The resignation of Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative party after an accelerating wave of scandals and the departure of many of his former allies from their government positions has seen HR professionals reflect on how leadership should deal with loss of confidence.
Psychology in the workplace is one area that leaders need a degree of self-awareness of, given that decisions and policies can be influenced by impulses that aren’t necessarily in the interests of the organisation, according to Sarah-Jane Last, founder of The Work Psychologists.
“You see a lot of this sort of thing in the corporate environment,” she told Personnel Today, in reference to Johnson clinging on while formerly loyal ministers deserted him.
“You also see it a lot in offices generally and certainly the school playground.”
She explains that the “in-group” and “out-group” theory of social psychology explains much of the behaviour witnessed within the UK government. “Being social animals, we want to be part of a group… you want to be in the trendy, cool in-group.
“This government was a classic in-group where, despite everything Boris did, people stayed in the in-group because they saw that there no consequences for going along with his behaviour. Politics is a fight for survival – it’s very pack-like.”
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Within a couple of days, the groups have reversed, she says. “What was the out-group is now the in-group, and people don’t want to be in the out-group despite the fact it encompassed their previously expressed opinions and positions.”
Personnel Today has previously looked at the role of psychology in leadership and asked whether the rise of populism during the 2010s, particularly in terms of the rise of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, injected tension into organisational ethical leadership.
Last – who likened some of Johnson’s characteristics to those associated with grandiose narcissism – adds that desperation to stay part of the in-group leads to faulty decision-making and further bad behaviour. “Why on earth did not Rishi Sunak leave sooner?” she asks. “It’s all about the powerful instinct to remain part of the group.”
Associate professor of management learning and expert in leadership Dr Chris Dalton, from Henley Business School, agrees that self reflection is important in leaders. He tells Personnel Today: “Is Boris Johnson any good at the vital leadership skill of reflecting? On the public evidence of the last few days and weeks, the answer has to be: no, he is not.
“Whether or not you like his charm or cringe at his character, an inability to observe, without judgment, the world as it is” is vital in good leaders. The lack of it can lead to a “sequence ending in disastrous decision-making on issues with real and lasting consequences”.
Dalton adds: “Every political leader requires some acumen to get to the top. However, that sort of public climb only implies a certain type of relational awareness. If it is one concerned with pleasing or dominating others, or finding validation in the eyes of others, then it can only get a person so far. No doubt every leader needs some of this awareness, but if it is not balanced by an ‘acumen of the self’, the person will be lost in the external priorities of staying put in their ascent.
Failure to reflect could lead to a sequence ending in disastrous decision-making on issues with real and lasting consequences” – Dr Chris Dalton, Henley Business School
“But no one stays at the top indefinitely. The only question is how, and not whether, they will descend. Boris Johnson is not likely to become a self-aware and reflective thinker. He will not place himself beneath the role or in service of something larger than himself.
Managing senior employee departures
Clearly, politics is a unique arena in which many of the hoops organisations must jump through to dismiss senior staff are absent. But for Kirstie Beattie, employment solicitor at employment law and HR support firm WorkNest, the past few years of scandal, climaxing with Johnson’s resignation and governmental chaos, highlights the processes of managing employees’ departure from organisations.
“If a leader or senior person in your workplace has come under fire about their conduct over a long period of time and this has culminated in resignations from others, they may – as in the case of Boris at the start of the week – may still be unwilling to accept their shortcomings so there is no guarantee that they will jump before they are pushed. Many will instead stick around to find out what, if anything, the employer might offer them to part company on mutually agreeable terms.
Beattie points to the difficulties companies experience in dismissing senior employees. “Despite what we see and hear about workplace issues in parliament and how they are handled, in the absence of a settlement agreement, employers must be careful not to exert too much pressure on an employee to resign. If an employee is left feeling they have no option but to resign because of the employer’s conduct, they might consider themselves constructively dismissed. If the employer has blatantly said ‘We want you to resign’, defending such a claim will be tricky.”
“The employee may still be unwilling to accept their shortcomings so there is no guarantee that they will jump before they are pushed. Many will instead stick around to find out what, if anything, the employer might offer them to part company on mutually agreeable terms.”
Politics is a fight for survival – it’s very pack-like” – Sarah-Jane Last, The Work Psychologists
She adds: “Sometimes employers have to balance the risk of mass resignations, reputational damage and/or a loss of business against the risk of constructively dismissing the employee. Even if the employee is a particularly high earner, the potential maximum tribunal award might seem like pocket change in comparison with the potential cost and loss arising from retaining the employee.”
Alexandra Farmer, an employment law adviser at WorkNest added that poor conduct spread if conduct was not addressed early: “Failure to take action in relation to conduct issues, or poor performance impacts the morale of colleagues, especially those that are aware of issues but see management failing to take action. It can lead to colleagues becoming demotivated and the trust in management reduces. Poor conduct also spreads.
“It causes issues with consistency of treatment that could undermine the fairness of later processes should management want to take action in relation to similar incidents in the future and there is also increased legal risk. ”