Why the boss is always wrong


05.10.13 Thumbnail BossIsWrong“Are you ready to be a transference object?” Fred hesitated. The coffee shop seemed to become dead silent. One week earlier, Fred had been offered a dream job, as part time CEO of a startup, working for a proven star CEO — now Chairman — who had also offered to mentor Fred.

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05.10.13 Blog BossIsWrong“Are you ready to be a transference object?”

Fred hesitated. The coffee shop seemed to become dead silent.

One week earlier, Fred had been offered a dream job, as part time CEO of a startup, working for a proven star CEO — now Chairman — who had also offered to mentor Fred.

This day, Fred is in the think-it-over, talk-it-over phase. Reaching out to every smart CEO and consultant he knows, asking “What should I ask? What should I think about? What conditions should I set? ”

And at this moment, in the frozen instant in that coffee shop, Fred is facing the one question that most worries him.

Because, you see, the boss is always wrong.

You’re a Transference Object

A “transference object” gets to receive all the misplaced emotions that people have. As the boss, you become the target of every resentment people have for any past authority figure. You are expected to know things you can’t know, to feel everyone’s feelings without being told, to know the subtext and the context of every issue.

And to the people over whom you have positional power, your every mistake can seem deliberate. Even the “mistakes” that aren’t mistakes — plus all the ones that are, and you’ll make lots of those — can easily look like you pointedly don’t care, or are deliberately malicious.

This transference effect shows up every time I do a 360-degree assessment of a CEO. For every two legitimate complaints, I’ll get one that’s utterly misplaced — an artifact of that person’s experience with some prior boss.

The Math is Against You

When you’re CEO, you will sometimes be wrong because the math is conspiring against you. This is a fact — an aspect of set theory.

Suppose your top three VPs are disagreeing about strategy, so you must decide. There are three roughly equally good choices. And you have to pick only one. Here’s how your team stands:

 VP JoVP ChrisVP Sandy
First ChoiceOrganic growthAcquireDivest
Second ChoiceDivestOrganic growthAcquire
Third ChoiceAcquireDivestOrganic growth

Notice that, no matter what you pick, you’re wrong.

Like the Organic Growth strategy? Jo loves that decision. Then you see Chris and Sandy put their heads together and frown — they each prefer Acquire over Organic Growth.

Suppose you agree to Acquire key competitors. Chris loves it. Now Sandy and Jo both look solemn and shake their heads. They both prefer Divest over Acquire.

Or suppose you go with Divest. You know Sandy would love it. And now you realize both Jo and Chris prefer something else more than Divest: Organic Growth.

You can’t win. And as CEO, you have to pick anyway. (CEOs are responsible for strategy. “All of the above” is not a strategy — it lacks focus.)

Pick one, and accept that 2/3rds of your team will be convinced you’re wrong. Or pick none, and get run over by your competitors.

This is no academic example — it’s what happened before DEC imploded and got acquired by Compaq. DEC could not decide whether to focus on chips, systems or PCs, tried to do all three, and failed.

You’re In the Dark

People hold information back from their bosses.

I watched as one business owner, Jan, innocently suggested that everyone in her small company — all male — bring their ‘wives and girlfriends’ to a social event. We all looked over at our newly hired gay engineer, Sven. Sven just smiled and said he would probably come alone this time. The rest of us looked at each other and didn’t say anything.

(We all asked Sven later if it was okay — was he offended? Bothered? No, he just thought it was funny.)

It grew into a running joke — everyone in the company knew Sven was gay, except the owner. It went on for over a year. Every mention of wives or girlfriends would be met with eye contact and a secret smile among the team members. Finally Sven felt he’d had enough of the joke and came out of the closet, much to the owner’s embarrassment.

I watched the team bond over their shared secret. This can happen in any team, even a high morale and high trust team.

Once you’re a boss, and doubly when you’re CEO, it’ll happen to you.

CEOs are Overly Optimistic

As a breed, CEOs are too optimistic. They are overly supportive of failing managers, are slow to fire senior people, and consistently over-estimate the up side potential of just about everything.

Humans are generally prone to a host of cognitive biases.

CEOs are more prone, and are less able to afford to be. Remember, CEOs’ mistakes get amplified, and other people pay the price.

Nobody Gives you the Full Picture

Everybody has an agenda, and except for your spouse or a professional coach, none of them shares your exact agenda. There’s nothing wrong with that, it just means you have to calibrate your listening. Constantly.

HR wants you to put new money into an HRIS so the firm can continue to do basically what it already does, only now with computers.

Sales wants to blame their performance on marketing or engineering (who blame back).

Everybody interprets the ambiguity of life from their perspective — evaluating themselves on their motives and everyone else on results.

So the CEO has to listen while not being partial. By one estimate, the most successful CEOs spend upward of 67% of their time listening to internal stakeholders.

How to Be Less Wrong

Tricks to handle all of this:

  1. Praise process. When someone brings you bad news, thank them for it — don’t snap over the news.
  2. Be clear about your strategy. One clear strategy can make thousands of decisions easier, and reduce confusion and conflict in the ranks.
  3. Seek consensus — and don’t be a slave to it. When it’s time, make a decision, own it, and live with it.
  4. Seek data. Top CEOs use professional anonymous surveys of staff, suppliers and customers — constantly. You need objective data.
  5. Get coaching. Few top performers got there alone. Get visibility into your blind spots from a pro.
  6. Ask for help. The CEOs who impress me most are also the quickest to ask for what they want — even when they have no reason to think I might supply it.

And #7 is, Embrace the Role. Accept that you’ll be a transference object, you’ll beheld to a higher standard than anyone else, and you’ll constantly be judged and found wanting.

If you wanted applause, you’d have joined the circus.

Tom Cox is a Portland area consultant and executive coach. He helps leaders exceed their business aspirations.