The Case of the Shrinking Executives

In some organizations, people grow and expand. They become more powerful and effective. In others, they shrink–shriveling in impact, disempowered. When that happens, once influential individuals transform into shadows of their former selves, never asserting strong positions and easily deferring to superiors.

Organizations lose the value they meant to hire because the person they interviewed is not the one doing the job.

When I saw this in action, I wanted to figure out what happened.

Shrunken Heads

I had a front row view because I was both consulting and coaching the whole team.  

My role began during a reinvention effort.  Initially, I noticed it in just one or two leaders—both with the same manager. So, I scrutinized the individuals and the manager. All was fine.

But in short order I noticed that ALL the leaders seemed meek

Most had been there at least 4 or 5 years. While they were committed and enthusiastic, they were also timid and under-confident. But they were smart.  Plus, they spoke glowingly of their peers and of the company.

Yet, there was a surfeit of niceness. Where were the dissenters? The contrarians? So much agreeableness and obedience!

I guessed they had been hired for their deference by the previous CEO. The plan was to hire several more senior executives, so I figured those new leaders would bring the horsepower.

Over the next few months, we hired 3 C-level executives.

As one of the interviewers, I noted that they were all strong, authoritative, and decisive. They had track records and were consistently impressive.

It Was Contagious

As coach to the leadership team, I worked with them all on items ranging from time management to decision making heuristics and structuring one-on-ones. And that’s how I noticed it.

Time after time they raised issues that elicited similar reactions from me.

Brilliant! When will you propose that?

That’s a perfect solution. Will you make that request?

How will you conduct the negotiation to make that change?

They were all passive unless I pushed them to act on their insights and ideas.

Just weeks after onboarding they had stopped making decisions and stopped speaking with conviction. They were unrecognizable from the interview process.

The new leaders had shrunk.

The Insight

I pondered this for months.

One day I was waiting for the CEO, “Greg”, to call me for a coaching session. He was 15 minutes late. That was becoming habitual.

In general, when a client becomes persistently late, I initiate a conversation about the trend, and we restore our commitment to the integrity of the work. That includes being on time.

Creating a rigorous context is a key part of the value my work delivers. In those conversations, both my client and I get to reclaim our commitment to keeping our word.

But Greg was persistently late. Yet, I had never initiated that conversation.

Then it hit me. I was shrinking.

When I noticed that, I discontinued coaching him.

Then, I went back through all my notes and tried to understand both my own and the executive team’s disempowerment with a new lens.

The Brightness and Darkness of Narcissism

We often think of narcissism in negative terms. But even Freud believed that most of us have narcissistic traits –and that they are positive.

The “Great Men” of history were all narcissistic. Napolean, Churchill, and Edison to name a few.

And so, leaders are often narcissistic. That’s not surprising. They are charming, visionary, and — can successfully raise funds and galvanize people through their confident posture. This is often called the “bright side” of narcissism.

But, under some circumstances, narcissism can have a “dark side”.

For some, their narcissism expresses itself as a fundamental disinterest in other people—in their thoughts, their feelings, opinion, or experience.

In a leader, it creates a vacuum where the wisdom of the team might otherwise go. Instead, that vacuum is filled with more of the leader’s own thoughts, feelings, and ideas.

That’s why there is a debate in organizational psychology about the relationship between narcissism and leadership—whether it’s essential, and whether it’s more good than bad.

CEO Bubble

Most leaders are more invested in the company’s success than in their own egos. And they have the humility to look everywhere for new ideas. They may be narcissistic, but it is tempered by empathy and curiosity.

That wasn’t true of Greg.

Greg was smart, expressive, and visionary –like many narcissists. That was impressive and admirable.

But he didn’t look outside of himself for answers or ideas. He ignored feedback except when it was about subjects that he had no interest in. Of course, that’s the inverse for most of us!

He talked through most meetings, or multitasked while others spoke. It was never clear whether he heard what anyone said on a Zoom call.

Information that contradicted his strategic initiatives or plans was inaudible to him. That included team surveys reporting major distress throughout the organization.

Unseen and Unheard

When people see evidence that their ideas are ignored they stop sharing them.

Executives saw that ONLY Greg’s ideas made it to the plan– despite their own data and contributions. They learned that the only option entertained was Greg’s.

The evidence that Greg only valued his own thoughts chipped away at the team’s confidence and presence. They began to behave like powerless order-takers because that was how he treated them.

Takeaway

You are probably nothing like Greg. He’s a special case. But we all run the danger of being fascinated by ourselves. Humility is not natural, especially since our whole lives we have been given kudos and remuneration for confidence and extroversion.

But when those traits grow too strong, they obscure those around us. Let’s not shrink our brilliant teams! These questions can help.

  • Is your team outspoken or deferent? If they’re quiet and deferent, check in!
  • Do people disagree openly? If disagreement is meek or non-existent, ask why.
  • Can you think of at 3 times in the last 2 months that you changed your mind based on employee feedback? If not, consider actively looking for counter-evidence about what you’re doing. The odds are it’s there, but you’ve been ignoring it!

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