Fear and Loathing in the Executive Suite

Posted by jlubans on April 07, 2015

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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.
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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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