Watch out with your inner circle

Culture  Leadership
08 April, 2024

Don’t get trapped by surrounding yourself with yes-men and gatekeepers

Recently, I spoke to someone who had joined the executive team of a start-up and was struggling to break into the inner circle. The founder had a group of confidants with whom he was very comfortable. The team had an informal way of working. This person would find himself on the periphery of key decisions. He felt left out and wondered how to crack the code to become more included.

In most organisations, key decisions are not made by executive teams but by a smaller group of people. Particularly in the early stages of growth or during a major overhaul, this group of trusted lieutenants—an inner circle or kitchen cabinet—can cut through the chase and help make quick decisions.

However, as organizations grow in complexity, the inner circles can sometimes turn into echo chambers, where those who agree with the leader or hold power become gatekeepers.

This can lead to leaders becoming isolated and groupthink taking over. This can also make good people who aren’t part of the inner circle feel excluded and ultimately leave the organization.

So, this week, my message focuses on how an inner circle is a double-edged sword. How can leaders harness its benefits without falling prey to its insidious traps?

At its best, this handpicked group can be tremendously useful to its leader. It can offer trustworthy advice, point out hard truths, and enable rapid decision-making. The inner circle is also a safe environment to share unconventional ideas, discuss them frankly, and eliminate most of them quickly — an exercise that can cause discomfort or panic in a larger setting. Since this group doesn’t have an official membership or structure, the leader can tap different people in different situations, getting the most relevant counsel as required.

But what happens when this inner circle becomes a rigid clique that chimes in agreement with everything the leader says? When perspectives from outside the circle are systematically excluded? When members start hoarding information and power and erecting barriers to prevent others from having meaningful access to the leader?

This is when the inner circle becomes an echo chamber. Major decisions are taken and enacted without considering dissenting views. Key vulnerabilities and opportunities slip by unnoticed. Innovation either comes to a grinding halt — or speeds up to the point where it becomes unsustainable. And the leader becomes disconnected and distanced from the rest of the organisation.

Talented individuals often feel discouraged when they are not included in critical decision-making processes or kept in the loop regarding important information. Since the inner circle is not a formal team, there is no clear path to joining it. This often leads to the development of a toxic clique culture at the top, causing top performers to leave for better opportunities.

Managing Your Inner Circle

If you are a leader with an inner circle, it’s crucial to recognise and avoid the pitfalls that come with it. Leading from an echo chamber may satisfy your ego in the short term, but it will surely undermine your effectiveness in the long run. Confining corporate decision-making within a small, like-minded group might feel efficient, but it severely curtails your perspective and leaves too many risks and opportunities undetected.

Here are five suggestions for building a more constructive inner circle and ensuring that this otherwise useful mechanism doesn’t become a flashpoint for conflict.

1. Look beyond ‘like-minded’.

Putting too much emphasis on advisors who are “like-minded” or “see eye to eye” leads to a dangerously narrow viewpoint. Don’t just choose those you feel most comfortable with; you need people who add an invaluable perspective and strengthen the quality of your decision-making.

In his Forbes article, Chaka Booker advises leaders to take a long, hard look at the diversity of their inner circle:

Ethnic and gender diversity is the first glance. Now gaze deeper. Is everyone from Ivy League schools? Is there socioeconomic diversity? Did anyone work their way through college? Is there diversity of work style? Are they all extroverts? Are they all analytical? Does anyone come from outside your industry?

If your inner circle talks like you, thinks like you and has the same life experience as you, then they aren’t a circle around you. They are just another version of you. You aren’t ideating with colleagues; you’re just agreeing with yourself.

2. Embrace dissent.

A yes culture doesn’t just happen. It is created by the leader (albeit often unwittingly). Reflect on your leadership. Are you only interested in hearing opinions that match your own? Do you tend to (unconsciously, perhaps) punish people for finding holes in your plans or suggesting alternatives? While the decision is ultimately yours, it is crucial to be open to pushback from knowledgeable people whose judgment you value.

Stop rewarding people for constantly agreeing with you. Instead, focus on making it safe for your inner circle to challenge you, offer divergent views and point out issues. Next time someone ventures to speak up in disagreement, appreciate their contribution and ask them to elaborate. Please keep an open mind and actually listen to them. After all, there must be a reason they are part of your inner circle!

In his Harvard Business Review article, Bob Frisch says that adding a contrarian to your kitchen cabinet can work as a great safeguard:

As annoying as they may be, devil’s advocates can nevertheless help in neutralizing the influence of yes-men (and women) and in providing antidotes to groupthink.

3. Don’t blindside your executive committee.

Instead of going straight to your inner circle with all major decisions, bring the matter first to your executive committee. This keeps them in the loop, allows them to prepare (mentally and practically) for potential changes, and gives you an opportunity to hear functional concerns that may not come up in your kitchen cabinet.

It can also help to establish a common worldview with your executive committee, so you stop proceeding under vastly different assumptions. In the article mentioned above, Frisch notes:

Few would dispute that the various members of a senior team could see their company’s competitive environment and its future prospects very differently. What’s truly astonishing is not that they might disagree; it’s that they may not know they disagree. All too often, that’s because they’ve never discussed the topic.

4. Share your thinking.

When leaders huddle with their chosen lieutenants to make key decisions, they often fail to convey their thought processes to those beyond the circle. This means people in charge of execution miss out on the reasoning and context, hampering both buy-in and implementation.

While sensitive information must obviously be treated with care, sharing the core thinking behind big decisions is beneficial. Pay attention to the voices in your broader team. If they constantly seem to be asking, “But why? But when?” then it’s time to step up your communication game.

5. Liberate information flow.

Building further on the above point, review whether your closest confidantes tend to hoard knowledge. This applies both downwards (not communicating vital details with people outside the circle) and upwards (filtering information so tightly that you, the leader, lose touch with what’s going on in the ranks).

Knowledge is power and gatekeeping access to it is generally a sign of territorialism. A hampered information flow puts you, as well as your wider team, at a serious disadvantage.

Have an honest chat with your inner circle about the importance of sharing key information so everyone can do their jobs properly. Emphasise that you want to be kept in the loop about what people are thinking—the good, bad, and ugly. If your inner circle doesn’t tell you the brutal truths, no one will.

Your closest advisors can hugely influence the effectiveness of your leadership and the company’s ability to retain senior talent. At the end of the day, an inner circle is what the leader makes it—whether it is a trusted group that offers frank and necessary counsel to strengthen your decision-making or a rigid clique that superficially agrees with everything you say and impairs information flow. It’s up to you!


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