Psychology Today

By Judith E. Glaser |
Published: April 4, 2014

Flip side of Success

What happens when our leaders harbor Addictions and Delusions?

Much is written about the psychology of success, far less about the flipside, the leadership psychosis that leads to failure, ruined lives, and fortunes.

Here are two examples. First, whistle-blower Michael Winston, former head of leadership development at Countrywide Financial, alleges that former CEO Anthony Mozillo suffered from a sort of leadership psychosis, believing that virtually anyone with a pulse should qualify for a home mortgage (leading to catastrophic consequences). Second, I once worked with a bankruptcy lawyer whose narcissism, denial of reality, and belief that he was the best in the industry led him to be ousted from his role in his firm. Tragically, he was hired to chair another law firm, which went Chapter 11 in two years!

Psychosis entails a loss of contact with an objective reality, often including false beliefs about what is taking place (paranoia or fantasy or fabrication); who one is (delusions); or seeing or hearing things that aren’t there (imaginations or hallucinations).

In my work with leaders, I see how such delusions can be caused by various addictions, along with inaccurate, incomplete, or distorted information passed on in daily conversations and thus embedded deep in (counter-productive, fear-based) cultures. Such psychotic leaders tend to suffer form a sort of bipolar personality disorder. Symptoms often include: disorganized thoughts and speech, false beliefs, and unfounded fears or suspicions. These leaders can cause much harm to themselves and others; employees dealing with delusional bosses carry a heavy burden, and their work suffers from it.

Conversational Addictions and Delusions

Here are three common conversational addictions:

1. You are addicted to being right or being in control. The body makes a chemical choice about how best to protect itself from the shame and loss of power associated with losing control or being wrong—and as a result is unable to regulate its emotions or handle the gaps between expectations and reality.

2. You irrationally try to defend or sell your position, even when you sense that your idea is not the best possible solution. You raise your voice and convey defensive or combative body language. When others push back, you try to convince them you’re right. In such tense situations, your brain is hijacked as the cortisol floods the brain. Executive functions that govern advanced thought processes like strategy, trust building, and compassion shut down, and the amygdala, your instinctive brain, takes over.

3. You talk over your colleagues and correct their point of view. Your conversations then become monologues or one-way diatribes instead of two-way dialogues. You talk past and over others. Leaders tend to be great talkers because they continually pitch their visions, strategies, products and services. Unfortunately, many leaders discover too late they are failing to connect with and influence others. They have communication blind spots, resulting in conversational delusions.

Here are three common conversational delusions, and what to do about them:

1. Why listen—I already understand their point of view.

Antidote: When you give people extra time to explain their ideas and listen without judgment, speak less and listen more, you learn about their perspectives, engender empathy, and create synergy. And when you listen with empathy, people want to listen to you, creating a virtuous circle.

2. Why include, involve or invite—I already have enough good ideas.

Antidote: When you involve people, invite them to suggest ways to make an idea or product even better, engage in inclusive conversation and write the ideas down for everyone to see, you tend to build relationships and achieve better results. Our brains are designed to be social. We need to belong. When we feel uninvited or rejected, our fear networks are activated, moving us into protective behavior. A sense of inclusion reduces protective behavior while promoting bonding.

3. Why ask—I already know what we need to do.

Antidote: When you open the floor to different speakers, asking open-ended questions and taking notes, you help others buy in to the solution or course of action, even if it is different than what they proposed. So, when you need to solve a difficult problem, ask discovery questions, “What are your thoughts?” And listen closely to the answers to expand your frame of reference and gain new insights into needs and opportunities.

When we suffer from or encounter leadership psychosis, we tend to default to one of four hard-wired protect responses: fight (keep arguing the point), flight (revert to, and hide behind, group consensus), freeze (disengage from the argument by shutting up) or appease (make nice with your adversary by simply agreeing with him).

These default responses prevent honest and productive sharing of information and opinion. I find that the fight response is the most damaging to relationships; sadly, it’s also the most common because it’s addictive. When you argue and win, your brain is flooded with adrenaline and dopamine, hormones that make you feel good, dominant, and even invincible—a feeling you want to replicate. So, you fight again, becoming addicted to fight and being right.

Many leaders excel at fighting for their point of view (right or wrong), ignorant of the damaging impact their behavior has on others. If one leader is getting high off his or her dominance, others are being drummed into submission—experiencing the fight, flight, freeze or appease responses that diminish their collaborative impulses.

Luckily, another hormone, oxytocin, can feel just as good as adrenaline: It’s activated by human connection and it opens up networks in our executive brain, or prefrontal cortex, increasing our ability to trust and share. As a leader, produce oxytocin in yourself and others, while avoiding spikes of cortisol and adrenaline in conversations.

While conversational default responses may treat the symptoms of the problem, they don’t address the cause; thus, they do not represent conversational cures.

We need Conversational Intelligence to know which conversations trigger primitive brain activity—such as instincts for fight, flight, freeze and appease—versus what brain activity sparks trust, integrity, strategic thinking, empathy, and synergy.

Conversational Intelligence enables us to enhance our relationships with others, overcome our addictions and delusions, and achieve sustainable results.


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