When I have taught MBAs Negotiations, some of the richest conversations about “how it really works” vs. how it is supposed to work. There are always references to specific individuals in the organization who seem to inhabit different worlds. Part of the education is to build skills in understanding and empathizing with other world views with the mantra that “reasonable people can reasonably disagree” about just about anything. The opportunity is to find an intersecting interest, which can be fulfilled despite differing underlying biased perceptions. This can be quite a psychological dance, and takes skill, perseverance, humility and patience in the real world.
I found myself recently looking up an article that had shown up in a previous course reading list: “Negotiating with Disordered People” by Elizabeth Jeglic and Alexander Jeglic. The article describes, from a clinical perspective, some of the common mental health issues in society. Such conditions may not only go untreated, but may even enable people’s corporate upward mobility. The Jeglics stop short of prescribing actions and strategies suggesting that is beyond the scope of the reading.
The net-net of the reading, from my perspective, is that when encountering a difference of opinion, there is some room between “Let me try to understand your perspective on this,” and “Wow! Are you serious?” I experience the latter when listening to Toronto’s Mayor, Rob Ford, and his city councillor brother Doug this week. What do you do when you are dealing with someone whose world is such that because something happened in the past, it is no longer relevant. (What doesn’t happen in the past?)
I really liked Chris Selley’s advice from the National Post earlier this week. (Note: this was before the infamous “Crack Tuesday”) Selley says to ignore them and withdraw the attention that appears to be the pair’s lifeblood. That is difficult to do, but it is a reasoned strategy called “avoid.” Cornered people can be dangerous; the response from a marginalized person tends to be much less dramatic simply because the audience is thinner. (As a distinct action in that direction, I just un-followed Rob Ford on Twitter.)
Business Ethics Professor, Chris MacDonald discusses the ethical implications of working for such an individual. This is a worthwhile discussion because as information seeps out, those closer to the situation always get an early look as the worm turns on such scandals.
For more junior employees, he says that “keeping your job” is one of the relevant considerations in determining how to address such a boss. In the spirit of freedom of choice, one would expect anyone working under such a leader to start looking for an exit strategy. Selfishly, given the “small world” nature of many industries, there is a downside to being seen as an enabler: beware of being tainted by an association that went on too long.
He goes on to say that for those further up the authority ladder, the loyalty should lie with the company’s mission, not with the leader. The more clarity the organizations have regarding the good they are trying to accomplish (including for whom), the easier it will be to make a reasoned appeal to others to move away from an unhinged leader and toward a greater good. As a preventative measure, clarity on the specific nature of value makes it easier to see when slight or sudden veers off track. This clarity allows a reasonable person to say “It is not that I am ganging up on you; it’s just that what you are doing is limiting our ability to (insert clear mission).”
In short, do what you can, which may include leaving, developing political workarounds, colluding, confronting or any number of other actions. Once enough is clearly enough, there is a shared responsibility to act.