People Do What Works, Until It Doesn’t


Issue:  Several years ago, a CEO was hired with a particular leadership style, which included a bullying. Her style has not changed. Recent events have highlighted its negative impact on the business. Private equity leadership recognizes that the behavior of their CEO is bad for business.

Active & Passive Promotion
If you assume everyone, save prisoners, is exercising their free will, then you may assume that everyone is doing what works for them. A ditch digger may not enjoy digging ditches in the rain but the sunny days out number the rainy days and paycheck works for him so he keeps digging ditches.

A CEO’s bad behavior works for her or one would assume that she would do something different. Similarly, private equity leadership may not enjoy the CEO’s bad behavior but, for tangible reasons, that CEO’s bad behavior works for leadership.

People do what works for them, until it doesn’t. When things stop working for them, they make a change and do things differently with the assumption that things will work better.

If you assume that leaders recognize the CEO’s bad behavior is bad for business, you can also assume that leaders perceive a cost associated with correcting that CEO’s bad behavior and that cost outweighs the benefit of intentionally correcting that bad behavior. Therefore, in order to change the bad behavior, leadership and the CEO must believe that the benefit of correcting the bad behavior outweighs the cost of the bad behavior.

If you assume that leadership has actively or passively promoted the bad behavior, then you can assume that leadership can impact the behavior, change the behavior, and promote good behavior rather than bad behavior.

Again, people do what works for them, until it doesn’t. Then, they make a change and do other things that work to their benefit.

Three Steps To Changing Behavior
First, begin with the premise that not only were leaders complicit, which to some may evoke a bystander role, but were actively engaged in promoting the bad behavior. Instead of “we have allowed this bad behavior to continue,” a more realistic view may be – “we have actively promoted this bad behavior.” This framework may help to remove some of the negative energy or “projecting blame” onto the CEO. Instead, a better framework is – we are all equal partners in what has taken place in the past and we can be active partners in creating a better future.

Next, define what healthy behaviors should be promoted in a CEO and what bad behaviors will not be tolerated so that everyone is on notice and can throw a flag when necessary. Although behavior is not a physical characteristic you can see, behavior can be defined with enough certainty to allow for somewhat of an objective measure.

Finally, one leader should have a face-to-face conversation with the CEO netting out past behaviors that have adversely impacted the business, consequences for bad behaviors (you will be asked to leave) and good behaviors that will be rewarded (you may keep your job).