Leadership vulnerability: Overcoming flattery

 t Effective leaders can end up making poor decisions because able and well-meaning followers are united and persuasive about a course of action.

t Effective leaders can end up making poor decisions because able and well-meaning followers are united and persuasive about a course of action.

General Douglas Mac-Arthur, an American general of World War II and the Korean War, once said, “A general is just as good or just as bad as the troops under his command make him.”

Effective leaders can end up making poor decisions because able and well-meaning followers are united and persuasive about a course of action. This is a particular problem for leaders who attract and empower strong followers; these leaders need to become more skeptical and set boundaries.

At other times, leaders get into trouble because they are surrounded by followers who deceive them with flattery and isolate them from uncomfortable realities.

All leaders run the risk of delegating to followers who are not exactly scrupulous. So leaders should protect themselves by communicating and living a positive set of values.

Although many leaders pride themselves on their willingness to take unpopular decisions, research has consistently demonstrated that most people, including leaders, prefer conformity to controversy. The pressure to conform rises with the degree of agreement among those who are around you. In the workplace situations where continued interactions are expected and where there is a concern about possible loss of face, one would reasonably expect conformity to be even more marked.

What is more, most business decisions are urgent, complex, and ambiguous, which encourages people to depend on the views of others.

The reason that unanimity is such a powerful influence force is simply that the majority is often right. In general, according to Lynn Offermann research shows that using “social proof” — what others think or do — to determine our behavior leads us to make fewer mistakes than opposing the majority view does, but the majority can be very wrong.

One reason that even well-informed experts so often follow the crowd is that people by nature tend to be what psychologists call “cognitive misers,” preferring the shortcuts of automatic thinking over well-thought out positions. These shortcuts can help us to process information more quickly but can also lead to grievous errors.

Another factor contributing to the power of the majority is that leaders worry about undermining their employees, commitment. This is a reasonable concern.

Leaders do need to be careful about overstretching their political goodwill, and overruling employees one too many times can demotivate them. Indeed, there are times when going along with majority to win commitment is more important than making the “right” decision. But other times, leaders need to listen to their intuition. In going against the tide, the leader will sometimes boost rather than undermine his or her credibility.

Sometimes, follower influence takes the subtler and gentler form of ingratiation. Most people learn very early in life that a good way to get people to like you is to show that you like them. Flattery, favors, and frequent compliments all tend to win people over. Leaders, naturally, like those who like them and are more apt to let those they are fond of influence them.

Everyone loves a sincere compliment, but those who already think highly of themselves are most susceptible to flattery’s charms. In particular, leaders predisposed toward narcissism may find their egoist tendencies pushed to unhealthy levels when they are given heavy doses of follower ingratiation.

Gratuitous ingratiation can create a subtle shift in a leader’s attitude toward power. Instead of viewing power as something to be used in the service of the organization, clients, and stakeholders, the leader treats it as a tool to further personal interests, sometimes at the expense of others in and outside the organization.

But one of the most serious problems for leaders who invite flattery is that they insulate themselves from the bad news they need to know. Yet followers who have witnessed the “castigation of the harbinger of bad news” will be unlikely to volunteer for that role.

And as more staff ingratiate or hold back criticism, the perception of staff unanimity, often at the expense of the organization’s health, increases as well. The individual who will not join the chorus of praise singers is typically seen as a bad guy by both the leader and his peers.

In dealing with ingratiation, leaders need to begin by reflecting on how they respond to both flattery and criticism. In considering leaders advice or opinion, ask yourself if you would respond differently if a staff member you disliked made the same comment, and why. Are followers really free to voice their honest assessments, or are they jumped on whenever they deviate from your opinions?

According to Bill Gates “It is important to have someone whom you totally trust, who is totally committed, who shares your vision, and yet who has a little bit different skills and who acts something of a check on you.”

Leaders must rely on others for full, accurate, and unbiased inputs as well as for may operational decisions. From followers’ point of view, this situation presents opportunities to learn and practice new skills as the leader relies on them more and more.

They may be presented with new opportunities for advancement and reward. At the same time, however, it opens the door for the occasional followers who use the newfound power to serve their own interests more than that of the organization.

Leaders can guard themselves against this problem by beginning to keep ethical values and corporate vision front and center when delegating and monitoring work. Only then can they be certain that followers have a clear framework and boundaries for their actions. Leaders can also protect themselves by setting good examples. Followers — especially praise singers – tend to model themselves after their leaders.

Thus, straightforward leaders are less likely to be manipulated than manipulative leaders are. And a leader who is seen to condone or encourage unethical behavior will almost certainly get unethical behavior “good measure, pressed down, shaken together.”

Although competency is a good basis on which to grant followers greater influence, leaders need to avoid letting followers influence them based on competency alone. Don’t put intelligence and energy alone above morality.

The danger is that astute but unscrupulous followers can find ways of pushing the leaders in unethical directions and may use the leader’s stated value against them. At the end of the day, leaders have to rely on their instincts about people. One simple test of whether you are getting the feedback you need is to count how many employees challenge at your next staff meeting. “Flattery is like chewing gum. Enjoy it but don’t swallow it.”

There is no way no guaranteed means of ensuring that you would not be misled by your followers. But adhering to these principles, proposed by Lynn Offermann, could be helpful:

Keep vision and values front and center. It is much easier to get sidetracked when you are unclear about what your main track is.

Make sure people disagree. Remember that most of us form opinions too quickly and give them up too slowly.

Cultivate truth tellers. Make sure there are people in your world you can trust to tell you what you need to hear, no matter how unpopular or unpalatable it is.

Do as you would have done to you. Followers look to what you do rather than what you say. Set a good ethical climate for your team to be sure your followers have clear boundaries for their actions.

Honor your intuition. If you think you are being manipulated, you are probably right.

Delegate, don’t desert. It is important to share control and empower your staff, but remember who is ultimately responsible for the outcome. As they say in politics, “Trust, but verify.”

By understanding how followers are capable of influencing them, leaders can improve their leadership skills. They can choose to lead by steadfastly refusing to fall victim to manipulative forces and try to guide the way toward more open and appropriate communications.

Captain Sam Addaih (Rtd)

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