesnt happen.

In nature, it’s common to see animals make themselves bigger. Birds puff up their feathers, snakes raise themselves up and hiss, and pufferfish fill themselves with air, to make their rivals – or potential predators – seem comparatively small. The same dynamics are often at play in the boardroom.

It might come as no surprise that examples are legion in the senior ranks of banking, but no sector is clear of it. Travis Kalanick, founder of ride-hailing company Uber, was infamous for the “bro culture” he created at the firm, and Leslie Moonves, Chair and Chief Executive of CBS, became known for presiding over a sexist and bullying culture at the US broadcast television network. Kalanick and Moonves resigned from their positions in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

This is not a purely US phenomenon, of course. Last year, China’s Alibaba made the front pages after a whistleblower publicly accused the tech group of having a culture of sexual harassment and bullying. And in March this year, the board of the CBI, the UK’s most prominent business lobbying organization, came under fire after numerous complaints of bullying and sexual harassment were airbrushed by the executive committee.

These cases all follow a similar pattern: a strong CEO, usually male, is surrounded by executive committee members who practice similar behaviors. When a newcomer joins the board, the team wants to gauge and check out how strong they are. As a result, the chief executive will, maybe after a short grace period, push them to test their mettle.  

How to recognize bullying

Executive boards are normally composed of tough and ambitious people who have gone through organizations and are used to the give and take of that power space. But what should you do when the “give and take” of robust discussion moves into bullying?

This can manifest itself in a series of micro-aggressions in the way that the chief executive behaves towards board members. It could be rudeness in emails that goes beyond conciseness; gaslighting to make them question their own memory, perception, or sanity; or simply talking over them during meetings.

It is a myth to say that bullying occurs only in companies that are struggling. It is not as simple as that. It exists in good and bad times. 

pressureIn the first example, a member of the executive team isn’t performing well. This tends to put this person under pressure from the executive and other team members

If you were to do a research study, you would probably see a greater prevalence of bullying when things are tough. However, correlation is not necessarily causation. I once worked in a financial institution that was doing extraordinarily well, but where there was considerable infighting in the push to take credit for anything good that happened. On the flip side is my experience at a company that was genuinely struggling, but had limited office politics and considerably less bullying. Instead of a blame culture, the company had a commendable “all hands on deck” approach, which made us feel we were all in it together, rather than being in competition.

Why does bullying occur?

Bullying rears its head most commonly in two different cases.

In the first example, a member of the executive team isn’t performing well. This tends to put this person under pressure from the executive and other team members, and only rarely have I seen people stand up for each other. There is simply too much at stake.

The other situation can happen when a divisional head starts to think that they could do the job better than the chief executive. They tend to sit in a business unit that is central to the company’s profits, and it is one that is currently performing strongly.

As long as the chief executive has the mandate to influence the truth in the eyes of the supervisory board, the individual can be talked down to make sure the chief executive remains “the one on top”. Attempts to minimize and sideline them become apparent, particularly during business planning meetings or performance reviews.

The knock-on effect for the rest of the team can also be significant and it can essentially freeze the board.

Executive members often decide to keep their mouths shut and stop contributing in meetings. No one is prepared to say anything because they don’t want to get dragged into the power struggle, or because they don’t want to be jumped on by either of the two players.

In extreme examples – and I have seen this – board members end up resigning or going on sick leave.

How to change a bullying culture

A culture of bullying will usually end up with people leaving. In a power fight between a chief executive and a divisional head, you can generally bet on the chief executive winning – but if the struggle drags on, recruitment consultants are circling birds. They have insight into what is going on with the divisional head and might lure them away to another role in a smaller organization where they become the number one. It is rarely an ideal solution, but it does resolve the problem. It doesn’t, however, have to get this far.

policyBoth Google and Microsoft, for example, have detailed policies on workplace conduct, prohibiting bullying and harassment that started with the board

To prevent bullying from showing its ugly face and to stop senior members leaving, organizations need to address it head on. They should work on the definition and shape of the corporate culture they want and clearly define acceptable behaviors. These should be reviewed on a regular basis to make sure that everyone understands this isn’t just a flash-in-the-pan whim.

A number of corporations have done this successfully in the past few years. Both Google and Microsoft, for example, have detailed policies on workplace conduct, prohibiting bullying and harassment that started with the board. Microsoft has gone further. As well as  training programs for board members on how to prevent and address bullying, it has explicitly made them accountable for policy violations and behavioral concerns.

My view is that it starts at the top. The chief executive and the executive team have to understand the role they play in shaping the culture for the whole company. The chief executive should seek support from the chief human resources officer (CHRO) to hold him or herself accountable for leading through example.

One option, if it is the chief executive who is leading the bullying, is for the CHRO to engage an external expert to address the situation with the team. The expert can deal with the broader issues the team faces in a non-confrontational manner, which then allows the CHRO to focus on being a team member, rather than having to deal with any fallout that might come from calling out the chief executive.

The board should discuss it, live with it, and then have follow-up discussions to make sure that this is how they want the culture to look. For an organization to do this successfully, it has to start with the executive team.

Once a desired culture and its associated behaviors have been agreed upon, it becomes much easier to develop a high-performing team and, crucially, to call out any issues long before they become a problem that could evolve into bullying. Not only does this drive culture, strategy, and purpose, it also lays the groundwork for greater corporate success.

Authors

Lars Häggström is Senior Adviser at IMD Business School and a former CHRO at Stora Enso, Nordea and Gambro

Lars Häggström

Senior Adviser, IMD Business School

Lars Häggström is Senior Adviser at IMD and a former CHRO at Stora Enso, Nordea and Gambro.

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