Three steps to unblocking road blocking behaviour on your board of directors

Last week The Times reported that the term “roadblock” was used to describe a surgeon at the centre of a shocking medical malpractice case in the north of England.

Colleagues, apparently, had to “work around” him and concerns about his behaviour were either ignored by him or buried by others. The case reminded me of how prevalent this story is in business.

Although the roadblock cases we all witness on boards may not be as devastating as that one, they can nevertheless cause grievous harm to people and businesses.

But what can you do? These are often bright, effective and key people in the business. They may be robust in their dealings with colleagues but charming with clients and, crucially, they deliver results.

Challenging them is difficult. They are powerful and don’t use, shall we say, Queensbury Rules during difficult exchanges. In short, they bully.

It’s not easy to tackle this problem but it’s not impossible. In fact the issue itself is simple: how to deal with bullying behaviour. The problem is in mustering the courage and enlisting support to deal with it. I use a three step approach in my programmes which I hope you find helpful.

Step 1: Ensure that each director, including the “roadblock”, has a shared, and agreed, understanding of the objectives and strategy of the business.

More often than not, I find there isn’t such a shared understanding save that everyone wants to make as much money as possible. That doesn’t count in my book. That’s like breathing. It goes without saying.

Ask each director to come up with a more sophisticated objective than making money and a strategy to achieve it. The outcome can be surprisingly positive, productive and unifying. At the very least it will clarify any misunderstandings.

It’s crucial to ensure that the “roadblock” signs up to the strategy too. Don’t move to the next step until they do. You may find that this process leads to some softening by the offending director. Or not.

Step 2: Check that there is unanimity amongst all the directors on the roadblock issue. Unless everyone is saying the same things, the problem could be something, or someone, else.

If there is unanimity then agree that everyone on the board not only has the right but also the duty to call out the behaviour on the next occasion it arises. Then, crucially, the person who does call out the bad behaviour must be backed by the others.

This is not about “ganging up” but an important step in reinforcing the agreed approach in dealing with the roadblock which is about always coming back to business strategy and objectives, not personality differences. This is good corporate governance, not corporate politics.

Step 3: Is to make a small change in how everyone deals with the roadblock at board meetings. The principle here is that the other person won’t change unless you change first. A commitment to small change in behaviour, over time, is easier to secure than so called “transformational” change which is a lesser spotted occurrence than some commentators would have us believe.

On the next occasion and at a fully attended board meeting – ideally an operating board meeting, not a main board meeting because procedures tend to be more formal there – when roadblocking behaviour occurs, then one director must muster the courage to enquire how that behaviour helps implement the strategy to achieve the agreed objective. I say “must”, intentionally.

The response is likely to be a strong, if not brutal, push back or to obfuscate or both. Each director should in turn ask the same question or otherwise indicate that they back the questioner. It’s as simple as that, even though it may not feel that simple.

Unless you have chosen the wrong battle to fight or someone lets you down in the room, this approach should work, over time. You will find that on each occasion the other party is challenged to explain the link between their behaviour and business strategy to which, after all they have signed up, they will struggle to maintain the roadblock behaviour in the face of such ongoing unity of purpose.

If their behaviour is unconscious they may even see the light. On the other hand, if they are successful narcissistic bullies they will try everything to bully their way out of the challenge.

If every director sticks to their guns and quietly and calmly return, each time they are rebuffed or traduced, to the agreed business purpose and strategy the other party will have to relent, ultimately.

And if they don’t then the directors have a choice: either to remove the roadblock or become part of it themselves. Sadly, too often the latter is the case but it doesn’t have to be so, if everyone has each other’s backs.

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