Executive Amplitude

By: John Grinnell

Just last week I received a surprise, the kind no manager likes to hear. A key client whom I had personally spent years cultivating became upset by an unexpected room charge at one of our monthly Leadership Seminars. It was an innocent mistake made by the best people I have ever worked with, but my first reaction was to get a little upset that no one had told me about the problem or asked for my input. Some of you may be thinking, “This guy is a micro-manager and he’s the problem.” Acknowledging an age-old propensity of mine for perfectionism, I have to admit that you may be right. But for the sake of this article and the ideas herein, please bear with me while we look at this problem from another angle. I want to explore something I’ve observed in organizations between leaders and their associates, which James N. Farr, Ph.D., called Executive Amplitude.

Deference is a necessary part of human communication, organizational coordination, and leadership. If no one listens to the leader or chooses to follow an organization’s leadership it is difficult for an organization to achieve its goals. Deference is necessary, but it can also cause avoidable problems and organizational loss if not understood.

The higher rank and title one achieves, the more executive amplitude one has and the more deference is shown to him or her. When the CEO comes into the office, has a quiet conversation with another senior executive, and frowns, the watchful office staff may think that something bad is about to happen in the organization. It could be, though, that the CEO just has gas pains. On the other hand, a front-line floor sweeper has a quiet conversation with a co-worker and they are told to stop wasting time and get back to work. The problem is that many senior executives are unaware of the “amplitude” of their roles, the inherent deference tied to their positions, and how it gets in the way. Many off-the-cuff and not-wellthought- out responses have caused many unnecessary headaches for executives. Within a family-owned business this can be even more of a problem with family members completely in the dark about how they have “referent power” due to their positions in the family and in the family business.

Inside the executive’s head, he is still the same person he has always been. He enjoys people, likes to have fun, and is a little shy, but is generally well-intentioned. Unaware of his elevated role in the eyes of others, he continues to operate much the way he always has, assuming that others are relating to and communicating with him as they always have. This is an erroneous assumption.

Executives and even junior family members operating without awareness set the stage for personal blunders. Assuming that a trusted employee is telling them an “unshaped” picture of a situation can be deadly. When the input is bad news, the employee often shapes the input so as not to “look bad” in the boss’s eyes or to upset the boss, or in order to protect a fellow co-worker’s reputation. The more powerful the executive’s personality, or the more central his or her position in the family, the more likely he or she will fall victim to executive amplitude.

It takes great drive and ambition to ascend to an executive level. Ego is a big contributor to this success in careers as well as to unnecessary failure caused by the deference of employees. Most executives ascend throughout their careers solving problems and overcoming personal and organizational challenges. My experience over the years as an executive coach has shown me that most of these types are not really interested in having power over others, but are focused on marshalling human and other resources to achieve a goal. They make the avoidable deference blunder because they are moving fast with singular focus on a goal and miss the subtle cues of problematic deference.

Rarer, those with a second type of ego really do like to feel that others are paying homage to them and enjoy the feeling of being a “top dog.” They are actually more vulnerable to eventual failure because deference is a primary need their personalities seek from others. These types are often blinded by their need for “brown-nosing” by others and are undermined by the negative effects of the deference they unconsciously seek through their “top-dog” behavior.

There are also those with habitual facial, verbal, and physical mannerisms that cause them to be thought of as curmudgeons or as lacking tact, although they may be merely innocent “blind types” who are frustrated and who actually tend to appreciate those that fearlessly give them input in a friendly manner. However, their traits can be problems when tied to position or family power, and when, for example, a socially sensitive employee who takes human behavior way too seriously withdraws (or quits). Over the years I have often found these “tactless” types to be technically or scientifically focused individuals not trained early enough in their careers about human nature. Instead of training them properly in the art and science of human leadership, the organizations they serve tend to exploit them for their technical and scientific abilities.

Most executives (and I include myself in that category, having run a consulting firm for the past 15 years) have a good bit of ego in the game. Given that ego drive is a factor in executive success, the key question becomes: “Is your ego running you or are you running your ego?” Regardless, it is usually a blind spot that causes one to fall into the trap. The real leadership differentiator is that some learn from the slip while others don’t. My experience has shown that with feedback and subsequent awareness, and a desire to improve, the negative consequences of deference can be minimized by the savvy executive.

What can a motivated executive do?
  • Be aware. Assume your people are honest people who are “shaping the truth,” particularly when it comes to bad news, a pet project, or a favored person of yours.
  • Around key issues, don’t take what your trusted employee says at face value. Always take the time to ask questions in a non-threatening way to get to the real issue.
  • Thank people for giving you bad news. NEVER EVER get mad at people when bad news is brought to you. Instead, spend time with them and help them solve the problem. If you get mad, they won’t come to you when they need to and you will get blindsided a great deal more.
  • Make sure that your rising future leaders are taught about deference early in their management careers.
  • Understand your own ego motivations and the behaviors that have made you successful, and, more importantly, how they can be overdone at the expense of your knowing the truth.

Pass out copies of Peter Ducker’s article “Managing the Boss” to your direct subordinates and then hold a discussion about it. (The article was published by the Wall Street Journal in the late 1980’s and I find it to be the best ever done to date on the subject.)

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