How not to worship your boss

Kids Company, a leading UK charity for disadvantaged children, collapsed a year ago amid allegations of gross financial mismanagement.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, its flamboyant founder and chief executive, had been elevated to such heights that she was left unchallenged for many years, not only by her staff, donors and board of trustees, but also by the government and media.

From the charity’s launch in 1996, government ministers approved payments to it totaling £42m (see pdf) in the form of grants. Ms Batmanghelidjh’s charisma, charm and fame led to her being so idealised that she avoided normal levels of scrutiny applied to most organizations.

A House of Commons select committee concluded that Ms Batmanghelidjh’s personality “appeared to captivate some of the most senior political figures in the land”, and high-level political patronage may have deterred whistleblowers from coming forward.

Kids Company provides an extreme example of the dynamics and potential consequences of “idealisation”, but these are in play at most organisations to a greater or lesser extent, and not just at the top — individual subordinates can also be put on a pedestal.

It may be difficult to spot potentially dangerous hero worship because it can often be disguised as the everyday respect and admiration we endow on apparently outstanding leaders.

Such adoration is a mutual relationship with distortion on both sides, where a person’s need for admiration is fuelled by the need of admirers to see their leader as exceptional. Such admirers often have dependent personalities whose craving for emotional security blurs their perceptions of a leader’s limits and capabilities.

Manfred Kets de Vries, psychoanalyst and professor at Insead Business School, says: “It’s a totally reinforcing dance in which, because of a general feeling of helplessness, you idealise the leader and say quickly what the leader likes and wants to hear, and that reinforces the leader’s narcissism and vice versa. Unfortunately, the moment the leader accepts this, he is surrounded by liars.”

Heaping such admiration and trust on people in power helps sustain a fantasy that those who look after us are all-knowing, or believing that being close to great people helps us feel better about ourselves. For many, it is a way to compensate for a difficult relationship with early authority figures, usually a parent.

Children normally imagine their parents as benevolent, all-knowing figures, and this helps cushion them against overwhelming fears of life’s dangers. With maturity, however, individuals learn to accept their parents’ flaws, and thereby to tolerate a world of uncertainties and disappointments and to rely on their own opinions rather than always accepting those of authority.

Glorifying a leader can leave him or her free to act irresponsibly, unethically or to the organization’s detriment. It also means subordinates are unlikely to question decisions or assert their own talents and insights, which can in turn damage a company’s innovative potential and development.

Devaluation is the inevitable downside to idealisation — the higher the person is put on a pedestal, the greater the crash, as Ms Batmanghelidjh discovered. Rather than being seen as merely flawed, her fall from grace was total, and much of the work she and her staff had accomplished was forgotten.

All leaders have a degree of narcissism and therefore are at risk of encouraging this dynamic, but those on the extreme end of the continuum are more likely to be seduced by its allure. The more narcissistic the leader, the greater his or her need to attain admiration and the security he or she craves.

Kerry Sulkowicz, psychoanalyst and managing principal of New York’s Boswell Group, a consultancy specialising in work relationships, says: “The danger is believing in one’s infallibility once one reaches the top. Sometimes leaders do things deliberately, or more likely unconsciously, that promote idealisation.

“They act as if they have all the answers or don’t show any vulnerability, and for those people who are susceptible to this it can lead to an idealisation of them.”

New chief executives can feel pressure to be perfect from the start, and experienced ones can believe they have seen and done it all before, says Mr Sulkowicz.

The danger is when they start to act the part. Another risk factor is when the distance between a CEO and his or her staff becomes too great and as a consequence feedback diminishes.

Mr Sulkowicz believes prevention is better than cure in this regard. “Leaders who are getting nothing but positive feedback from their organisations should actually worry about that — they should be alert to the likelihood that nothing but praise is a sign of idealisation and they should really look for criticism because otherwise they’re likely to believe it themselves and are being set up for a fall.

“It should raise a red flag when the exclusive praise comes from the directors, because the board’s role is in evaluating the performance of the CEO, and if the board can’t see through the idealisation then that’s really dangerous.”

