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- Decisions are made by the founder often without input from others.
- The founder is deferred to in all matters regardless of their actual expertise.
- Snap decisions and decision reversals are common without any explanation, warning, or consideration of the impact to others.
- Information flow throughout the organization is stilted or actively stifled, with the founder at the center of all information flows.
- Planning courses of action and setting priorities are the purview of the founder.
- Employees can often feel like they are not paid to think but simply to deliver on orders, which themselves can change at the drop of a hat, undoing weeks of effort.
- If the organization has a board, that board can be filled by people who are loyal to the founder and not likely to countermand anything the founder has said or done.
- Proposals for change coming from any direction other than the founder are expertly resisted and even actively discouraged.
- Founders usually have an ‘inner circle’ of people they ‘trust’ to whom implicit power is conferred through their proximity to the founder.
Founders particularly susceptible to founder’s syndrome are often characterized by their charisma, a love of ‘shooting from the hip’ and a concomitant distaste for structure and process claiming it cramps their style, reluctance to cede meaningful power to others, a tendency towards narcissism, and a desire to surround themselves with people who are loyal to them and prefer or are able to follow with little question.
It’s critical in these situations to hold in mind that the founder is just another person doing their best, and are likely unaware to what extent their behavior is responsible for conditions in the organization. They may also be unaware that conditions are unhealthy because from their perspective nothing may seem awry. However, demonizing the founder, even if they are clearly contributing to the toxic conditions, will not support a generative way forward.I’d like to take a step back and offer my hypothesis on the fundamental power dynamics at play which I’ve written in greater detail in academic articles and my book, Collaboration that Works: A Ruthlessly Practical Handbook for a Generative World. Essentially, if power is defined as ‘the force of enactment,’ then founders are being given or are taking a disproportionate amount of power. When power is concentrated in any given individual, their brains literally change over time, reducing the neural pathways that foster empathy. I’d like to emphasize that not every founder or charismatic leader will fall prey to these tendencies but the percentage of leaders who develop these symptoms is very high with huge negative impacts to daily work life for themselves and their team. Let me also underscore the role for that those of us play who support founders unconditionally, by not holding them accountable, and not giving them relevant and difficult feedback. We, too, are implicated in this phenomena of founder’s syndrome that can have such pervasive and corrosive effects on our work environments.Just to name a few of the consequences:
- Dis-empowerment and disengagement of employees.
- Increase in politicking to get one’s way.
- Siloed teams, behind the scenes bickering and bullying to ensure conformity.
- Higher than normal turnover.
- Expensive mistakes that are brushed off even if they were entirely avoidable.
- Systems and processes that support the founder’s authority are implicitly maintained even if they create other problems and bottlenecks.
- Individuals that disagree with the founder are eliminated or sidelined and silenced.
- Inability to form meaningful connections between team members
- An air of secrecy and fear where even talking to another team member regarding valid problems can be risky.
- The founder feeling isolated, overworked and underappreciated for their sacrifices.
- Identify what’s not working in the organization from the founder’s perspective, pick the top one or two, and set a time to meet with them privately to discuss ideas you have about how to solve the problem. Meeting with them collectively can put them further on the defensive and thus less likely to hear what you have to say.
- In that meeting, suggest some experiments to how they might alleviate the problem; see some solutions below to spark your imagination.
- Settle on a plan for moving forward with the founder and plan to check in with them regularly to report on progress and find out how it’s going from the founder’s perspective.
- Once one of the problem areas is showing improvement, pick the next area and address that, with an eye for continual improvement.