The Psychological Toll of Following a Bad Leader
Whether I am watching the political news or working with clients I am observing a frightening phenomenon. A leader makes questionable decisions, says outlandish things, changes his mind every hour, crosses the line of civil/professional conduct, believes the rules don’t apply to him and alienates large swaths of people. Everyone in the organization (country) acknowledges and complains in private about how crazy the boss is. They wonder why the repeated poor quarterly results are allowed to stand. They wonder why the board hasn’t removed him.
That’s bad enough. But what is even worse are the mental gymnastics the staff does to continue to follow this terrible leader. In their hearts and minds they know this guy is not firmly in touch with reality and that he is doing damage to the organization and the brand. They read the industry press and know this CEO is a joke. There is plenty of data to support what they already know. Yet they still defer to him in meetings, support his random decisions, sell the latest initiative to their teams and cling to their jobs. What is going on here?
It is a mix of psychological and organizational dynamics at play. It’s complicated but let me try to break it down.
The Person in Power (PIP) has legitimate control of the organization and people’s job security. What he says, goes. The People Without Power (PWP) are beholding to the PIP and fear he will take away their jobs or future ascent to becoming a PIP themselves. This causes the PWPs to exhibit unhealthy habits: saying yes when they mean no, not sharing important data that would halt PIP actions, suppressing the truth, joining in group think, minimizing the damage certain decisions will cause, blindly following without questioning. In short, agreeing that the Emperor’s clothes are magnificent! Over an extended period of time, this behavior will turn the most creative, outspoken, forward thinking and productive person into a drone. S/he will wake up one day and wonder what happened to their core self.
These zombie behaviors are reinforced by the evidence all around. PWPs have observed what happens to staff that “speak truth to power”. They are gone. They can hear the fist pounding and yelling all the way down the hall when the PIP gets questioned. They notice that “loyalty” has become the most virtuous and oft-repeated corporate value. They see that the most favored PWP is the biggest ass kisser. Executive team meetings have become rubber stamps bordering on obsequious. And when PWPs talk amongst themselves about all the lunacy of the PIP the conversation ultimately focuses on job security. “I’m retiring in two years. I just need to ride this out.” “I’ve got two kids in college now. I can’t afford to leave.” “If I left now I’d be leaving too many stock options on the table.” Add all this up and you get a whole mess of PWPs with severe resignation and a collective sense of powerlessness. Their only hope is that the board will figure this out and take action. But of course, PWPs are not going to give the board any truthful data. And so the PIP reigns supreme.
From an organization perspective, what can be done?
The task of confronting the PIP usually falls to a) an outside consultant/advisor or b) some respected PWP who is about to retire or c) a PWP who still has the balls and the respect of the PIP to speak up and who isn’t worried about finding a job. This is a series of long conversations that may or may not sink in. But the message boils down to this: you, PIP, are harming the company and if you can’t make serious changes I will speak to the board. In my experience, these kinds of PIPs are too far gone and convinced of their own invincibility that nothing will be taken to heart. Instead it will feed their own delusions of disloyalty in the ranks, paranoia, everyone else is an idiot and no one can touch them. Ultimately this is an issue the board needs to address and resolve. I don’t recommend PWPs marching into the PIPs office to tell him a thing or two!
At a personal level, what can you do?
Assuming that you can’t risk losing your job, there are some ways you can protect yourself psychologically and emotionally.
- Find ways to safely counteract the craziness. Lead your own team in sane ways. Don’t emulate the PIP. Create a “garage band” team where like minded people work on something great together. If you know that today’s directive will be ignored tomorrow, shield your team from today’s menu.
- Get a coach or outside sounding board. You need a reality check and it is best from an outsider. You need to let off steam so you don’t become crazy or depressed. The more you hold onto the daily grind without relief, the more likely you will be to go under. And your spouse will get sick of some of the ranting.
- Don’t waste work hours in bitch sessions with colleagues. It is so tempting, I know. And there can be some relief. The problem is that you become part of the hand-wringing-powerless-unproductive gang who still isn’t going to take any action. It’s a lot of wheel spinning for what value? In the end it actually drains more energy from you and reinforces how shitty things are.
- Network outside the company. Join your professional organization and attend its programs. Meet people in other industries and see how the other half live. Attend interesting seminars that speak to your passion or future. Get active in your alumni association. The more insulated you become, the more hopeless and stuck you will feel. If you remain professionally active and connected it can lay the groundwork for your inevitable job search.
- Focus on your physical and mental health. Working out and eating right is a good counter balance to the quicksand. It is something you have control over. It can get some endorphins and serotonin buzzing. Take a run after work to shake it off. Find ways to preserve your sanity; laughter, play, your loved ones, therapy, writing. Whatever works for you.
When the CEO is horrible or crazy the organization will become that way too. The gravitational pull is strong and it is ridiculously hard to resist. You will get sucked into the vortex. Organizational solutions are limited so your choice is to put up and shut up or find a way out. We can’t all find new jobs tomorrow and there is that “the devil you know” thinking. But please take heed. In time, this unhealthy environment will make you unhealthy. That is a very high price to pay.
Besides, do you want an out of control nut having that much power over your well being?