The avalanche of revelations and accusations of inappropriate and even criminal behavior on the part of senior executives, business owners, and celebrities reached the White House last week. As concerning as the accusations are, it is more disturbing to think that those we know about are merely those we know about.

Executives with whom I work, and others I speak with ask me the same question. What do I do when this happens in my company? The number of leaders who remain convinced it cannot happen in their company has fallen to a new low and rightly so. Many are steeling themselves for what they feel is inevitable.

Some have quietly dealt with bad actors, including one that removed a CEO in a manner that is a model for what to do. Face the issue, be quick and act unequivocally. This company didn’t miss a beat and thrives today.

Another CEO of a Fortune 500 company agonized when he learned that the COO, a close personal friend, was involved in an extra-marital affair with a woman who reported to him. By the time the CEO learned of it, many in the company were suspicious. The rumor mill was sucking up mental energy and time; a loss for the company. Further, the CEO was deemed either clueless or complicit. He finally dealt with the issue, firing the COO but the story of this situation lingers long after the fact.

Why is it so uncommon for companies to deal with anti-social behavior even when it causes a crisis, never mind before?

First, when a crisis emerges, leaders don’t always recognize it. They may be in momentary shock. Denial is a well-studied defense mechanism that protects us emotionally but can blind us to reality. It is precisely what keeps leaders from seeing smaller acts of anti-social behavior for what they are – clues.

Second, some advisors speak to leaders about containment. They encourage inaction and craft softball public relations statements. This prolongs the agony and later will be judged as dishonest and clueless. Be mindful that some who offer advice have a stake in the outcome and some may have contributed to causing the crisis.

Third, psychoanalysis is rampant during a crisis in human interactions. Assuming to know the intentions of another, then acting as though your assumption is true will lead even a talented leader astray. The land mines along this path are buried so deep you can’t possibly see them, even within yourself.

Fourth, feeling loyal to an individual. This shows up as an honorable trait but when it is misplaced, it actually interferes with our ability to see that we have been fooled. Leaders must remember they are responsible for organizations, teams, corporations, shareholders, and so forth. The haunting sense that we did see bad behavior but did nothing, influences our thinking whether we recognize it or not.

Fifth, short-sightedness creates a mindset of reactivity. Such a mindset obscures the ultimate reason why an organization exists, for whom and why the leader is in his or her role in the first place.

There are six things leaders should do in a crisis.

  1. Recognize you are in a crisis and behave accordingly.
  2. Ask for help from someone who is independent.
  3. Observe behavior rather than interpreting it.
  4. Adopt a courageous mindset.
  5. Remind yourself, as often as needed, of your purpose.
  6. Surround yourself with people who are brave, not accomplices.

My personal experience, as a consultant, is that executives and boards are reluctant to pay attention to small acts of inappropriate behavior, especially when the performance of the company is excellent. When I reported the bad behavior of a CEO to his board, many years ago, they almost laughed at me. A couple of lawsuits later, it’s not so funny.

Anti-social behavior shows up in small ways that provide a clue. People who take advantage of others, take credit for their work, act like bullies, or use company resources as their own, are breaching normal boundaries of civil human interaction.

You don’t need to psychoanalyze, just watch behavior and pay attention. Click To Tweet

Unfortunately, too many leaders and their teams waste valuable time and reputational capital playing psychologist, staring into personality profiles wondering where the clue to the bad behavior might be. The clue is in the behavior itself, individual and collective.

Would you challenge the decision-maker who doesn’t take action or the person with the anti-social behavior? Let me know in the comments below.