Momentum Podcast: 479

Don't Gaslight Your Team

by Alex Charfen

Episode Description

As a CEO of a business, when you go around your team members, you create fear and uncertainty in your team.

I’ve seen this pattern in hundreds of businesses, and it took me years to create systems to break those patterns myself. What you have to see is that you have no idea the position and stature you have in the lives of the people who work with you, especially if you are hands off in operations and tactics. You hold a mythical place in their minds.

When you get involved in things you aren’t usually involved in, from the team member’s perspective, they will find it overwhelming. That type of behavior of going from CEO who is hands off to diving down to someone on a tactical level and correcting them, you are having a massive impact and creates fear in the team member and the entire team.

As the CEO, everything you say is seen through a microscope and heard through a megaphone. Creating systems around the people will help protect the people on your team and allow you to communicate with them effectively. Clear communication, clear planning systems, and an easy to use chain of command will help everyone on your team know what is going on and increase everyone’s performance. Respect the structure, and your entire business will shift.

If you are growing a business and want to put the right structure in place, go to and set up a call with a member of our team to go through a Strategy Session to see where you are and what you need to scale and grow your team.

Full Audio Transcript

I'm leaving Paleo f(x), where I got to see a lot of awesome products, my kids had a ball. I'm going home, and then I'm going to head out to the speaker dinner, where I'm going to see everybody who's speaking at the event over the next few days. I had a conversation with a friend of mine where I think I was able to help him shift perspective, but I know I was able to help him avoid a major mistake in his business. I know, because I've made it.

I'm Alex Charfen, and this is the Momentum Podcast, made for empire builders, game changers, trailblazers, shot takers, record breakers, world makers, and creators of all kinds; those among us who can't turn it off, and don't know why anyone would want to. We challenge complacency, destroy apathy, and we are obsessed with creating momentum, so we can roll over bureaucracy and make our greatest contribution.

Sure, we pay attention to their rules, but only so that we can bend them, break them, then re-write them around our own will. We don't accept our destiny, we define it. We don't understand defeat, because you only lose if you stop, and we don't know how. While the rest of the world strives for average and clings desperately to the status quo, we are the minority, the few, who are willing to hallucinate there could be a better future.

Instead of just daydreaming of what could be, we endure the vulnerability and exposure it takes to make it real. We are the evolutionary hunters, clearly the most important people in the world, because entrepreneurs are the only source of consistent, positive, human evolution, and we always will be.

Today I was at Paleo f(x), and I saw a good friend of mine who owns the business, and here's what happened. I'm a business consultant, I'm a coach. I help a lot of people grow businesses, so sometimes people will ask me questions that have been bothering them for a while, and that was one of these questions that I got. Again, I often talk about having experience and understanding, having been there before, and having seen patterns where decisions like this are so hard to make.

So here's what happened. He is the CEO of a business, and he's not really involved in operations. He's kind of completely hands-off on operations. He has an operator who runs the business. The scenario is a designer or someone was getting something prepared for some project deadline that they had, and that person didn't do what he expected them to do, so he reached out directly to that person and asked her what was going on, and she gave him an answer he didn't understand, so he kept asking questions trying to get an answer. That interaction caused the person he was talking to so much stress that she went on three days of requested personal time, stress leave. She actually requested stress leave.

When he expressed it to me, he just told me like, "This just feels ridiculous. I reached out to her, I asked her a few questions, and how could it possibly have caused her three days stress leave?" When I was younger, I would have told him, "I would fire that person. Is that crazy? What do you mean you asked a few questions and she needed three days stress leave?"

But now after watching patterns in my own businesses, and watching patterns in the businesses of the people that I work with, I can tell you that there's a completely logical explanation for that outcome, for what happened. There's actually a completely logical, and actually a rational explanation for why that woman went on three days sick leave.

I know you don't believe me. I know that that sounds crazy to 99% of entrepreneurs who haven't grown teams. They're like, "Of course you get rid of that person. That just doesn't sound rational, that sounds crazy." I know that all of us have this almost guttural reaction to people having that type of a reaction to communication, but this is a pattern I've watched in hundreds of businesses. It's a pattern that took me over 15 years to recognize and want in my businesses, and it took me more years to figure out how to build the system so that it would stop happening, because here's what happened. Let me explain to you what happened, and this is what I explained to him.

