CEOs: How to have a proper bloody row during COVID-19

I’m noticing an increase in boardroom tension since lockdown. Boardrooms are always full of human drama but, based on calls I ‘m receiving, and what I hear on the Zoomvine, COVID-19 is bringing way more heat than light into our C-Suites than usual.

Roughly speaking, the rows are about three issues:

  • the other person isn’t doing want I want them to do
  • the other person is behaving appallingly towards me/others but mainly me
  • the other person “doesn’t get it” meaning they don’t get me 

Does this sound familiar?

What if the other person changed their behaviour because you changed yours? Can you imagine that?

You know, deep down, that even though you want to throttle the other person, you need them; they need you, and the organisation needs both of you at full throttle, as it were, in the service of the people in your organisation at this time of existential risk to get out of this mess.

The cost of an unresolved row between two senior leaders during a crisis is incalculable.

A few years ago at the Hay Festival, I attended a fascinating lecture by historian Antony Beevor about his new book, Arnhem: The Battle For The Bridges, 1944 in which he describes, almost on an hour by hour basis, that devastating defeat. During Q&A, I asked him if there was any evidence about the behaviour of the decision-makers involved in the plan, codenamed Operation Market Garden.

He said that the behaviour that led to decision-making errors was appalling. Nothing that would surprise you or your colleagues: overconfidence, wrong or skewed intelligence, last-minute changes, poor communications and above all, vanity.

As with many boards, dissenting voices were neither encouraged nor heeded. One member of the military team saw the flaws in the plan but was ignored and sidelined, a regular occurrence in business.

I had a sense that the top team were rowing not just about strategy but about bruised or potentially bruised, egos.

I acknowledge that the war context is wholly different in implications than in peacetime business and is not comparable, but the behaviour is identical.

But it’s not just the cost of bad rows at the top that matter, it’s the opportunity cost which can be even higher. According to historians, the failure of Operation Market Garden ended hopes of finishing the war before the end of 1944. A huge opportunity cost of not having a few proper military boardroom rows.

I understand that you may feel that the example is a bit “OTT” for your organisation – that doesn’t happen on your board – but let me give you a sense how I’ve seen this play out with others:

  • the other person on the team or board is not “pulling their weight”
  • the other person “is taking dangerous risks”
  • the other person “is impossible to work with and they’re getting worse”

What if there was a way through this? What if it were possible to have a “proper row,” i.e. one where tough stuff gets said, but the outcome is productive? What if this angst which is keeping you, or if not you, someone else awake at night could somehow go away so that you all could get stuff done?

What might that process look like?

  • You and the other person would be on the same page on your objectives…
  • …on the same page on the approach to achieve those objectives…
  • and on the same page as to how everyone should behave in getting there

In theory at least, would that not mean that any disagreement could be sorted in the light of these three steps?

In theory, yes, but how can this be put into practice without the exchange going totally off the rails and ending in disaster?

My solution is to have a proper bloody row. By proper, I mean one that ends productively. By bloody I mean – no holds barred in terms of expressing how strongly you feel. By row, I mean a robust exchange of views on a matter of shared interest. Here are the steps I use in advising clients who ask how they should confront the other person:

Step 1. Meet or Zoom the other person. Do not; repeat do not write an email to them. You cannot have a proper bloody row by email. You’re not Tolstoy.

Step 2. Ask them if they still agree with, what I call, the PSB of the business: its current purpose, strategy and behaviour. Frequently I find that there are unaddressed or unresolved differences of opinion, particularly on purpose and strategy, which are the underlying causes of many rows. No team or board can achieve success unless they have a shared purpose and shared strategy. If one person wants to get rich at all costs and another sees money merely as a collateral benefit of providing a product or service that they love, then they don’t have a shared purpose, can’t have a shared strategy and rows are inevitable. It’s clear from Antony Beevor that the generals and politicians didn’t exactly have a shared purpose. Their project was doomed from the start.

Step 3. Provided only that you are on the same page as to purpose and strategy and if you are not do not, repeat do not, move to Step 3 which is the bloody bit and that I mean that you tell the other person in no uncertain terms how you feel. I don’t mean how you feel about them; I mean how you feel concerning the impact of the other’s behaviour on the already agreed shared purpose and strategy. This is part of a FEEL/NEED/DO approach that many experts, including Marshall Rosenberg in his book Non-Violent Communication recommend. You can’t go wrong if you start the sentence with the word “I”, and not “you”. As in “I feel anxious about how we are going to get through COVID-19; we need all hands on deck to get through it and achieve what we all agreed at the last board meeting, and I feel that you are distracted and doing other things and we need you fully on board, and I feel you’re not. I’ll be honest. I often feel furious about that, but more importantly, I’m very worried about the business. ” Full stop. Don’t be tempted to use the word “frankly” which will emphasise your anger. While you can honour your anger, it’s best to focus on your anxiety as it is a deeper truth than your anger and the other person is more likely to listen to your concerns.

Step 4. Shut up. Don’t speak. Stay silent. This is key. Let the other person speak. Do not interrupt them.

Step 5. Continue to use FEEL/NEED/DO and link it with organisational PSB no matter what they say. For example, you find they say that “…fair comment I am up to my eyes with other stuff…” in which case you can move on to Step 6 or they might say “…I don’t accept that, how would you know what I’m doing…you never call me except to moan…how dare you traduce me…” or they might say something else. The key point is that you don’t know what they feel until they tell you and if you attack them, why would they tell you anything? And you might learn something new. And you might find as is usually the case that there are two sides to the row and you may be part of the problem. If you are: own it. Use FEEL/NEED/DO in response to everything they say and you won’t go wrong.

Step 6. Agree a “soft contract” on future behaviour in the light of shared PSB and what you both have learned from the exchange as in: “I have agreed to check in with you more often, and you have agreed to be more present”.

Step 7. Legislate for the breach. Being human, each of you will breach your soft contract. Agree in advance how to call out that breach. People vary in how they like to be told off. Some can’t bear confrontation in a group so tell them in a 1-1 meeting. Avoid shaming at all costs.

This approach works with most clients, but some say: “…those steps sound great but won’t work in our case because X is a total psychopath”.

To that I say:

  • if you’re so sure they’re that bad, then leave
  • or why not try it. I know from experience that if you change your behaviour, you will notice a least some shift in theirs
  • finally, how do you know you are not part of the problem unless you ask?


Ciarán Fenton

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