Truth doesn’t rise to the top

One painful revelation for me was that the more senior my role, the more distorted my view of the reality of my organisation.

Some of this is obvious and well documented. Despite many efforts to ‘get out there’ I became inevitably distant from the frontline and the press of business where the future of the organisation was really decided in small increments every day.

But other aspects of this ‘CEO prism’ were more surprising to me. People simply do not communicate with you in the same way. The more power you are perceived to wield, rightly or wrongly, the more effort people put into managing you. Their careers depend upon it. A lot of this is unconscious, but some of it is very deliberate. Again, it is an old story: the emperor’s new clothes of course. But you never really think of yourself in the centre of such a story; you’re supposed to be different.

People are less likely to bring you bad news. They are more likely to agree with you. They are less likely to tell you that you are being an idiot. People are more reluctant to interrupt you with helpful observations. They may assume you have wise reasons for your outwardly baffling decisions. And they are more likely to behave well in front of you.

This latter effect is particularly challenging. It is quite hard to spot a bully from on top for example. It’s very easy to spot one from below but, because of those distortions in communicating clearly with senior leaders, this view may not easily leapfrog the bully to get to you. Bullies don’t bully in front of you. Indeed, due to the nature of their character flaws, they are probably extra nice in front of you. You can imagine how this makes people feel about you.

In fact, in general, you rarely get to witness negative character traits first hand. They are usually concealed from you; unless you have given permission and actively celebrate those behaviours of course. You can have a rosy view of the actual behaviours inside your organisation. You will also struggle to tackle the examples that do occasionally make their way to you. Second hand accounts of interpersonal behaviours are hard to untangle.

The consequences of the CEO prism are obviously negative. Although you can have a very pleasant existence in the short term, hearing only good news and witnessing only good behaviour, you can’t make the right decisions without the correct information.

Although you can sharpen the prism, you can’t eliminate it and therefore you should factor it into your thinking. Assume that things are probably worse than they appear.

In fact, you shouldn’t eliminate the prism altogether. The cost to your authority required by this effort is too high to justify the marginal returns from completely erasing it. And it can be helpful to remain slightly above the fray, to create objectivity and perspective.

The distortion of the prism is correlated with the power gradient inside your organisation. You need power – quite a lot of power – to be effective in your role. But there are two types. There is earned authority based on wisdom, perspective and good judgement, with a minimal hint of just sanction in the distant background. And there is the power to hurt and humiliate. Right and might, if you will. You want to maximise the first and minimise the second. People will talk to you with relative candour in the former. They will avoid you as far as possible in the latter, and lie to you without a second thought.

Even with power based on earned authority rather than status and fear, you need to work hard on your approachability and flavour it with some humility. Even if – especially if – people respect you, they tend to assume you know what you are doing. Which can be very dangerous. Make it easy for people to question you. Abandon the status symbols that act as barriers. I wouldn’t overdo the vulnerability thing – people don’t want a buffoon at the top – but a little bit of humanity can go a long way, and there is no humanity without error.

Because people will unconsciously try to please you, if you want to hear the truth in a debate keep your own position private. Speak last. Get the people who know you least well to speak first.

There’s usually someone who can be relied upon to tell you the truth. Usually at the least convenient moment and in the most unpalatable way. Treasure your responsible mavericks. And if you ever punish anyone who gives you a difficult message you’re probably done for.

Try to make sure that people’s promotion prospects don’t depend solely on agreeing with you. Just like if people see you respecting a few responsible mavericks, if they see a few people who’ve crossed thrive with your obvious blessing then that sends some serious signals. If they see them get promoted against your obvious displeasure, that just makes you look weak. It’s a fine line!

Do be as visible as possible on the frontline. It’s not perfect – there is the old joke that the queen thinks that everywhere smells of fresh paint – but it’s something. Try not to make them ceremonial visits therefore; call in on normal work and don’t expect people to drop everything to chaperone you. You’re not there to catch people out just to learn alongside them.

Employee survey data can be helpful. If it is anonymous and well designed, people will often be honest; quantitative data reduces the ability to fudge on both sides. It is crude but at least it enables you to ask the right questions.

On the subject of bullying and other negative character traits, take subtle indications seriously. This is a hard one, because accusations of bullying are sometimes falsely levelled at leaders trying to manage underperformance or change culture. If people trust you enough, they may drop hints. It will also shows up in other patterns of behaviour: avoidance, sickness, disputes. Strangely, it is the underperformance of people around the bully that will be your main clue. Although it may be that there are always two sides to any specific story told to you, if there is always a common actor in each of them, you have your clue. It’s a sad thing, but people with negative character traits often seem to bring out the worst in others around them.

It’s a shock to realise you’ve been walking the street naked for quite some time. And no one dared to tell you. You are undoubtedly not an ogre, which makes it hard to understand. But you wield power over people’s welfare and it shapes their behaviour. You need that power to do the good in the world that you want to do but you need to use it in a way that doesn’t provoke people to coddle or misdirect you in return. There is nothing more pitiful than a grandiose leader who is merely cocooned by their court in a prism of delusion.

All forces come with an equal and opposite reaction. You manage people. They manage you. Try to manage them honestly. And try to make it possible for them to manage you honestly too.

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