DierkeHouben Insights

The CEO does not know better – Top Teams need to be aware of the Dependency Trap

„First I felt flattered – but now it’s simply painful. We’re not getting anywhere as a team.“ The CEO of a client-company of ours was disillusioned shortly after taking charge. His executive team of Yes-men was annoying him already after two months in the office.

In our work with executive teams, we observed this phenomenon many times: Even very senior teams get bogged down in ineffective detail activities, postponing decisions over and over again until the boss himself takes action. When executives get under stress, human instincts and group autopilots take over: Either you jointly get into Fight Mode or into Flight Mode, avoiding to focus on the primary task as a top team. But there is another, often observable pattern: the Dependency Trap. Facing complexity, pressure and insecurity, team members turn to the one who must know: the boss.

Dependency: a win-win deal with an expiry date

Although the days of the heroic CEO are gone for quite some time, most executives are still too focused on the alpha-male or alpha-female at the top. Turning to authorities in complex situations is human – this is true for executives as well. The CEO in our case had to clean up the mess that his dominant, omnipresent predecessor had left on all levels of the company. His executive team was played low key and had to serve as the scapegoat for everything – until it had lost all its self-confidence. During our conversations it quickly surfaced that the new CEO was committed to change this. For role-modeling effective leadership, he needed an active executive team to jointly take responsibility – not just disciples waiting for his final word. The dependency trap is so insidious because it is so tempting: the CEO reaps allegiance and loyalty, the team members enjoy safety and avoid open conflict.

Even if tempting – depending on the CEO blocks effective leadership and efficient collaboration as it incapacitates the team by constantly asking for the blessing of the CEO. High performing leadership teams have the discipline to keep focus on the joint work to be done, even in the face of risks and uncertainties. Each member focuses its full attention and energy on his or her contribution to the joint goal.

Alphas need each other as corrective power for team success

Sounds simple but is difficult to practice. Yes, the CEO and his top team depend on each other – but as a mutual corrective: Alphas need other alphas as a corrective in order to successfully perform as a team. If the team dynamics drifts “off task”, everyone has to take responsibility. Every member must be willing to remind all others of the joint task, requesting joint reflection of their own unproductive behaviors in order to adjust if necessary.

Thus, alphas need each other for team success. Through reflective dialogue at eye-level, managers in the top team create a joint awareness about their mental models, their pre-dispositions, judgements and their productive or unproductive behaviours in the team. Only the regular practice of joint autopsies without blame and a constructive scepticism in reflecting individual and team behaviour patterns, can pave the way for alphas to effectively perform as a leadership team. Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership scholars at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, call this reflective practice “moving from dance floor to balcony”, a technique to step back and gain an observer’s perspective that is imperative for each top team.

In the hustle and bustle of day-to-day business, top managers can master uncertainties and complexity only jointly. Pushing the pause-button in the middle of action and asking: „What is actually going on here?” is a significant contribution to joint learning. This requires a lot of courage, openness and the constant willingness to slow down when the engine is running with full steam.

We wish you a reflective day!

Sincerely yours, Anke Houben + Kai W. Dierke

This Article is based on our book „Gemeinsame Spitze. Wie Führung im Top-Team gelingt“, Campus; Completely Revised English edition forthcoming in 2020: „Executive Rivals. How to Build Great Leadership Teams where Collaboration is Hard.”

Dr. Kai Dierke and Dr. Anke Houben are founders of DierkeHouben Leadership Partners – C-suite Coaches and Advisors with more than 17 years of experience in counseling and developing Top Executives and their teams. In addition to their consulting work they offer open enrollment programmes for Senior Executives. As Adjunct Professors they teach Leadership at HHL Graduate School of Management.

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