Of the eleven inherent leader Risks that we measure, False Advocate is the toughest for people to deal with or to openly acknowledge. In fact, I have had a few executive coaches tell me that they think that this term is too harsh and overly negative.
I agree it is not a complimentary, endearing, or a neutral scale title. It is not intended to be. When Kimberly Leveridge, Ph.D. and I developed this assessment report in 1998, our intention was to be direct, impactful, and clear. We did not want to soften or water down the message. Leaders, as we saw it, needed a wake-up call that inspires action to prevent their own inherent risk factors from detracting from their performance effectiveness, communications, and relationships.
We could have used a variety of terms to describe this construct such as covert dissenter, quiet contrarian, or passive resister – however, for us, the words “False Advocate” were unmistakably clear. The idea is pretending to agree and support (or advocate) outwardly while inwardly disagreeing and hiding this view and silently resisting. Our original definition in the CDR Leadership Risk Assessment is as follows:
False Advocate – This scale represents behaviors that are passively detrimental-they are not always obvious to those who are being acted out against-but serve to undermine agendas, go against the status quo, or put up barriers to success. Leaders with high scores appear outwardly supportive and on-board while sabotaging effectiveness through defiance, resentment, procrastination and resistance. False advocates regularly betray the trust of others though it may take time for their behavior to be revealed because of the covert nature of their activities. Examples: Blaming others for failure to perform; saying one thing and doing another; and, not living up to commitments.[i]
However, for the record, as a seasoned executive coach and one who trains and mentors executive coaches on the assessments, I personally find this to be one of the most intriguing and mysterious of the Risks. At certification training, we let coaches know that this is usually the toughest Risk to get a clear reading on. It can be difficult to identify an example behavior when in dialogue with their respective leader client because it is covert. The other fascinating aspect about this particular Risk is that it can manifest in very different ways and has different “faces.”
Historically, part of the construct of the False Advocate Risk Factor is similar to what used to be listed as the Passive Aggressive behavior, which was formerly a Personality Disorder in the APA DSM-IV of the taxonomy until 2013. The APA (American Psychiatric Association) eliminated this as a personality disorder in DSM V because of the broadness of description and the difficulty to measure effectively. Their description also overlapped with other disorders. One of our esteemed executive coaches and psychologists in the UK, Neville Osrin, previously expressed to me that this was unfortunate and they eliminated Passive Aggressive behavior because it was so prevalent in society. He was glad that we measured many of these similar behaviors under our “False Advocate” scale. It should be noted, however, that the CDR Risk Assessment does not measure personality disorders. This assessment measures personality-based Risk Factors and our normative database is that of functioning, working adults and not clinical patients. It is important to note that Risk Factors, including the False Advocate traits, tend to show or manifest under stress, adversity, or conflict. They can be described as ineffective coping strategies that can undermine one’s performance, relationships, and success.
The degree of negative fallout from False Advocate tendencies can range from minuscule to dire in terms of the level of performance impact. This largely depends on the combination of the leader’s other Risk Factors as well as some of their CDR Character traits too.
Below are The Five Faces of a False Advocate that we have identified (the ratings – 1 being minuscule impact to 5 being potentially devastating):
- Polite Dissenter / Victim or Martyr – this is fairly common and is often the result of region, religion and culture. For example, some cultures (such as Indian, Asian, “Bible Belt”) are reared to be polite, always, and not to be in any way objectionable. In other words, they are taught from an early age that it is improper and rude to disagree with someone in front of others. So, they don’t. They hold in their dissenting thoughts and comply, even though it may be a bad decision or put undue burden on them. They frequently have high scores in Interpersonal Sensitivity in their CDR Character Assessment too. They suffer, as a victim, in silence. Or, behind your back they may complain, vent or gossip, but usually do not covertly act against. The polite dissenter usually hurts themselves the most by failure to push back and suffering the consequences.
- Time Hoarder/ Procrastinator – To a time hog, their calendar is the most important calendar of all. In fact, they often secretly resist by being late for appointments or meetings they did not schedule, or they are known to cancel at the last minute to show dissent. Also, while they go silent when agreements or plans are reached, they silently drag their feet and procrastinate because they were never truly “on board” themselves, at least in their minds.
- Closet Controller / Covert Resister – Those with a secret agenda often have a need for control, though they pretend they are going along. So, they present as “all in,” though behind the scenes they often plan and execute on their own plans or goals that are contrary to original agreements and the expectations of others. This can be damaging because they breach trust when others learn that this False Advocate was working against the team, or acknowledged plan, for their own interests all along. Additionally, this person will tend to hold too much information back from others. Hidden information as a source of private power can serve as a safety net for them.
- Back Stabber / Negative Politician – This type of False Advocate behavior can be hurtful and destructive. It is more prevalent in certain occupations such as litigators, labor negotiators, and politicians. Their roles usually involve manipulation, subterfuge, and secrets as part of the typical tactics deployed. The Back Stabber’s traits may manifest when connected with other Risk factors such as Egotist, Rule Breaker, and Cynic. It also may show once the person feels betrayed, belittled, or wronged in some way. Or, if they feel bypassed, they may act against others, all the while acting as though kind, endearing, and on board. When they strike, their intended opponent usually doesn’t see it coming, making the fallout more damaging. We have experience with this type of False Advocate who actually worked against the interests of the company, conspiring with a competitor, while seeming happy in his job all the while.
