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Surrey University Symposium review. (2015)

Business practitioners made up the majority of attendees at the Surrey Business School’s oversubscribed 20 May ‘Hubris in Business and Management’ symposium, reflecting growing ‘real world’ interest in the issue.

They were joined by academics from various business schools including Kings College London, University of Edinburgh and Surrey University. Surrey’s contingent included its three recipients of Daedalus Trust research grants.

The  Symposium was introduced by Professor Eugene Sadler-Smith with an overview of references to hubris in academic business journals since 1980, grouped by categories (senior management, behavioural finance etc.) and noting the considerable increase in such references since 2008.

The event was hosted by Dr Graham Robinson. Both Graham Robinson and Professor Sadler-Smith are members of the Daedalus Advisory Group.

Leading speakers

Attendees heard presentations from some of the UK’s leading researchers into hubris in management. They included Professor George Berguno, Professor of Psychology, Richmond American International University, London; Professor Mark Stein, Chair in Leadership and Management at the University of Leicester; and Professor Dennis Tourish Professor of Leadership and Organization Studies, Royal Holloway, University of London.

‘Intervolvement’ of organisations and individuals

Professor Berguno described his phenomenological research study of the ‘intervolvement’ of the individual and his/her organisation in the development of occupational burnout. He presented seven action strategies that individuals experiencing burnout at work typically adopt:

  • Bodily neglect
  • Hiding difficulty from employer
  • Requesting help from a colleague/confident
  • Expressing discontent inappropriately
  • Cultivating a cynical attitude
  • Ignoring (advice from) family and friends
  • Constricting professional aspirations.

Professor Berguno went on to describe how each of these ineffective strategies tend to be aggravated by other individual and organisational behaviours.

The discussion that followed suggested that similar aggravating circumstances applied in the development of leadership hubris. In particular, patterns of collusive behaviour, constriction/limitation of social networks and increasing isolation from those who might provide a degree of protection from further development of the condition.

The progression to hubris

Mark Stein described a process of progression that can lead to full blown hubris, including feelings both of omnipotence and omniscience and, in extreme cases, contempt and vengefulness. The process moved from (A) ordinary pride to (B) narcissism to (C) constructive narcissism to (D) reactive narcissism.

Professor Stein presented the case of Richard Fuld and the failure of Lehman Bothers as an example. He suggested that any defence against hubris within business organisations would require the incubation of processes to match the incubation of hubris. These included creating balanced teams; an organisational culture that listens to/respects naysayers; and the early use of coaches/mentors (ie. before potential leaders occupy leadership positions.

Business environment fosters CEOs self-belief

Dennis Tourish echoed George Berguno’s references to organisational collusive cultures by indicating that the business environment in general tends to collude in the exaggerated self-belief of CEOs. In support, he cited a recent Harvard Business Review article that identified “the 100 best CEOs in the world” – implicitly equating the success of the business with the brilliance of its CEO.

He suggested that there were clear structural antecedents to the recent banking crisis – contempt for regulators (“those not clever enough to be like us”); total absence of self doubt and only being prepared to listen to self-affirming advice; together with an absence of critical feedback to the CEOs until failure became inevitable. Subsequent government rescues have only reinforced bankers’ self-image.

Counter-measures need to be embedded and, echoing Mark Stein position, will require lengthy incubation. These measures include:

  • Increased participation in decision making
  • Significant reduction or elimination of status differentials
  • Extending the elective principle to business organisations (eg. as in Mondragon and John Lewis).

Lively open discussion followed culminating in some 16 -18 proposals for research.

The Surrey Project Team will review these over the next couple of weeks before publishing them.

Reviewed by Dr Graham Robinson, Visiting Senior Fellow at the University of Surrey Business School and Daedalus Trust Advisory Group member.


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