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Politics of influence in top C-suite meetings

Michael Jarrett, Feng Liu and Sally Maitlis
Michael Jarrett, Feng Liu and Sally Maitlis8/19/2021 09:47 PM GMT+08  • 10 min read
Politics of influence in top C-suite meetings
Little is known about what exactly happens among top management team members in their decision-making process.
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As far as team dynamics go, senior management remains something of an enigma. Sure, top management teams have been studied since at least the 1980s for insights into how chief executives and their deputies make the strategic decisions that can make or break organisations. But research has tended to either focus on CEOs as the sole decision-maker or assume all members of the top management team have equal weight. On top of this, TMT interactions during strategic meetings are rarely studied “live”.

As a result, little is known about what exactly happens between the CEO and other TMT members in the decision-making process, which more often than not is steeped in politics and power play. We sought to decode this “black box” by filming the meetings of the TMTs of two different companies, analysing the moment-by-moment verbal and non-verbal exchanges among team members. To our knowledge, this is the first in situ multi-organisation study of TMT dynamics in strategic decision-making meetings.

Our findings, published in a new paper, offer encouraging news for senior managers: by forming even temporary coalitions with other TMT members and deploying simple influencing behaviours, they can persuade the CEO to take their side, or at least present a powerful counterbalance to the chief executive. And, unlike previous research that found that top teams develop stable coalitions that affect how decisions are made, our study indicates that coalition-building can be in the moment and fluid. All these imply even less established executives can sway key decisions if they play their cards right.

Reading the room right

We gained access to two top management teams that were comparable in size, gender composition and other key dimensions. The first team, which we call TMT A, belonged to a medium-sized computer game company based in Canada. TMT B was the top team of a business services company with global operations.

For each team, we videotaped and analyzed their meetings, dissecting them in minute detail, from emotional tone, body posture, hand gestures to eye contact. We also interviewed each of the team members after the meetings.

Patterns of engagement

We identified five different kinds of CEO-TMT member interaction patterns: Congruous, Cooperative, Spectating, Adversarial, and Undermining. We call these patterns “constellations” to highlight the importance of team members’ positions concerning another — akin to how stars form recognisable patterns in the sky — and how they shape decisions.

For each constellation, we spotted dozens of influencing behaviours. We sorted them into the broad categories of engaging, political, power play, distracting, and others. Let’s look at the constellations and the influencing behaviours we recommend for each dynamic.


In a congruous constellation, the CEO and other TMT members see eye to eye right from the start. This becomes obvious when the CEO makes a proposal and all team members immediately agree with it. Most or all team members join in the discussion before reaching a consensus decision. For instance, TMT A had a lively discussion on proposed bonuses.

Tips: Acquire future social capital by building on the bonhomie with engaging influencing behaviours such as rational argument and engage others in the conversation to address colleagues’ values and aspirations. For example, in proposing a senior bonus plan, the leader engages the team early in the discussion with: “I’ll just give you the high level and you give (me) some thought and we can continue the conversation.” Over the next 24 minutes, members contributed several ideas and the options became rich and varied.


The Cooperative constellation is characterised by the CEO disagreeing with the rest of the team at the beginning, before resolving their differences through constructive discussion. Team members work together, drawing upon their knowledge and expertise to engage and persuade the CEO. Body postures and hand gestures tend to be open and engaging while the emotional tone is calm and positive. Members use influencing behaviours like inclusive humour to dull any threat the CEO may feel.

Take TMT B’s discussion of a database management project. The CEO, Bart, was initially not in favour of the idea. Quinton, a regional managing director, alluded to a chat he had with the chief financial officer and explained what was going on in the different geographic areas to support his case for database deployments. Other team members nodded, answered Bart’s questions regarding cost and technology, and explained to him how this project might connect to other aspects of change in the organisation. They built on their colleagues’ comments and acknowledged one another’s views. The tone of the meeting was calm and thoughtful, with Bart actively listening. Quinton finally concluded — and was backed up by the CFO — that they were all in agreement. Everyone bought into the decision.

Tips: Quinton, the protagonist, used engaging influencing behaviours such as legitimising (by appealing to a higher authority) and rational argument to great effect. Rallying to Quinton’s side, his colleagues used to link their patch to the potential project. They also piggybacked on one another’s inputs to raise related issues.


In this scenario, the CEO retreats to the background as an observer while two team members debate an issue. The sparring involves considerable information sharing but not always a full exploration of alternative solutions. Neither team member succeeds in converting the other to their side. The CEO usually proposes that the decision be deferred.

An example of this constellation emerged in TMT A’s discussion on hiring interns. Sam, a producer, insisted on recruiting interns for his team’s urgent staffing needs. But another producer, Roy, argued that Sam should deploy idle staff from elsewhere in the company.

