Fighting ‘CEO Disease’ Takes Honesty, Good-Listening Skills and More

    It’s great to be the person in charge – you get to make the big decisions that impact your organization. But it comes with challenges, such as when people stop telling you the truth and just say anything that they “think” will make you happy.

    Author Dan Quiggle
    Author Dan Quiggle

    For author Dan Quiggle, finding a way to balance what you need to know and what people tell you can result in what he calls “CEO Disease.” He defines this issue as a time when the CEO may think things are going well but failing to notice how your actions or mood affect the company.

    “At its heart, CEO Disease is a perception problem—your employees are unwilling or unable to share how they really perceive you and your business, so your perception of the business is skewed,” says Quiggle, author of the new book “Lead Like Reagan: Strategies to Motivate, Communicate, and Inspire.”

    “Instead of receiving accurate information from your departments and teams, you get vague, reassuring, and often-useless platitudes,” he adds. “That may be because you’ve shot the messenger one too many times, or you have an intimidating or off-putting personality, or you’re so involved in your own work that you rarely engage with employees. Regardless, CEO Disease doesn’t affect just you—it shapes the very culture of your organization.”

    CEO Disease is best tackled head on by the CEO him- or herself. Problem is, many leaders don’t realize that they have this particular ailment until it’s too late. If you’d like to make sure that CEO Disease doesn’t harm your company’s health, Quiggle recommends you take a page from Ronald Reagan’s book.

    “President Reagan understood that as head of the Executive Branch he was in great danger of catching the presidential version of CEO Disease,” notes Quiggle, who began his career in Ronald Reagan’s California post-presidency office and is now a successful entrepreneur and business owner.

    “He was an inclusive leader who used his much-admired emotional intelligence to forge honest, open relationships. As a result, he could rely on his advisers and allies—and in many instances, even his opposition—to tell him the full truth, when he needed to hear it, so that he could make the best decisions for his country.”

    ReaganbookHere’s how you can fight “CEO Disease” in your company:

    Make sure you’re ready to hear the truth. Getting more accurate and timely information from your employees sounds great…and it is! But Quiggle warns leaders not to ask for better feedback if they aren’t truly ready to receive it. Understand that the process of curing CEO Disease won’t always be comfortable for you. In fact, receiving truly—perhaps brutally—honest feedback might be downright painful.

    Ask your people to speak freely. (And mean it.) While announcing “I want to improve the way we all communicate” won’t cause much immediate change, it’s still very important to tell your employees how and why you’d like their feedback to evolve. Be sure to give them explicit permission to bring up points that might not make you, the boss, very happy. And make sure they really, truly have permission to do so without negative repercussions—otherwise, you’ll emerge from this little exercise with employee perceptions of you worse than they were before.

    To begin, Quiggle recommends having candid one-on-one conversations. Call people into your office individually. Explain that you want them to be the best that they can be, and that you want the same for yourself—but that you need their honest assessments to improve. You and they will feel more comfortable opening up the lines of communication in a more private setting.

    Manage your reactions. As Quiggle points out, increased honesty between you and your employees won’t always be comfortable. But it’s crucial not to react with anger or defensiveness. Whether it’s as big as a blow-up or as small as an eye-roll, a negative reaction to an employee’s good-faith feedback can ensure that you’ll return to receiving half-truths and murky platitudes. Unless an individual is malicious or insubordinate, be careful not to penalize them for what they say. Strive to be diplomatic and thank employees for their feedback, even if it was hard to hear or if you disagree with it.

    Ask the right questions. Remember that your employees are in uncharted territory, too. Even if they’re on board with treating your CEO Disease, they may not know how best to help you. You can get the ball rolling by asking three specific questions: “What should I do more of?” “Less of?” “Is there anything I should add?” Listen carefully and learn from the answers.

    “The exciting part is that these questions work just as well in your personal life with friends, family members, and even children,” Quiggle said. “In a recent talk with my 18-year-old son who was about to leave for college, I asked, ‘Since I want to be the best dad ever, I want to know how I’m doing. What should I do more of? Less of? Add?’ My son said to me that the thing he appreciated the most was that I had asked him this question throughout his entire life—and I had listened and reacted appropriately. And he was grateful for that.”

    Ask for second and third opinions. Sometimes, you’ll receive feedback from employees who are mistaken. Or their suggestions might be on the right track, but a little off the mark. Whenever you’re unsure of how to handle feedback, consult with others to validate its accuracy and to discover any repeating themes or patterns. Ask, “Which, if any, parts of this should be embraced and implemented? Is the feedback unfounded? Would it be unwise to implement?” The more opinions you receive, the better decisions you’ll be able to make moving forward.

    “Ronald Reagan was well known for his tendency to get multiple opinions,” Quiggle notes. “In fact, he had a group of accomplished friends and advisors called his ‘Kitchen Cabinet,’ with whom he would regularly consult on important matters.”

    Act on it. If and when you determine that you’ve received sound feedback, act on it. Whether the change is to your own behavior or to a company policy, demonstrate that you’ve taken the information you’ve received to heart. If you don’t act after receiving sincere feedback, you’ll soon find yourself back at square one: “Why should I be proactive and honest? The boss never listens anyway!”

    “I’ll be honest—employees who are used to biting their tongues may get some secret—or not so secret—enjoyment out of finally telling the truth,” concludes Quiggle. “But any discomfort you may feel will be worth it. Over time, you’ll open up the lines of communication and strengthen relationships with your people. You’ll allow each person to feel like they’ve become part of your inner circle, and you’ll confirm that their opinions are valued—all of which is great news for your company’s success.”