There's little a business leader values more than straight-talking advice--especially when it comes from someone you respect and trust, right?

There are endless books and reports on "loneliness at the top" in business. And when you couple that sense of isolation with the constant psychic drain of the impostor syndrome, it's no wonder that time with a colleague who will truly tell it as it is becomes a highly sought after and valued commodity.

Forging close bonds with competent peers has other benefits, too: the opportunity to vent, a critically important challenge function, reality checks, bubble bursting, and ego containment being just some of them.

When I reflect on the times when my career has truly flourished--when my sense of fulfillment has been at its peak--there has always been at least one trusted colleague around, prodding me, goading me, encouraging, challenging, and competing with me, all at the same time, and all combining to pull more out of me than I thought was in there to begin with. I'm sure (or at least I hope) that you've experienced the same thing.

What can go wrong with this?

Only one thing: overcooking the trusted-colleague model and changing it instead into an inner circle.

Inner circles sound like a good thing. Find one trusted colleague, then another, then another, until before long you have gathered around you a veritable claque. A kitchen cabinet, if you will. And that's a beautiful thing, yes?

Well, maybe. Maybe-ish. Maybe-minus. Maybe Lite. Meh-be, at best.

As you can gather, I'm ambivalent about inner circles. (To be clear, I'm talking here about those that form inside an organization--having a group of external advisers is another matter entirely, and the subject of a future article.) Although I can understand the theory, when I see them in action, they rarely have a positive impact in the workplace. Why? Because the initial intent (getting solid, semiindependent advice from trusted colleagues) is almost always overtaken by a creeping group narcissism.

It doesn't take long before members of an inner circle begin to recognize that they're just that--members of an inner circle. And it's an enticing thought. Being in an inner circle--especially one that is close to a seat of power--is seductively affirming. It reinforces a sense of rightness, of being smart and somehow insightful, just through the very act of being part of this group.

And the result is that a noticeable pungency begins to attach itself to the inner circle. It's no longer just a loose collection of competent people who work together; now it's something with an aura. Something to be admired and perhaps slightly jealous of. Something to aspire to.

Which is one step away from becoming something elite. Special. Exclusionary. For me, but not for you.

And the truth is, I've seen very few inner circles--fewer than the fingers on one hand--fail to slide into that negative, dangerous dynamic.

Why should you care? For a lot of reasons, most of which are self-evident, but I'll mention just two:

1. It's just plain wrong. Artificial group aggrandizement is never a healthy thing, even when the individual members are all fine people (which they usually are).

2. It'll cost you your top performers. I've rarely seen elite cliques survive alongside true meritocracy. High-potentials can smell a boys' club (or girls' club, or mixed-gender club) a country mile away--and even if you start it for all the right reasons, that's what your inner circle will become.

So what should you do?

Just break up your hard-fought-for group of trusted advisers and go back to being isolated and alone? Not at all. Just stop treating them as a group and instead, consult with them individually from time to time, one on one. That's healthy and nonexclusive and has the added advantage of keeping the door open for the rest of your high-potentials to become trusted advisers, too.

Discover how to tap into the talent within your organization. Download a free chapter from the author's book, Do Lead: Share Your Vision. Inspire Others. Work Towards a Common Goal, to learn the secrets behind true leadership and the mindset, tools, and techniques necessary to cultivate it in yourself and others.

Published on: May 13, 2014
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