CEO Survey: Lacking the Human Touch

Last Updated Jun 17, 2008 4:32 PM EDT


When given a list of a dozen words to describe their CEO,
only one in five employees picked “caring” or “warm.”
(Small wonder that these words were picked twice as often by the CEOs asked to describe
their own attributes.) In addition, nearly half of all employees surveyed gave the
top boss a grade of C, D, or F for both compassion and communication. In terms
of people skills, BNET’s survey suggests that bosses are falling well
short of the mark.


Top Likes and Dislikes

Managers appreciate CEOs’ vision. Communication style? Not so much.



“This is a real problem,” says Rafael
Pastor, CEO of Vistage International, a networking organization for CEOs. “CEOs
do not do a good enough job of inspiring their employees and making them feel
important and valuable. Their soft skills are not as finely honed as their
other business skills.”


Bad marks in these categories didn’t
surprise Bob Sutton, a professor of management science at Stanford and author
of the recent book, “The
No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.”
“There is plenty of research in
social psychology that indicates that when you give people power, they become
more focused on their needs and less on those of people around them,”
he says. “Power tends to turn people into jerks.”


There are a variety of ways for a CEO to improve
his or her interpersonal skills, but most revolve around this simple advice: If
you are the CEO, you need to step out of the corner office and get more face
time with the people who work for you. Parsing the results of the BNET survey
clearly shows that employees who interact regularly with their CEOs had a
significantly higher opinion of their job performance.


“If you’re getting bad
evaluations in these soft skills, the first thing I would ask is, how much
personal contact are you having with your employees?” management
professor William Wallick says. “If you are not a personal presence
in the lives of your employees, they are likely to form their impression from
the stories they hear at the water cooler. Unfortunately, the grapevine
traffics in bad news. People don’t gossip about the moments when the
boss was a nice guy. What people talk about are the moments when the CEO messes
up or behaves badly.”


Several experts warned that suddenly morphing into a nice guy
isn’t likely to pass the smell test with the rank and file. Don’t
try to fake a new warmth of character unless that is a true reflection of your
personality. “The best advice is not changing your interpersonal
behavior but simply having more of it on display,” says David
Gliddon, a researcher in business innovation and a faculty member of Colorado
Technical University. Management-by-walking-around doesn’t end with
handshakes and the pats on the back. If the feedback that the CEO gets from
lower level employees doesn’t become part of the decision-making
process, employees will come to believe that the glad-handing is a sham.


Others point out, too, that it is very possible
for a CEO to become too concerned with his or her popularity among the
employees. “It is not a CEO’s job to be liked,”
says author Michael Abrashoff. “The CEO is responsible for results,
but you can’t get results unless you have the respect of those who
work for you. Gaining employees’ respect is necessary for doing business,
but simply being liked should not be on any CEO’s to-do list.”


“There are a lot of ineffectual nice
guys out there,” Pastor agrees. “Being liked is not
necessarily going to solve the criticism of your employees. They want to know
the CEO is effective and that they are going to do the right thing by the
employee.”


Indeed, the different perspectives of the CEO
and the employee may explain some of the differences of opinions. “There
is a strong component of selfishness in the employees’ evaluation of
their boss,” says Pastor. “The employee is likely assessing
their boss largely on whether the employee feels valued and properly rewarded.
The employee wants to know: Does the CEO spend enough time with me? Do I have a
way to move up in the organization?”


Chief executives, on the other hand, must juggle the demands
of several constituencies at once. The CEO has to manage employees but also
answer to shareholders and board of directors. They have to be an advocate for
the customer as well as watch out for competition. These different pulls for
attention and resources may mean that one or more of these groups feel ignored
at times, all of which is to say that some disconnect between employee and CEO
assessment is just part of the job.


There’s another justifiable reason why
CEOs tend to overestimate their abilities and attributes. All eyes are on the
CEO all the time, and a baseline level of self-confidence is a prerequisite for
the job. “You should have a leader who errs on the side of optimism
about their own abilities,” says Sutton. “No one wants a
CEO who expresses crippling self-doubt the moment things go wrong. You have to
act like you’re in charge even when you don’t know what is
going on. Sometimes you have to fake it until you make it.”