One business consultant in New York describes his compulsion to maintain an aura of perfection. “Idealisation is intoxicating — it makes you feel special, it’s a milder version of falling in love,” he says.

He explains how he relied on admiration from his clients to compensate for the lack of love and security from his parents. By making himself invaluable to his clients he convinced them of his omniscience.

“I would position myself with a magic wand able to transform any performance issue. The more they needed me, the more I could trust they would take care of my needs, financial and emotional.

“The price was compromising the clear, honest counsel needed to be an effective consultant.”

Mr Sulkowicz believes that the prevalence of celebrity culture adds to the problem because business leaders can fall prey to its allure — they may then start believing in their own mythology.

“When a CEO starts to be treated as a Kim Kardashian figure, famous for being famous, it detracts from their credibility and authority as leader.”

Getty Executives can equally idealise a subordinate. A senior executive in a private financial institution who came to me for psychotherapy revealed that his need to be seen as perfect in order to attain his CEO’s admiration defended him against fears of rejection he had suffered since childhood.

His compulsion to appear perfect left him dependent on his chief for reassurance and security, while the CEO in turn grew dependent on his impeccable performance. Although it appeared to be a smooth-running company, the cost of sustaining a perfect image left them both risk-averse.

“I came to realize that what I created in order to feel safe was actually limiting my ability to move forward with my career,” he says.

Leaders Make the Company Culture

Regulators are right to focus on culture as a key culprit in the misbehavior of banks (“As Regulators Focus on Culture, Wall Street Struggles to Define It,” page one, Feb. 2), and efforts to survey and quantify corporate culture are important. But the reason culture is hard to define isn’t simply that it is a nebulous concept that is hard to capture objectively. The culture of an organization is analogous to the personality of an individual, in that it is defined by a set of normative, recognizable behaviors and traits that are durable and that characterize both what it is like to “live” inside that organization as an employee, as well as what it is like to interact with it from the outside, as customers, vendors, partners and shareholders.

Where the analogy to personality doesn’t hold is that organizations are greater than the sum of their parts. Unlike an individual’s personality, which is largely formed by young adulthood and resides solely in the mind of the person, the culture of a company emanates primarily from the personality of the founder or chief executive, but over time becomes embedded in other key individuals, and in practices and policies of the business. Nevertheless, the CEO wields the greatest leverage to create, sustain and change the culture. This can be a force for good or bad, as employees inevitably model the behavior they see at the top. The more regulators understand this, the less they will struggle to define culture and the more they will know where to look to address it when a company goes astray.

The City on the Couch

Psychoanalyst Mary Bradbury investigates why a growing number of big businesses in the financial sector are taking more care of their employees’ mental health.

Contributors include Graham Thornicroft, Professor of Community Psychiatry at King’s College London; Professor David Tuckett of University College London; Ian Gatt QC of Herbert Smith Freehills; and Sacha Romanovitch of Grant Thornton.

Mind tricks at work

There are many ways of dealing with extreme stress at work: chatting around the water cooler with colleagues or sharing the odd drink after hours often does the trick.

The mind, however, also has its own unconscious methods of shutting out aspects of work that can otherwise lead to intolerable anxiety. This helps distance oneself from overwhelmingly bad feelings, such as jealousy, insecurity and anger. However, these coping methods can create more problems than they solve because to varying degrees they all depend on a distortion of reality.

These defence mechanisms might take an optimistic form, with someone rationalising that a situation is not as bad as it actually is. At the other end of the continuum are more destructive responses, such as denying the existence of a problem. Another common coping method is blaming others for problems rather than admitting to responsibility that could leave one feeling guilty or bad about oneself.

Kerry Sulkowicz, a psychoanalyst and founder of the Boswell Group, a New York business consultancy, says these are unconscious choices, determined by an individual’s psychology and the nature of the stress: “A problem with these defences is that ultimately they break down. They can’t last for ever and the longer they persist, the worse the consequences may be for the individual — because time is passing them by and opportunities for change may be lost.”

