Stalking Hubris, Before It Leads To A Fall

While toxic work cultures are frequent in today's organizations, they are likely to be exacerbated by remote work. A study published in the MIT Sloan Management Review found that toxic culture is the number one reason people leave their jobs and is 10 times more important than salary. 

It is estimated that 20-70% of organizations show signs of a dysfunctional corporate culture, frequently rooted in poor management practices that lead to unhealthy workplaces where incivility and even hostility often thrive. Such practices are detrimental to employee morale, organizational performance, and the community at large.

It is essential for any corporate leader to be aware of the danger of managerial drift, i.e., hubris among its executives, particularly its stars, who run the greatest risk of losing humility. An executive tainted by hubris is a serious source of toxicity in the workplace. The risk of losing touch with reality or cultural norms increases in a hybrid work environment. If this happens, the individual who has crossed the line must be confronted and the situation corrected.

An illustration of hubris by the fable of AESOP: the hare and the tortoise

No one better describes the nature and dynamics of this problem than the character of the hare in Aesop's fable: The Hare and the Tortoise. The hare, who should have won the race against the tortoise, suffered a crushing defeat after getting carried away by untimely chatter before the race. His excessive pride and arrogance, coupled with his overconfidence, caused him to lose touch with reality, which led to his famous mid-race nap. If the hare had refrained from boasting, he would have easily beaten the tortoise and reaped all the benefits of victory. Pride didn’t just precede the fall it also caused it.  

What is leadership hubris?

The behavior, known as hubris, is an acquired disorder that affects people who exercise substantial power, in any of its forms, over a long period of time. Examples include politicians, such as prime ministers and presidents; powerful businessmen/women; ... In a 2009 article in Brain, David Owen defines hubris as "a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years [...]." It manifests itself as an imbalance that robs its holder of any sense of empathy and distances him or her from reality, giving way to an excess of pride and arrogance coupled with a dangerous overconfidence. 

Power, it turns out, can literally mess with a person's brain. Brain scans performed by neuroscientists revealed that "mirroring", a neural process known to be the cornerstone of empathy, is impaired in a large proportion of people in positions of power. There is a neurological basis for what Keltner calls the "power paradox." That is, leaders lose mental capacities – most notably the ability to read others – that were essential to their rise to power. Research suggests that power causes our brains to filter out all peripheral and non-essential information. In most situations, this allows us to significantly boost our performance. However, in a social context, the unintended consequence is to make us more obtuse. As a result, we find it difficult to discern the individual characteristics of people and tend to rely more on stereotypes and our personal "vision" to guide us. 

John Stumpf, the now ex-CEO of Wells Fargo, who rose to the top of the world's most valuable bank, is a good example of leadership hubris. Overly confident and bold, he nurtured grandiose aspirations and would rather rely on stereotypes and his personal "vision" to steer his ship. He dreamed of creating a Wells Fargo where each customer would hold 8 separate accounts. In his mind, "cross-selling was a shortcut to deepening relationships." To this end, he did not object to prevent some 5,000 employees from setting up fictitious accounts for customers. His failure to connect with reality, coupled with a contempt for feedback from his entourage, resulted in irresponsible behavior that ignored both the legitimacy and the ramifications of his actions. 

Jeffrey Skilling, former CEO of Enron, is another famous illustration of the disastrous consequences of arrogant impetuosity combined with a disregard for the reactions of others to get his way. His reckless zeal in using fraudulent accounting practices to inflate Enron's financial results led to one of the largest corporate frauds and bankruptcies in history. When other executives, such as Ms. Watkins, an Enron corporate development officer, raised concerns about financial irregularities, she was accused of not being an Enron "team player". 

How to fight leadership hubris?

As leaders, it is our responsibility to be constantly aware of what is happening inside and outside the organization – to look for signs that cultural norms or desired standards are being followed. Therefore, we must constantly seek out and give feedback and critiques. Feedback goes far beyond an annual performance review; it is a daily conversation with employees and the immediate circle. When a red flag is raised, the person who may have crossed the line must be confronted and the situation rectified.

Also, to stay grounded: every leader needs someone to play devil's advocate for their thinking.  

The person who filled this role for Winston Churchill was his wife, Clementine, who wrote: "My Darling Winston. I must confess I have noticed a deterioration in your manners; you are not as kind as you used to be.” Someone of his cabinet had confided to her that Churchill behaved "so contemptuously" toward his subordinates in meetings that "no idea, whether good or bad, will be forthcoming" – with the attendant danger that "you won’t get the best results.” 

Toxic work cultures persist or tend to escalate in remote settings

For those employed in toxic work environments, the shift to remote work may have seemed like a miraculous escape from Covid-19: a chance to enjoy a much-needed break from a negative work climate. 

Theoretically, working outside the office should help defuse internal tensions. But in reality, the stress levels can become overwhelming as isolation may aggravate the challenges. Also, physical distance and anonymity can enhance negative behaviors – it can be easier to send a rude or threatening message than to say it in person. Lastly, escalation may occur if there is little or no organizational support, no access to informal social support from colleagues, or an inability to use HR grievance mechanisms. 

Final thoughts

For successful leaders who recognize the critical role that leadership by example plays in achieving solid organizational results, humility trumps pride. These leaders continually strive to uphold and sustain constructive role modeling based on a set of values: communication, authenticity, respect, and ethics.  

Whenever ethics and cultural norms of fairness and equity are modeled by leadership, a climate of openness, trust, caring, and teamwork develops in the organization, where everyone has a clear and shared sense that ‘this is the way we do things around here’ – it is part of the organization's DNA. 

Organizational success is not just about an individual leader, but also about the development, health, and well-being of all members of an organization.

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