I’ve been thinking a bit more about my last post about the volatile CEO of Mesa Air Group, Jonathon Ornstein. Recall that, according to The New York Times, his executive assistant reported that people would call to see if he was in a good mood, and if he wasn’t – which she said was at least 60% of the time – they would avoid him until he cheered-up.
Ornstein’s assistant was clearly competent and thoughtful of her colleagues. Her competence, however, got me to thinking about some of the unintended negative consequences of such gate keeping – which is a hallmark of effective executive assistants. First, by keeping other people away from the boss when he or she is in a raging mood – although it protects others from damage – it also creates a protective bubble around the boss. Sparing underlings from the full force of Ornstein’s wrath likely reduces their motivation to leave the company, press him to change, press for his firing, or for Ornstein himself to realize that he needs to change. In other words, she unwittingly reduces the pressure on him to stop acting like a flaming asshole.
Second, I don’t know about Ornstein’s assistant, but I've seen this in other companies: Smart executive assistants who work for volatile bosses learn to screen visitors. They realize that people who bring the boss bad news will spark a nasty rage; but people who bring good news will help keep the boss’s mood under control. So they learn to make it difficult for naysayers and truth-tellers to see the boss and to make it easy for optimists and ass-kissers to get in the door. After all, it makes their jobs a lot easier. The result is that – because it helps keep their boss kinder and calmer – the boss is “protected’ from hearing bad news. So, without realizing it, many assholes bosses create and live in a fool’s paradise – where they never learn about bad things because their underlings don’t want to be the target their rage.
Social psychologists have documented this “shoot the messenger problem,” that people who deliver bad news (even if it is not their fault) often are blamed for it. Asshole bosses seem especially prone to this problem. Effective executives overcome this problem by encouraging and supporting people who bring them bad news. And this isn’t just challenge for gatekeepers and executives – learning from setbacks and bad news can’t happen unless people feel safe enough to discuss problems with their bosses and peers. I’ve written about Amy Edmondson’s research on psychological safety here before, and it is especially relevant to overcoming the “shoot the messenger” problem. Her fascinating study of eight nursing units found that when nurses worked in units with demeaning and critical co-workers and supervisors, they were less likely (as much as 10 times less likely) to report drug treatment errors. Edmondson’s research suggests to me that, when asshole poisoning runs rampant in a nursing unit, the fear of being demeaned and belittled can increase the chances that patients will get sicker and die, because people are so afraid to admit and talk about mistakes.
To return to gatekeepers, I want to close by emphasizing that even a nice boss may end-up living in a fool’s paradise because their executive secretaries and other subordinates want to keep the boss in a good mood – and even nice bosses can fall prey to the “shoot the messenger” problem. I once had an executive assistant to a nice boss tell me that, the better mood her boss was in, the easier and more fun her job was – so she made it easy for people who left him in a good mood to get appointments, and made it very hard for people who left him in a bad mood to get in the door. This assistant was adept at “helping” her nice boss stay in a good mood, but in the process, was probably unwittingly protecting him from bad news that he needed to hear. So this isn’t just a problem created by the gatekeepers of asshole bosses, although I suspect that it is worse with them because of the climate of fear that they create.
P.S. One of the most interesting books I’ve ever read on the auto industry is by former GM executive John De Lorean (famously busted for getting involved in a cocaine deal to support his auto company – he was later acquitted) called On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors. It has been out of print for years. But it shows how GM executives unwittingly created a world that led them to be out of touch with reality. I fear that De Lorean’s description of GM in the 1970’s is still true today: “"The system quickly shut top management off from the real world because it surrounded itself in many cases with 'yes' men. There soon became no real vehicle for input."