An example comes from a founding chief executive who is charismatic and effective in attracting business, but is unable to deal with the stress of making critical decisions about his staff. As a result he has a bloated team of high-paid people who do very little. He is in denial, not of the dire straits that his company is in, but of his role in its impending collapse. He does not see that his inability to make tough personnel decisions and ultimately hand over control to a new CEO is crippling the company. Instead, he projects the problems on to his antagonised board of directors and rids himself of responsibility.

His inability to hear any negative feedback is indicative of another defence mechanism, known as “splitting”, where people and the news they bring become factors that either make him feel good or bad about himself. While the “bad” are rejected, the “good” are rewarded with loyalty.

People such as this CEO cannot tolerate the tension and confusion arising from complexity. The danger is that they trash differing opinions and ignore essential information.

His team in turn employ coping methods for dealing with their conflicting feelings towards the CEO — of dependency and admiration on the one hand, and anger and contempt on the other. The healthy ones know this is a dying business and prepare to leave, while others rationalise why they should stay — “he does bring in business after all” — and the less aware deny that a problem exists.

Avoiding stress by distorting reality through such psychological defensive measures can also play a detrimental part in financial decision making. David Tuckett, a psychoanalyst and professor at University College London, and author of Minding the Markets: an Emotional Finance View Of Financial Instability, describes how this can lead to a failure to take in crucial information about a particular investment.

According to Prof Tuckett, people can become dismissive of inconvenient evidence because somewhere in their minds, beyond immediate awareness, they feel uncomfortable about the decision they are making but cannot bear to explore further.

He explains: “They try not to take in the information because the information is not just information, it creates feeling. It creates anxiety, it creates a sense of risk of loss, or guilt in case they get it wrong, so they try to get rid of it. The more they get rid of it, the more [it] potentially creates a bigger loss in future.”

These defence mechanisms originate in childhood and are often the only protection a child may have against the onslaught of perceived threats, such as being rejected or treated unfairly. People carry these unconscious strategies into their working lives, and even though they may be immature reactions to adult problems, they help people maintain a fantasy that life is predictable, benevolent and free from horrible feelings.

This was the case for one man in marketing and sales who came from a reserved, repressed family where strong emotions were never discussed, and self-confidence not encouraged. This left him dissociated from powerful feelings that he could not deal with, such as rivalry and resentment.

Although in many ways he became an ideal employee, never challenging authority or becoming a threat to colleagues, he missed out on his own career advancement and the satisfaction and sense of triumph that comes from such progression.

He reflects on his career: “I lived my working life in a state of numbness, drifting through it in a trancelike state, going through the motions and not really reacting to people. Because you’re shutting out your own feelings, you’re more cut off from colleagues and managers, and certainly you can’t read people as well.

“There’s a large amount of regret. Not so much that I didn’t climb the greasy pole enough, but that I ruled myself out from jobs and experiences that could have fulfilled my potential. But to be ambitious was to put me in line for disappointment and rivalry, feelings I couldn’t cope with.”

Certain situations, however, are so stressful as to break through any psychological defences, leaving the person overwhelmed with anxiety and unable to make sense of, or manage, the onslaught of confusing events. A sense of worthlessness and loss of confidence prevail, and confirm the worst fears one has of oneself.

This was the case for a woman in banking who found herself confused and unable to think rationally when faced with repeated accusations and threats from a bullying boss. She says: “The most difficult bit was that I could never get it right. I focused on trying to please him and his requests just to protect myself from the explosions and confrontations. This erased any spark and energy I had. I started to doubt my­self, which eventually affected my per­f­ormance, my self-esteem and health.”

With guidance, she was able to reconnect with her better qualities and positive attitude. “Looking back, I am astounded to reflect on my situation and how badly I was affected,” she says. “It seems like a bad dream, I’m sure I will carry a scar for all my life, but it is good. It will remind me to protect myself better in future.”

The writer is a psychotherapist and this article is based partly on her clinical experience. To contribute to her forthcoming piece on the effects of business travel on workers and their families, please contact businesslife@ft.com

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