Deep-seated fears — of looking ridiculous, losing social status, speaking up, and much, much more — saddle children in the middle school lunchroom, adults on the therapist’s couch, and even, my research has found, executives in the C-Suite. While few executives talk about them, deep and uncontrolled private fears can spur defensive behaviors that undermine how they and their colleagues set and execute company strategy.
In 2014, I surveyed 116 CEOs and other executives, interviewing 27 in depth afterwards. Of the 116 survey participants, 73% were male, 27% were female, and all but 9% were based in Europe. About a third (32%) were CEOs or presidents; 31% were division/business unit heads; 30% were senior managers reporting to division/business unit heads; and 7% were in investment or professional services firms.
What I found about executives’ fears and their impact in the boardroom was revealing, and in some cases astonishing:
The 27 executives whom I interviewed spoke candidly about their own fears. The most frequently mentioned fears were losing their reputation, underachieving (even among seasoned executives), and dying, both literally and in their career, and how it inspires a fixation on status, appearing youthful, and making money. Ten spoke at length about how greed at the top inspires greed (sometimes disguised as ambition, which is more socially acceptable) among lower-ranking executives. Two-thirds said their company’s executives were unable to talk directly to one another and even lied at times.
Many of their quotes are poignant and telling: “Greed. It controls everything.” “If someone told the truth they would be isolated.” “You’ve got to look virile.” “You know what? [A new CEO] was frozen by fear. He couldn’t think straight.” “He [the CEO] would publicly humiliate them, bully them [senior executives].” “We are competitive so there is less honesty.” Five executives in their 50s (four of them millionaires and all with stable families) admitted that they feared retirement.
Other studies have shown that such fears disrupt the healthy functioning of executive teams and whole companies. Noted INSEAD leadership professor Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries wrote in 2014 that anxiety over death often causes workaholic behavior. Through studies of adults, professors Tomasz Zaleskiewicz, Agata Gasiorowska, Pelin Kesebir, Aleksandra Luszczynska, and Tom Pyszczynski have proposed that money alleviates death anxiety. So greedy workaholics are really trying to stave off death, and the 50-something executive who fears being put out to pasture may fixate on a merger that stakes him with a big payoff, even if it’s not in the company’s best interest.
Fear is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to poison an organization. I have found seven approaches to be effective at reducing such fears:
Fears and dysfunctional behaviors will always influence human beings, from the playground to the boardroom. Other factors – such as deadlines, competitors and economic downturns – will also create pressures on a company’s top team. But executives and chief human resources officers need to look at the deep-seated private fears that may be eroding the executive team’s dynamics and company performance.
By Roger Jones
Source: Harvard Business Review
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