Survival of the fittest

survival-fittestIn order to be persistently successful, people and organizations need to adapt continually to their environment. This requires information from the environment. The more active and open the feedback loops, the more effective the adaptation and change can be. Few leaders have truly open and honest feedback within their organizations.

“It is not the most intelligent of the species that survive the longest, it is the most adaptable.”

~ Charles Darwin

CEO disease — not seeing the impact a leader’s mood has on the organization

Symptom: when the leader has near-total ignorance about how his or her mood and actions appear to the organization.

The term “CEO disease” comes from the book Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee (Harvard Business School Press 2002). The term was originally coined in an article in Business Week by John Byrne in 1991.

As one CEO expressed it, “I can’t put my finger on it, because no one is actually lying to me. But I can sense that people are hiding information, or camouflaging key facts, so I won’t notice … they aren’t telling me everything I need to know.”

Sometimes there is fear in sharing information due to a leader’s commanding or pace-setting style. People do not want to be shot as the messenger. Many subordinates and peers want to appear upbeat, and optimistic and do not want to be the one to rock the boat by delivering negative information. Whatever the motives, the result is a leader who only has partial information about what’s going on around him.

This may be true for other leaders within the organization, not only for the CEO. There is a natural instinct to please the boss, resulting in a widespread tendency to give positive feedback whenever information flows upward.

Lack of reliable feedback at the top!

The problem is compounded when the leader is a woman or from a minority group. Women in general get less useful feedback about their performance in any position than do men.

How should leaders seek out the truth?

It is clear that it is up to leaders to actively cultivate feedback if they are to acquire the information they need to make changes and to adapt to the environment.

A study of 400 executives shows that the most effective leaders actively seek negative feedback. They let it be known that they are open to receive critiques either of their ideas or their leadership. The least successful executives most often solicit confirming feedback.

CEO’s who practice new abilities as they become aware of them are rare. Great athletes spend enormous amounts of time practicing and only a little time actually performing. CEO’s spend most of their time performing. In the drive to achieve and compete, there is no time to practice.

Practicing with an executive coach — a developmental & transformational approach!

Executives who work intensely with an executive coach understand how much effort this can take. Managing emotional impulses is real mental work. The stress of the intentional effort to alter one’s mood can deplete the energy required for self-control. Self-control is exactly what is needed when practicing a new leadership style.

Many executive coaches use learning strategies that involve a commitment to continual feedback from selected stakeholders. The executive must commit to and publicly identify the behaviors they want to work on. They must commit to dialoguing with each person in the group of selected stakeholders. The executive must be open to receiving feedback about his or her behavior. This method of including others into the coaching strategy is seen as an important element in creating effective change in leaders.

The problem lies in resistance. Most people fear negative feedback and will not actively seek it out. They may feel that they can’t change anyway, that their ways are too ingrained.

It requires bravery to face the opinions of subordinates.

High achievers do not shrink from tasks simply because they are new or uncomfortable. Receiving feedback is not for sissies.

Receptivity to feedback is clearly an important gateway to learning and practicing strategies for personal improvement. Staying out of defensive modes is essential to moving on and practicing new behaviors. These strategies are not easy and work best when guided by an experienced coach. Unless leaders get data about the quality and effectiveness of their interactions, they become prisoners of the status quo.

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