I said, "Here's what I just heard. I just want you to hear what I heard so you can understand what's going on, but first I need you to know something that I tell every CEO. You have no idea the position, and the stature, and the status you have in the lives of the people that work with you. You have no idea how they see you, especially if you're a CEO who's hands-off to operations, so you're the guy or the woman who makes it all happen, but they don't really talk to you a lot. They don't really interface with you a lot, they don't really interact with you a lot. You hold almost this mythical place in their minds. And so here's what happened."

My friend said, "You know, well I just don't understand how she could have reacted that way. I spent time with her at a conference recently." I said, "Okay, well how long ago was that?" He said, "Six months." I said, "After that conference, how routinely and regularly did you have communication with her?" He said, "I didn't really have communication with her. This was the first time I've communicated with her since we spent time in the conference six months ago."

I said, "Okay, and so was the initial communication just a question?" And he said, "Yeah, I asked her a series of questions." I said, "Okay, so I want you to understand what happened from her side. You're not involved in operations. She never hears from anybody. She's getting ready for an event. Most people who are in a position in your business," and this is for him and for you, "most people that are in a position in an entrepreneurial business are running at or near red line. They're already giving you everything they can.

In a business where you get true believers, in a small business where you get the type of personalities that do well in a small business, they are giving you as much as they can most of the time. If you have the right systems in place, and you have a team that is excited about outcomes, they're giving you what they can, and so you have to be careful when you jump in and ask questions when you're not routinely involved with them, because here's the impression from the team member's side.

'I haven't talked to this person in six weeks. They are the person who makes the entire business run in a direction. Out of the blue, I get a series of questions from them making me feel like I'm doing something wrong and I'm not doing my job. I was already stressed out. I had no idea why I was getting the questions, especially from him, since we never talk. It was so stressful, I just, I felt like I needed some time away, because I've been red-lining for two weeks, and that was just overwhelming.'"

For every one of you who ... and by the way, I know there's a predictable percentage of every population of entrepreneurs who when I say stuff like this, they shake their heads like they wouldn't stand for it. Well, here's what I want you to know. You can avoid this completely. That type of behavior of going from being the CEO who's hands-off, to operations, to diving down and talking to someone at a tactical level who's getting something done, and starting to ask them questions, and seeing the deficit in what they're doing, that's the mythical behavior of Steve Jobs.

That's the behavior that I can tell you I had for years, because I didn't understand that I was doing something wrong when I went from being CEO to diving all the way down to correcting somebody who was in an entry level position. I didn't realize what a massive impact it had not just on the person, but on the organization. In a lot of ways, I was a very successful CEO. In a lot of ways, I also created a lot of fear on my team, because I set up a chain of command, and then I wouldn't respect it.

I would more than I want to admit, I would put people in management positions, and this is in different periods of my life it happened even more, and sometimes it would happen less, but depending on what was going on, I put people in leadership positions, and I'd give them responsibility, and then I'd constantly undermine their responsibility by going directly to the person that they work with, and trying to correct them, and trying to ... bleeding them. In some cases, I had to work with people tactically. I do that now, but I didn't understand what I understand now today.

I actually shared this with my friend. I say, "You know, today, I'm here with Eddie, who is on my team, and Eddie and I work together all the time. He's our production manager. He manages all our video, he does all our video for events, he does some of our audio stuff, he does a ton for us, and he comes out and he helps me capture content. But I don't lead Eddie. Eddie doesn't report to me on the org chart."

At a CEO level, it's hard for me now at the size company we have to dive down and tactically manage someone unless I really have to, and I take over a department for a period of time. Or recently I had sales directly reporting to me, so I'm tactically managing, but the more I do that, the more difficult that gets, and if the person's not reporting to me and I dive down on the org chart and start making some tactical suggestions, and asking questions, and trying to figure stuff out, that freaks everybody out.

