One Bad Apple: Why Do CEOs Tolerate Destructive Team Members?

One difficult member of a CEO’s team will spoil the entire team, if not the company. CEOs must have the courage to take problem executives to task—or suffer the consequences.

An executive team certainly isn’t a bunch of apples, and an executive who causes problems on a team isn’t necessarily “bad.” But the analogy holds: one difficult member of a CEO’s team will spoil the entire team, if not the company it leads. Most CEOs understand this in theory, which provokes the big question: why do so many of them keep destructive team members long after they know there is a problem? The answer is twofold.

First—and I don’t make this claim lightly—many chief executives lack courage. In my two and a half decades of working with CEOs, I’ve seen so many of them make bad excuse after bad excuse for not getting rid of a destructive team member (okay, I’ve done it too). “He’s actually a pretty good guy once you get to know him.” “She’s really talented in her area of expertise; we need that.” “The board might think something is wrong with the team if I let him go.”

There are only two honest excuses for not firing a destructive leader, only one of them valid. The invalid one is, “I don’t want to have such an uncomfortable conversation with him. It will be too painful for me, uh, I mean him.” The valid one: “It wouldn’t be fair.”

Sometimes a CEO is right when he or she says that firing a problematic executive is unfair. That’s because, without having been brutally honest about the need for behavioral or performance-related change, taking decisive action cannot be justified. And few CEOs practice the kindness of brutal honesty. Why? Again, it’s the courage thing.

Without courage, none of this can change. But the second reason that CEOs don’t take decisive action is worse than the first, because it plagues even courageous CEOs: they don’t fully understand the impact that one, just one, problematic executive can have. Even the most intelligent chief executives don’t seem to grasp how drastically a defensive, self-centered or political person can alter a discussion and affect a team’s decision.

To be fair, it’s hard for them to notice all of the micro-moments during a meeting when good team members withhold or slightly modify a comment or suggestion to avoid provoking a reaction from that difficult person. And it’s impossible to accurately measure how much that person’s presence and behavior mutate a team’s decision-making, but that doesn’t make it any less real.

The impact can be devastating. If this weren’t bad enough, the impact that a problematic executive has on a company outside of team meetings may be even worse, because CEOs aren’t even around to witness it. They don’t see or hear about the confusion, discouragement and frustration that the executive’s behavior causes with his peers, direct reports and employees in the rest of the organization. And that’s to say nothing of the devastating impact on morale that comes about when people assume that the CEO actually approves of that person’s behavior.

CEOs who want to eliminate the problem of keeping destructive team members have to start by being more direct about any attitudes or behaviors that break down trust on their teams. They must quickly, consistently and persistently call out team members who are disingenuous, evasive or passive aggressive.

There is no alternative. And, of course, they must invite others to call them out too. When a difficult member doesn’t change his or her behavior after being reminded again and again, CEOs must sit down with that executive, in kindness and respect, and let him or her know that the decision is clear: you can commit to change or you can choose to leave.

If that sounds harsh, consider the harshness of that person’s impact on your organization’s morale, performance and bottom line. And consider that he or she has been adequately advised and forewarned. And perhaps most convincing of all, consider that he or she will be better off in a different bunch of apples, one where he or she actually belongs.