Manipulation in the C-Suite: Why Fake and Overconfident Leaders Are Corroding Our Teams — And What We Can Do About It

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In the words of American author Frank Herbert, “All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities.”

Our data from consulting shows the same thing: many executives are charismatic charlatans with elevations on toxic traits. One assessment we use, the Hogan Development Survey, evaluates dark side traits that get in the way of leadership effectiveness. In our data, the most prevalent in executive leadership are:

  • Overconfidence that conceptually aligns with narcissism.
  • Manipulation that has conceptual overlap with Machiavellianism.
  • Attention-seeking to the point of pushing everyone else to the periphery.
  • Vision to the point of delusion and believing one has psychic powers.

Interestingly, these traits supercharge political savvy. Thus, leadership pipelines are filled with overconfident manipulators who manage up and play politics instead of leading teams. They pursue power and trick everyone around them with manipulative precision, and emerge to the C-suite regardless of how good they are at leadership.

This dynamic creates the fundamental problem in organizational leadership: aggressive personalities achieve power, even when they’re bad at leadership.

Related: 4 Ways to Stop Passive Aggression From Creating a Toxic Workplace

How bad leaders achieve power

Academics study leadership emergence: who gets to the top of the world’s largest organizations?

In a meta-analysis, Nurcan and colleagues found that charismatic authoritarians take over groups. This is like learning you should eat vegetables instead of ice cream – not surprising. Think about the longline of extraverted, authoritarian country leaders like Mussolini, Stalin, Genghis Khan, Shaka Zulu, and Mao Zedong, as well as organizational leaders such as Adam Neumann (WeWork), Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos) and Travis Kalanick (Uber).

In organizations, overconfident leaders project an image of competence and authority, effortlessly winning the admiration of colleagues and fooling everyone into mistaking confidence for real competence. But it’s an illusion. There’s only a 9% overlap between a person’s confidence and actual ability.

Master manipulators are also designed for politics. In The Mask of Sanity, Hervey M. Cleckley noted that psychopaths appear outwardly normal and well-adjusted but are emotionally disconnected, manipulative, and devoid of empathy. They are skilled puppet masters who are unencumbered by moral qualms. As Cleckley said, “The psychopath’s mask is not only an effective cover for his true nature; it is also a tool that he uses to manipulate and deceive others.”

Related: 6 Telltale Signs of Bad Leadership

A poisonous cocktail of power and dark traits

Lord Acton said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Adam Galinsky, an American social psychologist, is one of the most well-known academics studying power. In Power and Perspectives Not Taken, Galinsky and colleagues showed that people given power are less likely to have empathy. Participants were asked to draw an “E” on their forehead. Those given power unconsciously drew the “E” in a self-oriented direction so they could read it instead of the audience. Participants without power drew the “E” facing the audience, demonstrating empathy and an orientation to other people instead of themselves.

Those who wield power become anchored in their own perspective, ensnared in a self-focused bubble and unable to see things from another person’s perspective. This is problematic because leaders of the future are guardians of the human experience. Future-ready leaders harness the social forces in organizations and pay special attention to others’ experiences at work.

Related: How to Avoid Becoming a Villain — 6 Leadership Traits You Must Avoid

Protecting your leadership pipeline from bad leadership

Organizations need the exact opposite of malignant personalities searching for power. While power corrupts, great leaders have a psychological protective coating that allows them to maintain empathy while occupying a powerful position.

Step 1: Know What You Want

Satya Nadela is the archetypal example of a psychological superhuman built to deal with power. And he almost didn’t become CEO because of it. At a black-tie event in Chicago, Nadella spoke about his book Hit Refresh. He told a story about how the board at Microsoft asked him to be a succession candidate, and his response was, “I’m not sure I’m the right person for the job.”

This was a huge turnoff for the board, questioning his ambition to lead. But this is exactly the disposition you want in a CEO. His response demonstrates concern for something besides getting the next position, or making more money, or having power over people. It showed he had the organization in mind — not just himself.

Nadella was appointed CEO of Microsoft in 2014. He transformed their culture from tech-savvy engineers in a rigid hierarchy to human-centered empathy. As he said, “Anything is possible for a company when its culture is about listening, learning, and harnessing individual passions and talents to the company’s mission.” Microsoft’s stock price has grown 700% since his appointment.

Step 2: Use Science to Decide Who Should Lead

You’re afraid of spiders, but perfectly fine driving 75 miles per hour on the highway. The human mind is stuck in the past, which is why studies show people follow aggressive personalities. The history of the world is the history of command-and-control hierarchies and war, so our intuition happily goes along with authoritarian leadership.

The problem is that today’s world is less warlike, violent and hierarchical. We must use science – not intuition – to select leaders who can build connected, agile organizations that thrive in complexity. That means we must use leadership assessments that are fairer than human intuition, such as when organizations promote political behavior by asking supervisors to choose their high-potentials intuitively.

As human resource professionals, we like to see the good in people and give everyone a chance. However, there are people in the world who shouldn’t lead us. Some people have caused others a lot of misery. We must find and develop the good ones, even if that means disrupting the political status quo with science.

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