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Why Having Co-CEOs Is A Bad Idea

A new study finds that when leaders have to share the spotlight, paranoia often sets in. Here’s why, and what to do about it.

Why Having Co-CEOs Is A Bad Idea
[Photo: Jonathan Knowles/Getty Images]

Two heads are better than one, but there can only be one top dog—and for good reason. When high-ranking leaders work together, turnover and worsened organizational performance often result, finds a new study presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management. But the problem isn’t ego; it’s paranoia.

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In a set of experiments, Lindred L. Greer, associate professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Emma Y. Zhao, postdoctoral fellow at Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, examined the kinds of struggles that happen in high-powered versus low-powered teams. They divided a group of individuals into random two-person teams; half of the teams were told that they were high-powered marketing managers, and the other half were told that they were less-than-powerful marketing consultants. Groups were assigned to develop responsibilities and logistics for an upcoming project. The researchers found that the high-power duos were significantly more likely to engage in power struggles, lowering their success negotiating with each other.

In another experiment, participants were told they were members of a three-person team that would be asked to provide ideas on crowdsourcing. Some participants were told that their teammates were high-power executives, and others were told their teammates were people with low power. Then they were asked to respond to statements that gauged their level of paranoia and anticipation of power struggles in their team. Subjects in the high-power groups had significantly more paranoia and greater anticipation of power struggle than those in the low-power groups.

Some paranoia is natural, says Zhao. “Certainly, employees are often somewhat wary toward their colleagues or superiors, and in some circumstances, this wariness might even be useful,” she says. “For example, there have been many instances where a prolific individual was ousted by their executive teams. However, paranoia is dysfunctional . . . [if] employees start thinking that their colleagues are ‘out to get them’ or are stealing their ideas.”

Why It Happens

Dysfunctional paranoia is more likely to happen in high-powered groups for two reasons. First, the members have power to lose. To protect and expand their status, they are more likely to be suspicious of the other’s motives, says Zhao.

Second, paranoid high-powered individuals are more likely to act out on their feelings of paranoia, says Greer. “Lower-power individuals are more inhibited,” she says. “When high-power individuals are paranoid, they may preemptively strike out against potential threats, inciting power struggles and conflicts among their peers.”

These power struggles can impair company performance as the individuals are so preoccupied with acquiring power, they are unable to focus on the task at hand, says Zhao.

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Does that make co-CEOs a bad idea? Yes, says Greer. “Research at this point generally suggests co-leadership is not effective,” she says. “It’s difficult for two high-powered individuals, such as two leaders, to interact without becoming paranoid and fearful of the others’ intentions, and such paranoia can lead to performance-detracting power struggles.”

When startups have power struggles between founders because of paranoia, the startup loses momentum and focus on its ultimate vision. “Instead, leaders are occupied with their internal tensions, and important product details can slip through the cracks,” says Greer. “Over time, such power struggles can put startups under.”

There Is A Solution

Leaders can learn to control their paranoia. The common-sense cure for this cognitive tendency is maintaining an external focus, says Zhao. “This means having the discipline to focus not on other members of the group, but on the nature of the issue at hand and how it relates to a broader environment,” she says, adding that there is a simple practice that can ‘switch off’ paranoia. “Groups should be periodically reminded to alter their focus to focus on events outside the group, especially when they are about to walk into a long and important meeting, or when they are about to start a collaboration with an equally powerful peer.”

If that doesn’t work, facilitators should be brought in, says Zhao. “The need to get high-powered people to work together fruitfully may very well be more important today than it has ever been,” she says. “Just think how often we hear organizations criticized because they’re dominated by silo mentalities. Changing that means getting the people at the top to learn how to work together.”

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