Early in the first season of Ted Lasso, the curmudgeonly team captain, Roy Kent, confronts Ted, the coach, about the bullying behavior of superstar—and quintessential jerk—Jamie Tartt:
“Aren’t you going to do something?” Kent growls. When Ted replies that he intends to do nothing, Kent huffs and storms out.
Ted then admits to his side-kick, Coach Beard, that he’s intentionally winding Roy up to the point where Roy figures it’s his job to do something about the bullying.
Which, by the way, it is.
Roy is the captain, and one of the jobs of the captain is to create the team culture—to model and enforce the right behavior for the team.
But many leaders I coach are just like Roy Kent. Maybe they drop fewer F-bombs, and don’t openly snarl, but they’re similar in that they don’t see their job as confronting jerks.
Especially superstar jerks.
They can give feedback on technical issues, correct mistakes, give advice about tasks and deliverables, but when it comes to Jamie Tartt-like behaviors—whether demeaning their coworkers, rolling their eyes when others speak, being sarcastic, defensive, or aggressive—many leaders are loath to intervene.
Such leaders have common refrains:
- They’re adults and can sort it out themselves
- Look, it’s a tough business; people need to develop thick skin
- You just have to get to know him; he’s not all that bad
- Well, she delivers results. If that’s what it costs, then I’m ok with it
- Look, people-issues are HR’s job
- Anyway, whatever I say won’t change anything
One VP I coached said: I’m too busy focusing on the product, customers, and fixing bugs. What I care about is winning market share, shipping a product on time, gaining more customers—not people’s feelings.
Roy Kent was that way. He didn’t appreciate the gravity of his role. Or rather he just didn’t see his role completely. He thought being a captain was about what he did on the pitch—not what he did, said, or modeled in the locker room.
I get it. People don’t go into business to confront bullies. They didn’t spend $100,000 on an MBA to learn how to deal with interpersonal conflict or intervene when someone is rude. There was no class on active listening or giving feedback in the finance or engineering program.
But it’s critical to take a stand against high-performing jerks.
In other words, what’s tolerated becomes the norm.
It’s not just one high-performing jerk, but it’s an entire culture and team at risk. When people see a behavior tolerated, they get the message: it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you bring the goods.
We see this happening on a political scale: when no one calls out politicians for threats of violence, violence becomes OK, and then there’s more violence.
So how do you overcome the reluctance to confront workplace bullying?
Here are three of the most common objections & excuses I hear and ways to overcome them:
1. It just won’t work. I won’t have an impact.
Remember, you’re not calling out an action to change a single person’s behavior. You’re doing it because by not doing it, you’re sending the message that a) the behavior is ok, and b) people in power, or with high rank, can get away with it.
Nothing is more demoralizing to a culture than to see that those in power get away with bad behavior. Taking a stand, regardless of outcome, sets a better tone.
2. But what about results? She brings in revenue!
That’s cherry picking data. When you focus only on revenue or results, you’re failing to factor in the costs of collateral damage: turnover and retention, decreased productivity by others and dysfunctional teams/teamwork.
Studies have compared the costs of keeping high-performing bad actors versus terminating toxic workers. They found that replacing a toxic high performer with an average worker provides more benefit than retaining the high performer because of the effects of toxicity on team culture.
I’m always amazed that leaders overlook the costs of poor teamwork. Imagine what your team could do if everyone got along, could collaborate effectively, and supported one another?
3. But previous managers allowed it. I won’t be supported if I object.
Take a step back and examine your role. You’re being paid for your leadership point of view, to have an opinion. No matter what an individual boss might say or think, you are not being paid to tow the party line.
Your job is to contribute knowledge and perspective. And that means speaking up, even if you don’t want to, even if you doubt yourself, and even if others disagree.
It’s vital that as a leader, you have a set of values that you model. And those values have almost nothing to do with what you say and absolutely everything to do with your actions.
If you’re not showing up in alignment with your values—or if you permit behavior from others that you yourself would not engage in, then what do you expect from those around you, the people following your lead?
As a leader, your legitimacy and influence comes not only from what you do, but also by what you permit and tolerate from others.
And even if confronting bad behavior isn’t fun, the cost of simply “letting it slide” is more than any organization can afford.
Thanks for reading.
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