How a Threatening Situation can turn Leaders into A**holes (and what to do about it)

Rita McGrath
6 min readMay 15

During times of change, especially when the change is threatening, the right response for leaders is to double-down on flexibility and problem-solving. Unfortunately, as researchers have discovered, CEO’s often fall victim to the “threat rigidity” effect. Under pressure, their utilization of information narrows, they revert to controlling behavior and they generally rely on things that used to work.

Lyft Share price


Bad symbolism and worse — what’s up with some of these CEO realities?

As I wrote about last week, a number of stories have surfaced about CEO’s having, let’s just say, less than stellar moments when faced with stress. Here’s another one — David Risher, the newly installed CEO at Lyft, facing pressure from an improved driver experience at Uber and other issues, issued a blank order for everybody to get back in the office, Pronto!

My colleague Bob Sutton suggests that to understand this, we can go back to some ground-breaking research on what has come to be called the “threat-rigidity” response. The main idea is when individuals, groups, and organizations are under threat, they narrow their focus of attention, fall back on habits from the past, and simplify in a way that doesn’t take account of the true challenge. This is also often associated with the inability to deal with complexity and concentration of power among top dogs.

As he says, “this narrowing and associated rigidity, they argued, is often maladaptive, because, during times of change, when being flexible and innovative is most adaptive, people, teams, and organizations are prone to freak out and freeze up.”

I was intrigued and went back to the original 1981 article that introduced the concept to the world, written, as Bob says, “by the brilliant Barry Staw and two of his then PHD students Lance Sandelands and Jane Dutton in @ASQJournal. Lance…

Rita McGrath

Columbia Business School Professor. Thinkers50 top 10 & #1 in strategy. Bestselling author of The End of Competitive Advantage & Seeing Around Corners.