- Stealth Saboteur – This type of False Advocate can be devastating to an organization. Fortunately, this is a quite rare profile that combines charm, warmth, charisma, and cleverness, as measured on their CDR Character Assessment, with some very dark combinations of Risks. This mix includes significant scores on False Advocate, Egotist, Rule Breaker, Cynic, and Upstager. Years ago, we went through a difficult experience with a Stealth Saboteur who was a consultant we were contracting with at the time. We ignored warning signals in the CDR 3D Suite data set of the consultant because she was far away and we had limited contact with her. She seemed to be tremendously talented and had an impressive client list. What we didn’t know is that behind the infectious charm, she was inappropriately using our materials. When we presented to her the facts we had learned, she had a Jekyll and Hyde transformation launching into an unrecognizable angry narcissistic rage. We ultimately paid a heavy price in legal fees and time protecting our business interests. This could have been avoided had we heeded her assessment results up front. We learned an important lesson and, since then, only align with those who share our values and whose assessment results meet our requirements. Bottom line is the Stealth Saboteur is so suave, savvy, charming, and intelligent, damage can be done long before the organization has a clue.
Fortunately, most False Advocates fall into #1 and #2 above, Polite Dissenters / Victims to Time Hoarders / Closet Controllers.
Coaching the False Advocate has its own set of challenges and, as said previously, this can be the toughest risk to help clients open up about. The key to improving is to acknowledge that “going silent,” rather than “speaking up” in the moment, when the False Advocate disagrees, or feels pushed upon, is where the trouble starts. So, if the person would just speak up more in the moment, this would prevent the False Advocate “moving against” behaviors from derailing trust or success.
Here are a few behavioral questions for executive coaches or hiring managers to ask False Advocates:
- What do you do if someone at work tries to pressure you to do something out of the scope of your responsibilities or that has low value?
- Have you occasionally been late to meetings that you didn’t think were necessary since they interfered with your priorities?
- Do you suffer in silence when decisions are made that disrupt your priorities?
- What causes you to procrastinate? Can you give an example?
- Sometimes working “behind the scenes” can achieve more than confronting issues openly. Are you skilled at this? What was your best accomplishment when deploying this tactic?
- Clearly, we cannot and should not fight every battle. Tell me about a time you went silent rather than argue and then later regretted that decision. (False Advocates often say they “pick” their battles.)
Developmental Tips & Tactics for False Advocates
It can be difficult for the False Advocate to immediately vocalize dissent. Keep in mind, risks are natural reactions under stress or when facing adversity that have been developed from a very young age. In my recent book about women in leadership I explained,
“While you cannot train or wish away your inherent risk factors, you can make big strides to improve your risk reactions under adversity. You can adopt ways to prevent, neutralize, and manage these tendencies more productively. In baseball terminology, leaders can “improve their batting average” significantly when it comes to managing their risks.”[ii]
Here are some coaching tips and ideas to help False Advocate prevent the related behaviors from undermining their success or performance:
- Avoid overcommitting rather than just taking on additional projects, clarifying deadlines and priorities can be helpful.
- Articulate concerns — don’t go silent and hold back.
- Express ideas and thoughts in the moment—don’t wait for a better time (in most cases).
- Ask clarifying questions to keep the discussion going; otherwise, going silent implies agreement.
- Ask for a timeout to think about things rather than just going silent in an implied agreement. Perhaps say, “let me give it some thought and I will get back with you…” buying time to think in order to later articulate a candid point of view, or to allow time without pressure to formulate questions to facilitate further discussion can be helpful.
- Have a colleague ask you questions when you go silent to draw out your opinions, practice being candid and straightforward.
In order to develop effective tactics to prevent the False Advocate risk from interfering with your success, you need to analyze how this has shown up for you. Here is a template, and example, to analyze your risks:
The most important way to develop tactics to avoid falling into one’s natural risk factor behaviors is to practice the new tactics and behaviors under simulated stress and to have a plan with your new actions. Without practice in these new tactics, your risk behaviors will likely continue to show up. Intellectualizing the changes you want to make falls short – it takes developing and practicing new approaches. Additionally, when you anticipate a meeting or encounter where you typically go into the False Advocate mode, write down questions or thoughts in advance, to keep with you, to help prompt you to speak up in the moment. For example, here are a couple of entry prompts or phrases that may help you:
- I hear what you are saying and have you considered…
- Your idea seems to have merit and I wanted to explore…
- I am trying to understand the project scope a little better, can you explain…
- Can you help me to understand ….
- I want to be supportive yet…
What is most important is for the False Advocate is to not go silent. The silence opens the door for the False Advocate reactions. Anticipate, plan, and practice and the False Advocate tendencies can be prevented.
Written by Nancy Parsons
Nancy Parsons is one of today’s foremost experts in combining the science of assessments with the art of developing people. As CEO & President of CDR Companies, LLC, she sheds new light on personality strengths, inherent risks and motivation and change performance, careers and lives. Nancy and her team developed CDR-U Coach, the first of its kind, Stevie Award winning digital avatar coaching platform so that personalized assessment and coaching feedback and development can now be provided to all levels of employees. She has presented for a variety of conferences, associations, companies and events. A short sampling includes: WGLC Women’s Global Leadership Conference, WBECS, ISPI, SHRM, ATD, Women In Energy, Women on Boards 50/50, MGMA, ACEC, OKCU, ISU, IE.edu and more. She has appeared on a variety of notable podcasts, radio and television interviews and hosts a monthly CDR Live on LinkedIn. She instructs executive coaches’ training and facilitates C-Suite executive team development sessions.