Resource Library Articles

Are You and Your People Playing “Follow the Leader”?

• Do your employees tell you what they believe, or what they believe you want to hear?
• How do you spot the natural tendency in so many employees to be less than truthful with you?
• Are you aware of your subtle and not-so-subtle mannerisms that promote deception?

Recently, a new client said to me, in absolute puzzlement:

“I used to be a member of the Management Team. If I asked a question, I got an answer. When I took over as President, staff people who previously would be open with me began lying!”

Here is Warren Buffett’s parallel comment on the emotional power of the lead position:

“If a CEO is enthused about a particularly foolish acquisition, both his internal staff and his outside advisors will come up with whatever projections are needed to justify his stance. Only in fairy tales are emperors told that they are naked.” (Fortune, March 4, 2002)

Jerry Harvey, in “The Abilene Paradox”, recounts tale after tale of the tendency on the part of subordinates in organizations to interpret what the leader wants, and to be sure to be in compliance with that. An over-connection occurs in which followers seek to please, placate, connect with, impress, flatter or otherwise win favor with the boss. In the process they concede “self” to the system. That is, they halt their own critical thinking, values and beliefs, professing a company line as if it were their own.

Some employees may do this unconsciously, reacting automatically, marching in robot-like lock step with you. Others, aware of their discomfort with your direction, may speak behind your back about their disagreement. Still, they convince themselves, it would be suicidal to broach their objections or concerns with you directly. They may also “hide” pet projects (or not initiate them) in the belief that you wouldn’t approve.

Whether their strategy is conscious or subconscious, the emotions that drive it are fear-based. Common among their fears may be: the fear of reprisal, loss of control, criticism, disfavor, upsetting someone else, being challenged, and, ultimately, the fear of job loss.

What Encourages the Game?

The oblivious leader does not catch this dynamic, becomes flattered and self-important, and, in effect, gains a false sense of “self” from the others. A reciprocal interplay evolves, a game in which all participants abide by unwritten yet deeply engrained rules. While this dynamic may be relatively harmless in minor matters (e.g., the boss’s preference for cloth vs. paper towels in the washroom), the costs can mount with more significant concerns:

• The continuation of projects, products or policies that are unwarranted, highly unprofitable, legally risky, even dangerous
• The squelching or delay of projects that are innovative and beneficial
• Stifled initiative
• Stifled creativity
• Honest dialogue replaced by distrust and paranoia

Among the types of leaders who would be most susceptible to this game:

• Ambitious entrepreneurs who operate in overdrive
• Leaders who are reactive (vs. responsive) to bad news
• “Rah-rah” enthusiasts who pump themselves up and see it as their responsibility to drive motivation into their staff
• Those who hold the dangerously naïve belief that business is rational and there is no place for emotion.

What Helps?

The astute leader recognizes the game. She is able first to spot her own desire for agreement, adulation, control and non-interference. She is able to manage the emotions that drive these more shallow needs in her. She cultivates this emotional awareness and management as her preeminent responsibility in any situation.

He is also able to coax followers out of the fear-based tendency to be falsely agreeable and complimentary. He will convey the uncommon openness to critique that is characteristic of an emotionally mature leader. He will instinctively know how to balance firmness of conviction with openness to objection.

Fortunately, the perplexed new president I mentioned before was among the more emotionally mature. He was able and willing to recognize what was happening. With the wisdom of systems thinking, he realized that he was somehow playing a contributory role in this drama. He became more aware of the signals he was sending. As he put it, “If I’m radiating that there are points of view I don’t want to hear, there’s a huge chance I won’t hear them!” He focused on his responsibility to convey safety and openness, even in small matters. He became more solicitous of feedback, more proactive about inviting contra viewpoints, and more patient with processes that created space for objection, exploration and refinement.

These strategies of self-management on his part increased the perception of safety over time. Not only were discussions more honest and energized, but this base of safety also secured “permission” for him to be quite challenging when that was needed. He had interrupted the game of deceit. “Follow the leader” was in decline.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s