By Kerry Sulkowicz, M.D. At the company where I work—we make creative products for children—two of the top executives are at war with each other. They go off on rants, they use foul language, and from time to time they actually have shoving matches. Both of these men are top producers, I might add. What lies behind this behavior? And is there anything co-workers can do? We're appalled, but the boss won't step in. — Anonymous, New Jersey
You not only work for a company that makes products for children, you also have executives who behave like them. They resemble unruly siblings who can't stop fighting, and it's made worse because there's no parent to step in and exert some benevolent control and help them learn more adaptive ways to interact.
While any number of reasons could account for their unprofessional conduct, your boss's unwillingness to intervene might not only point to the missing solution, but in fact could be part of the cause. A lack of sorely needed authoritywhich includes the ability to act "parental" when necessaryoften precipitates regression in groups. By regression I mean just what you're describing: a retreat from reasonably mature professionalism to a more infantile set of behaviors.
WHAT CAN YOU and your colleagues do, besides feel appalled or demoralized? Don't try to take on the fighting executives directly. That's probably doomed to backfire. Rather than sitting idly by, though, it's worth talking to your boss in a matter-of-fact way, describing not just the executives' behavior but also its effects on the organization. One consequence of the fighting that might interest your boss is its impact on his own credibility as a leader. Few things are as compelling to leaders as their own loss of power and control.
That these executives are top performers doesn't make matters easier, as your boss may be afraid that if he confronts them they'll be less productive or quit. This common rationalization usually turns out to be an unfounded worry. In my experience working with CEOs who have teetered on the edge of self-destructiveness, I've found that they're ultimately appreciative of someone who reins them in, even if they don't readily admit it. It's not unlike the way neglected children who are acting up secretly hope a grown-up will appear and restore order. On the other hand, your executives already could be more liability than asset, and in the long run it might not be the worst thing if they decided to pack up their toys and go home.
Kerry J. Sulkowicz, M.D., a psychoanalyst and founder of the Boswell Group, advises executives on psychological aspects of business. Send him questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.