How Dysfunctional Behaviour Caused By Fear Spreads From The Top Down

A brief look at how dysfunctional behaviour caused by fear can spread in an organisation:

My research featured by the Harvard Business Review allowed an emerging theory to develop that shows how dysfunctional behaviour can spread from the chief executive.  It builds on earlier work on dysfunctional organisations, notably by Goldman (2008), Kets de Vries & Miller (1986) and Padilla, Hogan and Kaiser (2007).  This emerging theory is represented by the following model:

Explanation of model. 

For dysfunctional behaviour to spread from the chief executive and envelope an organisation this research shows certain ingredients are needed:

I.    Chief executive whose fears have surfaced in the form of dysfunctional behaviour.

II.    The executive team form a dependency on the chief executive and collude and identify with his/her behaviours.  Sub-groups develop in the executive team that likely reduce the effectiveness of the overall team.  This cocktail of individual executive team member and group behaviours in turn acts to reinforce the chief executive’s dysfunctional behaviours.

III.    The chief executive’s dysfunctional behaviours are observed and role modelled by managers within the organisation.  In turn the direct reports of the managers role model and mimic the manager’s new dysfunctional behaviours and hence they spread and get reinforced in the organisation.

IV.    Further, and reinforcing III, the executive team's dysfunctional behaviours are also mimicked by their direct reports, and this in turn cascades down through the organisation.


The research further indicated that for this flow and movement of dysfunction to be truly intoxicating for the organisation, the following extra ingredients would most likely also be present:

•    Loose controls, processes and governance, particularly within the executive team.  This helps anxieties to be poorly managed.

•    Remuneration systems encouraging dysfunctional behaviours such as silo thinking and personal greed.    

•    Ideally a fast growth company with a buccaneer ‘just-do-it’ attitude prevailing, compounded by external stakeholders with a strong focus on financial returns and so not overly concerned with the safe functioning and health of the organisation.

•    The allure of being a member of the executive team being an object of overwhelming desire for managers within the organisation.

•    Little or no focus on personal development and reflection.

(Article reference details, available on request)

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