CEO disease: diagnosis, symptoms and a few treatments

Source: Management Team (03/12/2019); Author: Professor Katleen De Stobbeleir

The arrival of autumn brings the return of the first viruses. What better time to talk about a mysterious, world-famous virus that has spread among the highest echelons of management at lightning speed? CEO disease was first described by leadership gurus Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee in 2002. But what exactly is it and how can you protect yourself and your company?

Let’s start with the good news. CEO disease isn’t actually a real disease, and it can't kill you. However, the disease is proving responsible for the collapse of many businesses both large and small. Furthermore, the disease does not only affect notorious individuals such as Jeffrey Skilling, the former CEO of Enron: almost all managers may be confronted with it. The term refers to the phenomenon of many leaders living in what is known as a ‘feedback vacuum’. The higher you climb within the hierarchy, the fewer people are inclined to share their honest and often critical opinions about your decisions or leadership style.

So how can you find out if you, or your leadership team, are suffering from this disease? Fortunately, it’s easy to diagnose as there are several clear symptoms. The first and probably most striking symptom is that you are mainly surrounded by ‘yes men’ (or women). These are people who only have positive things to say about you and your decisions. It’s a bit like the fairytale ‘The Emperor's New Clothes.’ The emperor is actually walking around naked but because he's the emperor, nobody has the courage to tell him openly that he is making a fool of himself. If nobody questions you in any way, or you mainly get positive feedback about your fantastic decisions, there’s a good chance that you are infected (and by extension so is your team).

However, there are other symptoms as well. Precisely because you never receive feedback, you tend to take it much more personally when you do, and you are less able to deal with criticism. Everyone else thinks you're doing really well, so why does that one person have to be such a pain? And when someone actually does pluck up the courage to question you, you and your posse of yes men are immediately inclined to label that person as critical or negative. And again, that doesn’t exactly encourage other people to share their critical opinions with you. You gradually lose touch, to the point where your best employees disengage or even leave quietly. Not because of you, of course. There were just other opportunities out there, better ones...

It goes without saying that the consequences of CEO disease are disastrous, both for yourself and for your organisation. Losing touch with reality will make you feel more and more insecure. After all, people who are perfect increasingly feel pressured to remain so. This leads to a growing fear of failure, so you will tend to surround yourself even more with yes men. A vicious circle that adversely affects the quality of your decisions. After all, as well as the engagement of others, you also lose crucial input that is needed to make good decisions. An additional risk is that you will do everything in your power to maintain your position. Not only does this lead to the accumulation of power, but also all the negative dynamics and risks that accompany it.

Fortunately, there are also vaccines and remedies. Ask for feedback regularly and invite people to make at least one critical comment about your style or decisions. However, you need to realise that people will still hesitate to do so. The difference in status creates many barriers, even when you try to remove them. So, if you still don’t receive any criticism after requesting feedback, you shouldn’t immediately conclude that your decision was a good one. Perhaps you have simply failed to create a sufficiently safe environment in which people feel brave enough to criticise you. According to Harvard professor Amy Edmondson, you can create this kind of psychologically safe environment by showing vulnerability, being critical of yourself, admitting your mistakes and fostering a general culture of feedback. Of course, the way you deal with feedback and with people who have plucked up the courage to question you also plays a role. If you react defensively or simply ignore their input, there is little chance that they will give feedback again next time. Is the bar still too high, even once you have opened your proverbial door? If so, consider a 360° feedback process or brief surveys asking for feedback on your decisions. Didn't the American leadership expert Ken Blanchard say: ‘Feedback is the breakfast of champions’? And have the courage to switch to a different role as well: to take a step sideways in your career and experience it not as a failure, but as the ideal cure for CEO disease.

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