It freaks everybody out to the point that it's one of the big things that if you bring up Steve Jobs, people talk about Steve Jobs going up to people in Apple and just blowing them up, and it's exactly this behavior. I know that I've done it. I've done it, and some of the most painful letters I've ever gotten from people are the people who have been in positions, who I worked with tactically at a time where I didn't understand that I shouldn't be trying to lead them and make changes, and what I should have been since I was working with them tactically, is I should have been encouraging and supportive, and then communicating through their team leads, and doing that throughout the business.

I've always been a rather active CEO, but if you're a CEO who's hands-off to operations, then you don't really have an option there. You have to communicate through chain of command, because otherwise, you're literally, you're torching sections of your own company. You're gaslighting sections of your own company. A lot of CEOs are accused of having narcissistic personality disorder. In fact, there's a running dialogue in the psychological community of successful CEOs and NPD. One of the symptoms of NPD is gaslighting, or catching people off guard, or treating people in a way that makes them feel threatened, or makes them feel fear.

Here's how this can make them feel threatened or feared. If you're the guy who's like the hands-off, when you approach them, it is seen through a microscope, and heard through a megaphone. You need to repeat that to yourself every time you offer correction to one of your team members. Every time you're upset with somebody, you have to remind yourself, "It is heard through a megaphone, and seen through a microscope." Your corrections are actually amplified exponentially. They are both seen as greater than you intend, and they're heard as greater than you intend.

Here's why: you don't understand the position you occupy in people's lives as a CEO. You're one of the three most important people in their lives on a daily basis, and I group their kids together. So it's spouse, kids, and then typically you. People always say, "What about their parents?" I say, "Unless the CEO is living with their parents, then you have a greater influence on their day-to-day happiness and momentum than their parents ever will at this point in time in their lives, once they have a job." There was a time it would have been their parents. Now it's you.

You and I as the leaders that we are, we can internalize that and build systems around protecting the people in our business from feeling threatened from us. Here's the irony of this, is that these are the systems I wish I had when I was younger. I wish I had clear planning systems. I wish I had clear communication systems, and an easy-to-use chain of command and cadence where everybody knew what was going on, and I knew how I could get stuff done, and my team moved at a very, very fast pace. I wish I knew the right projects, and how to choose which one.

I remember times where we were in the multimillion dollar range of growing, and getting to the point where I would have a day where I was so overwhelmed I didn't know what to do. Now I remember having times where I literally didn't know where I should focus in order to grow the business. If you don't have systems and process in your business to identify the right projects, to identify the right processes you document, again, which are the important ones? Which ones do you do high-level documentation? Which ones do you do detailed documentation? How do you differentiate, and how do you make sure that you have the right processes documented at a level where they can be duplicated? Then how do you consistently recruit, hire, and on-board the same people? I mean, the right people.

There's a legitimate reason, and I want you to just give me a second and let me convince you not to dive down levels on your org chart, and if you do have to dive down one, to be careful. Here's why; because if you've built an org chart the right way, if you've built an organizational chart where each person rolls up to someone who knows who they are, who is responsible for how much that person is responsible for, who is watching their productivity, who has seen what that person's doing, who is talking to them on a weekly basis and having a meeting on a weekly basis with that person, who's going through some type of a review or self-assessment process with them, if you have somebody who's doing that, then communicate through that person so that person can help you understand what's going on with that person, and what's happening. If there's something that's missed, let them communicate with them, and use the chain of command in your company, because otherwise, you are just absolutely putting people into a panic.

At 46, I can tell you that I now have perspective on how when I did that, I would shut down productivity in parts of my business. I now have perspective on how when I did that, I would have entire groups of people in my company, not one or two people, but groups of people in my company look at my differently, and be upset with me because I would ... I wouldn't understand why. I felt like I had a conversation. I felt like I asked a bunch of questions. And sometimes, yeah, you know what? I did. I made a little correction. Sometimes I would tell somebody that they needed to work harder, or they weren't getting enough done, or whatever, and you know what? I now have perspective for how ridiculous that was. For a CEO to jump down a level and make correction is ... there has to be a serious issue going on.

