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Loyalty is an important attribute in any organisation but, argue FRSAs Frank Hore and David Low, sometimes it masks an unhealthy dependency created out of a debilitating relationship between staff and management.

We know a CEO who reckoned that he had developed strong, two-way loyalties with his colleagues. He rated them highly and they thought the world of him. But now, if he leaves the office in the evening without putting his head around their doors to say goodnight, he receives anxious text messages and emails: “have I done anything to offend you?”

Should he be worried? Well, yes, because he has also started noticing in them a growing insecurity about taking decisions without checking with him first. Somehow an unhealthy dependency has come about; an immaturity in their behaviour which the CEO finds unsettling. This is a cause for concern to the business.

His experience rang bells with us. We had seen a couple of examples of much more extreme dependency within companies which, on close inspection, turned out to be under the thrall of a particular style of leader. These men (and there is no reason to suppose this to be a male-only arena) ruled their ‘extended families’ with an interesting mix of affection and rods of iron. Theirs were cultures that were not so readily recognisable as the regular α-male, command-and-control systems, which we had encountered more often. They were much more ambiguous – pernicious even – as far as the states of mind of employees were concerned.

In both instances the leader showed great affection and concern – love, they might say – for their people. To earn this ‘love’, everyone had to act like goody-goody children in respect of every request and command, even unspoken ones. These leaders exerted control over everything that moved; the penalty for disobedience was to have their affection removed so that everybody at some time or other bathed in their good favour. By the same token, everybody, at some stage, will be in their boss’ bad books. Most learned quickly how to keep the boss smiling.

And most in retrospect would tell you what a wonderful, compassionate person he was; how much their leader cared for them and worked in their interests, just like a parent or a kindly relative.

Yet we discovered that one CEO had bugged all the ‘phones in his company; this gave him the information he thought he needed to monitor compliance and to advise his people what to do next, with clairvoyant insight. He could salt his conversations with them with their own thoughts and phrases, because he knew them so well, they thought.

A tiny minority of people felt he’d been a thorough bastard, whereas a surprisingly high proportion told us he was ‘like a father’ to them. He could be all charm and concern, as well as a consummate liar. If it had ever occurred to his victims that he had been listening in to their calls, they’d have thought themselves paranoid. He had kept them frozen in time, undeveloped and doubting their own judgments.

This may well seem distinctive and damaging from the outside; but it is a tough condition to diagnose from within. Cultures impose compliance. People stop questioning and, just as rapidly, begin to fall in line. Even the experienced will tend to say, all companies are like this, while others feel that theirs is particularly blessed to have a CEO who puts his/her heart and soul into the business.

It is when you take the leader away that you will see the downsides most clearly. You will leave a gaping hole for those who have become conditioned to childlike behaviours. Many will have developed dependencies on direction; and sweeties and smacks.  

Another avuncular leader we encountered kept coming to work (and parking in the CEO’s space in the company’s garage) for weeks after he had left the business. He was convinced that his people needed him and was loath to let go of his family seat. He could not trust the new guy with his children; and his old first-line reports still kept running to him with their problems, leaving the new CEO out of the loop and with nowhere to park his car!

What to do then? Naturally enough some staff rose to the challenge of new freedoms. Many lacked the confidence to venture far from the kindergarten, especially those towards the top of the house where the leader’s direct contact was more keenly felt.

As unpleasant and demeaning as these examples are, is the leader always the culprit? Think of life-cycle theory and imagine that organisations are travelling towards mature behaviour from their youthful, adolescent origins. At outset, staff will be likely to seek more direction from management; then gradually – one hopes – they grow in confidence and are more able to stand on their own feet. Clearly some will never reach that destination. Some get diverted, perhaps when leaders and led both meet down a comfortable branch line; when the leaders’ drive to control somehow matches staffs’ comfort in the freedoms of staying young forever, where responsibility is never real and where the boss can make everything ok.

By that reckoning everyone is complicit. Certainly, culture has its way with everyone, regardless of status. People, as it were, ‘find themselves’ playing a part that they have been coaxed into ever-so-gradually over time (and, very often, in no time at all). Saying ‘no’ is not an easy option.  In time even the CEO, as remote as he/she may be from the action, will tend to fall in line. CEOs (and managing directors and functional heads) begin to play the part that ‘the led’ have written for them.

This is not  something that necessarily strikes them as odd, or even something they have noticed in themselves. People lose their sense of independence and objectivity – of what’s ok and what isn’t – very rapidly. So many senior managers (within extreme autocracies, for example) have said ‘we’re just a normal organisation’ and really meant it. They are not disguising the truth as they see it; they simply cannot see the truth any more.

When challenged, they are as likely to deny their behaviour or express frustration that ‘my staff would fall apart unless I took the reins’. Their assessment is often quite true: perhaps their people had never been confident enough to take responsibility for their actions; but the CEO – our CEO with the dependent colleagues and fretful texts – had become complicit in keeping them frozen in this state by acting the part of the leader they needed.

David Low & Frank Hore are partners in the Service Management Partnership, and give advice and steer to the general management of service organisations.


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