A thousand flatterers…

Margaret Heffernan writes about leaders and wilful blindness. It’s a good piece pulling together many strands of research on the considerable downsides of having high-status leaders.

Leaders of organizations inhabit a bubble of power… They’re either isolated or surrounded by those desperate to please. The powerful also communicate differently. Academic analysis of their language shows that confronted by risky situations, the powerful think in more abstract terms, are more optimistic and more certain that they are right. They’re both mentally and physically cut off from the reality most people would recognise.

She goes on to explore how high pay adds to the problem:

Extremely high pay adds social isolation to the psychological solipsism of power. Moreover, because business decisions are normally framed as purely economic choices, the focus on money crowds out ethical considerations. If the numbers work, then the decision works – doesn’t it? The use of money as the primary, often the only, measure of success put enormous pressure on ostensible independents, like accountants, lawyers and consultants to toe the line.

Add to this things like cognitive dissonance, Milgram’s experiments on social compliance, groupthink… well you get the picture.

In my travels around organisations I frequently see this stuff playing out. Deference to leaders blocks the flow of ideas and feedback.

I would add that this isn’t just about big companies and the biggest cheeses. We are engaged in status play of various kinds with each other all the time. I’ve done a few improv status workshops and one thing that keeps emerging is that we’re often quite unaware of the status given to us by others. We may be feeling low status but unconsciously playing high, and vice versa. All of this messes with our communication and sense of connection.

I love using improv work to explore this because it gets us off the written word and the purely cognitive and helps make us more aware of the whole physicality and tone of status. A little blog post can’t really explain this, but for me the crude bottom line is this: if we can develop some awareness and flexibility about how we play status, there’s more hope of creating more level connections with others – and better collaboration.

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