Tips: If you’re one of the duelling parties, a power play is due. Bolster your case with such influencing tactics as declaring ownership (“This is my game so you don’t touch it”) and drawing on one’s experience and knowledge (“you don’t know my team as well as I do”). If you’re the spectating leader, it might be best to delay a decision while emotions cool, as the CEO in the above example did.


The Adversarial dynamic is triggered by disagreement between the CEO and a team member at the start of a strategic issue discussion. Each party seeks and obtains support from other team members. There is considerable information sharing and a moderate level of participative decision-making although the final outcome is not unanimous.

In a TMT A meeting, for example, CEO Isaac, supported by one of the team members, proposed that Producer Bryan made the company’s first online game. Bryan disagreed and was backed by fellow producer Tony. Isaac used an upward appeal (alluding to the company founder’s support for his idea) in a bid to persuade the producers, who fought back by drawing on their expertise and experience.

Tony: Does [one of our strong competitors] have online? (Isaac: No). Does it stop it from doing what it’s doing? (Isaac: No). Is it going to stop it from hitting 15 million? (Isaac: No).

Bryan: It’ll probably make a big difference on the Xbox sales, on the PC sales, I agree with that, but it won’t make a difference on the PS2 sales.

Although they were not fully persuaded by Bryan and Tony, Isaac and his ally succumbed to their vehement opposition. The team decided to make the game online in the future, rather than now.

Tips: Get political. Seek support and build a coalition by directly asking or looking at your colleagues. Piggyback on the credibility and agenda of others. And, even if you’re the CEO, see if there’s scope for an upward appeal (“The founder needs this to be done before the end of next month”).


When the CEO and a TMT member are in opposition, and the CEO challenges and undermines the latter while other members simply look on, an Undermining constellation is formed. The besieged member is likely to withdraw from the discussion and the CEO gets their way without much participation or buy-in from the rest of the team.

Consider TMT B’s discussion of a relocation project. The meeting was supposed to be led by Daniel, the chief information officer. The CEO, however, disagreed with Daniel. Here is an excerpt of the meeting.

Daniel begins by introducing the scope and intention of the meeting. The CEO abruptly takes over and spoke at length about his own proposal.

CEO: Is it (his own proposal) worth the trip? On the basis of the (financial) numbers we currently have, I think the answer is yes.

Daniel: I’ve got different numbers…

He turns to another team member in an appeal for his support but is ignored by the whole group.

The CEO talks over him. Daniel glares at the CEO, fiddling with his pen, visibly upset by the turn of events

CEO: I wrote a thought piece … completely from the top of my head – knowing that Daniel was doing parallel work. I got my head around the bigger picture, which is this paper.

He continues for several minutes without interruption. Daniel looks tense, his body turned away from the CEO.

CEO: So, is there a general comprehension around the table about the proposition?

Team members nod.

Tips: If you’re in the unenviable position that Daniel found himself, dismissed and ostracised by the team, your best chance at having any sort of input might come from distraction tactics. One example is derailment or turning the focus of the discussion to another topic. Another is to magnify the risk of the rival proposal or position.

Friends one moment, enemies the next

Importantly, we found that more than one constellation could form in a single meeting, depending on the issues deliberated. In other words, team members could be congruous or cooperative when they discussed one issue, and adversarial or undermining on another. This suggests that the TMT decision-making process is more dynamic and nuanced than shown by previous research.

Some influencing behaviours are more widely applicable than others, but how you use them matters. For example, we observed rational argument in all five constellations albeit with very different delivery — relaxed in Congruous, emphatically with plenty of hand gestures in Cooperative, and calm and authoritative in Undermining — and leading to different outcomes. The tone of voice, body language and other non-rational strategies can be very effective influence mechanisms.

Personalities and organizational cultures also play a part. For instance, in high power-distance cultures that predominate in East Asia, leadership styles tend to be more hierarchical. Undermining and Adversarial are likely to be more common than the other constellations although the general patterns hold.

A reliable guide to reading the situation and deciding what actions to take as a te0am member is to ask yourself: Am I aligned with the leader? Am I aligned with my peers? How much energy do they have about the issue? Then play your hand accordingly.

Michael Jarrett is a professor of management practice in organisational behaviour at Insead. He is also a programme director of the Strategy Execution Programme, one of Insead’s executive education programmes and a programme director for the Executive Master in Change. Feng Liu is an associate professor at the Sobey School of Business, Saint Mary’s University, Canada. Sally Maitlis is a professor of organisational behaviour and leadership at Saïd Business School, Oxford University

Photo: Ferran Fusalba Rosello/UnSplash

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