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.

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