If you're doing it all the time, then you're going to do one or two things; either have people always scared of you, like I did, or you're going to have people not really think you're serious. See, the problem with me was, I would jump down a level or two, I wouldn't follow chain of command, the person would completely freak out, their productivity would go down, I would get even more upset, then I wouldn't follow chain of command over and over again. I would go around the manager and continue to communicate with the person who wasn't performing, and as soon as I was in that process, that person was out the door, because now I was lighting them up, and terrifying them on a daily basis. They had no chance of success.

Here's what I want you to know as a CEO for me. When I watch panels, and I'm on a lot of panels, and I've listened to a lot of panels. When I'm on panels, I often pull out my phone and take notes, because there's so much good insight from other people who have been there and done that. If there's somebody else on the panel who has the experience, who has figured something out, for me, it doesn't matter old they are, I want to understand what they're talking about.

So often, somebody I know ... My dog just came out of the house and is barking at me. So often, somebody I know will ... Hang on. Stop it, Lilly, it's me. Lilly, it's me. Stop. See, I hate pressure and noise, but that's my kid's dog, and she's freaking out because I'm outside of the wrong part of the house. She stopped because I walked up to her now. She can smell me. So anyway.

So often, somebody will ask a speaker, "What would you do differently now, given the experience you have?" So often, there's just this off-the-cuff answer of, "I wouldn't do anything differently. My experience is my experience. This is how I've learned to be where I am." Well, here's what I would do differently. I would take back the times in my career where a person in my company got a reaction from me in a moment of frustration that was in excess of what they needed to hear to get me the result I wanted.

In other words, when I overreacted to someone, when I was reactive with someone, when I chewed someone out, when I did those things, those are the things that I would go back, and I wish I could have learned those lessons a different way, because I didn't realize just what an indelible impression I would leave on people, and it's taken me a career to learn that. It's taken me a career to get to the point where I don't do that.

It's taken me a career to get to the other side of this equation, which is understanding that when you have a solid chain of command, and you hire the right people, and you bring in good leadership, and you keep people in a structure where they're not overwhelmed and they can win, that you can get infinitely more done by respecting all of that structure and process than you can by diving two levels deep on an org chart, and trying to figure out why somebody isn't doing something.

What ends up happening is when you build it the right way, when you have a plan, when you have a system, when you have the right process, the right projects, the right people, and you know where you're going, and you have perspective, you end up being able to do more than you ever thought possible. That's how you get to multiple seven figures, and then eight figures, and then nine figures and beyond. You have the structure in place where your people are protected, and they have a leader in place that's responsible for their success. That doesn't mean that if somebody's not performing they get a free pass. In fact, this is how you create an incredibly fast pace, incredibly fast-growing performance culture.

This is how you get your team to grow like crazy with you and get way more done, because when you communicate through a solid team of leaders, you have to make less decisions. The team doesn't hear from you as much as you would need to, and you can get more done, and you become more strategic, and your business grows faster, and it gets your people a lot less reactive.

Think about the next time you're going to react with a team member. If you have a structure in place, if they have leadership in your business, start respecting that structure, and the entire business will shift. Just be careful about diving down, and communicating directly, and asking questions, because any question is seen as a correction, not just as an inquiry. It's not an inquiry, it's an inquisition, and it feels like an interrogation.

When people feel attacked, you create a culture of fear, and you may get a lot done, because some people feed on the fear, but it is a really difficult way to build a company, and you end up over time causing problems with people. And again, if there's anything I can take back, that's what I would. I don't want you to take as long as I did to learn these lessons.

If you are growing a business and you're ready to grow it faster, and you want to put the right structure in place so that you don't have these issues, so that you don't run into those problems, reach out to us. Go to You'll have an opportunity to set up a call with a member of my team, and we will go through a quick strategy session with you so that you can understand where you really need support in your business. If where you are matches up with what we do as a business, we will show you how we can help you. If not, we'll do what we can to help you create momentum so you can come back when you're ready to scale and grow your team.

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