Fear and Loathing in the Executive Suite

Posted by jlubans on April 07, 2015

Caption: 2009 Cartoon by Rex May (Baloo), b. 1946.

Of late I’ve written about bias, group think, and why teams succeed – especially about factors that contribute to team success:
As you may recall, researchers have confirmed that something called “C” or “collective intelligence” can predict team success or failure in a laboratory setting. C has three measures: participant emotional or social IQ; the number of engaged participants; and, the number of women on the team.
Roger Jones writes of CEO fears. His study of 116 mostly European-based CEOs and other executives, found a hefty dose of fear in the C-suite*. At the top there’s the fear of being found out as incompetent, an “imposter.” This biggest fear has company: fear of underachieving, appearing too vulnerable, being attacked by colleagues, and appearing foolish. And, Jones claims that these fears result in: “poor decision-making, focusing on survival rather than growth, inducing bad behavior at the next level down, and failing to act unless there’s a crisis.”
From personal experience in several executive groups, I would have to agree with Jones’ findings. With a few notable exceptions, the administrative groups I was part of suffered from a lack of camaraderie and candor, engaged too often in turf battles, and overall, members, myself included, failed to trust each other. Like the man in the cartoon, I dreaded Mondays because that was the meeting day for the executive “team”.
While my group was aware of its issues, little was done. I recall one new leader suggesting that the group retreat and work on becoming more effective. Naturally, I endorsed the idea but it was never raised again.
So, would paying more attention to “C” work in the C-Suite? No question, but only if we get to reconstitute the membership! Most senior staff have been promoted into the executive group; it is hardly a random group.
Most of us are there, presumably because of meritorious achievement and success in the lower ranks. Our “C” score probably had very little to do with that promotion.
Still, Jones suggests several ways to reduce fear, a few akin to C. (No one, btw, suggests a bowl of M&Ms on the meeting table, the one most frequently alleged fear-inhibitor!)
- The boss should be aware of his or her own fears and those of the team.
- Value emotional intelligence among all members.
- Provide opportunities for members of the executive group to tell personal stories about key moments in their lives. (One consultant advocates a quick check-in at the top of each meeting about what’s “eating my lunch” by each member of the team.)
- Set and enforce norms for communication including acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.
- The boss should actively encourage all team members to speak up without fear of consequences.
- Occasionally, allow the team to meet without the boss.
- Finally, use incentive systems to discourage self-interested behavior.

*The C-Suite is the domain inhabited by chief administrators, for example, CIO, CEO, COO, CFO, etc., including the Chief Happiness Officer (CHO) in some organizations!
In less exalted settings - the kind I worked in - the “executive group” or “administrative group” (consisting of senior staff) is an equivalent term.

© John Lubans 2015
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