The Corporate Shrink

Coping with the agita of a CEO's stepping down, and timing a raise request.

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on FastCompany

Our successful CEO recently announced plans to retire. He has been in charge for a long time, and there’s no clear successor. Since then, people here have been acting strangely. The atmosphere is tense, with lots of infighting and undeserved criticism of the CEO. What’s going on? (issue 94, page 96)

Your CEO’s announcement may have set off a complex process in organizations known as “regression” – a step backward, if you will, to a less-mature way of working together. My guess is you and your colleagues feel abandoned by the boss, even though you know rationally that all CEOs retire sooner or later.

When employees don’t feel free to express how they feel about a big event like this, they tend to convey those feelings indirectly through some not-very-adaptive behavior. If he was such a great CEO, there’s probably latent anxiety about what will happen to the company when he leaves, especially if there’s uncertainty about who will follow. Unable to verbalize this anxiety, you’re all basically acting out.

The boss’s failure to groom an internal successor may point to a more difficult aspect of the problem. Some CEOs have a hard time acknowledging their dispensability (and their mortality) or are reluctant to have anyone near them who could eventually take their place. The board may have colluded in sustaining the perception of utter dependence on his presence. All of this does the organization a disservice and makes the CEO’s retirement bittersweet rather than a cause for celebration.

It’s not too late for your CEO to focus on succession – and to invite employees to speak up in an open and safe way about their feelings. The board, I trust, is thinking urgently about a replacement; hopefully, it won’t underestimate the importance of the new boss’s psychological and cultural fit. In the meantime, acknowledge that you’re angry, and consider that your denial of these feelings might account for all that unusual behavior.

I just got my annual review, and it couldn’t have been better. But when I asked for a raise, my boss smirked and only agreed to the bare minimum. I know I’m not asking for too much, and I’m starting to feel distraught and unappreciated. What should I do?

Ah, the eternal question: How to get a raise? The rare boss simply pays people what they deserve. Yours sounds less magnanimous. But don’t despair. If you’re prepared to play hardball, read on.

Your boss isn’t likely to give you more money unless you exert more psychological force. What does he have to lose by not giving you a raise? If you’re prepared to leave, and if you’re truly valuable, then your leverage is explicit. But you might not be willing or able to play that card.

If not, then you have to think creatively about gaining emotional leverage. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating manipulation. But you do have to accurately read your boss’s personality. Is he motivated by a need to look good, or by a desire to avoid appearing stingy or unappreciative? Figure that out and tailor your appeal accordingly. Make it about more than money. You can offer him an opportunity to bolster his self-esteem by boosting your paycheck.

Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and founder of The Boswell Group LLC, advises executives on leadership, management, and governance. Send him your questions about the psychology of business (