“If everyone is telling you what you want to hear rather than what you need to hear, you’re probably doing a lot worse than you think!” – Futurist Jim Carroll
It’s a problem.
Quite often, organizations begin to suffer because the leadership team only ever hears how great they are doing – not how poorly things are actually going. Their corporate culture only filters to them words of praise, not phrases of negative feedback. They have surrounded themselves with individuals who fawn over them and speak to their success, and avoid any who might dare tell them the truth. Their team consists of people who will always agree with them, rather than challenge them. Individuals who will offer up glowing words of acclaim rather than the darker notes of condemnation. They never get any constructive criticism – only laudatory flattery!
It usually doesn’t end well.
What goes wrong? Those at the top develop a false sense of confidence in their skills and abilities; the result is that they don’t learn from their mistakes and never improve their performance. No one challenges them or their decisions – which means when things go wrong, it’s often far too late. Subordinates get into a mindset that the only way to get ahead is to participate in the positive feedback bubble, engendering the destruction of praise into the system. The leader begins to actively seek out praise in order to feed their narcissistic mind, leading to a destructive culture of sycophants. They start to do what they did in the past because that is what led to success – which eventually won’t work because circumstances have changed!
It introduces a false sense of confidence, complacency, and hubris. It leads to leadership arrogance, which is a critical and fatal mistake in the long run.
Failue begins to creep in, but the leadership doesn’t see it – because they are too busy living in the land of praise than the region of reality.
I was reminded of all this while I continue to read a book about the collapse of the Soviet Union; what strikes me is the massive amount of detail as to how the entire country was structured with a culture that ‘everything is going great‘ – when clearly, it wasn’t. I am reminded of it every day when I read about the ‘cult of Elon‘ that has emerged on Twitter – he is constructing a feedback loop that is always telling him how brilliant he is, but nothing about the fact that he is actually emerging as one of the most significant business failures of our time. And we all continue to see it in stark, terrifying terms as the world’s greatest narcissist continues his stranglehold on a cult of delusional thinking, and gets away with the continued destruction of the norms of civilized culture and a nation of laws.
Do some leaders avoid the trap? Definitely. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, was willing to listen to negative feedback from employees – and empower them with the tools and culture for innovation and creativity. The result was a stunning turnaround focused on cloud computing. The CEO of Airbnb listed to criticism during the early days of Covid and moved fast to win back customers. We saw it with Steve Jobs who took his time in the wilderness of thinking after his first stint at Apple – and returned to engineer the greatest corporate turnaround in history.
What is the point of all this? It’s important that you watch for your own signs of a potential laudatory feedback loop. never become complacent; never assume that you are doing all the right things; be prepared to challenge yourself with the feedback of others. Listen for the signs of where you are going wrong – not just what you are doing right.
Your ability to get ALL feedback is one of the most critical skills you can develop. it’s not easy, because sometimes the truth hurts – but the truth will move you forward!