Are you your employees’ worst enemy? That’s the question posed by Kannan Ramaswamy and William Youngdahl, writing for Strategy+Business. The authors insist that many leaders are inadvertently an obstacle to superior performance.
Through surveys and interviews with over 250 professionals in 37 countries, the authors have discovered that 51% of employees believe that initiatives succeed despite, rather than because of, their leaders.
While it’s not uncommon for employees to feel as though their bosses are a hindrance at times, Ramaswamy and Youngdahl describe the prevalence of this phenomenon revealed by their research – even in successful organisations – as “eye-opening”.
Of course, the vast majority of bosses aren’t deliberately sabotaging the efforts of their teams. Instead, the authors believe leaders are lured into what they call “the hindrance trap – a cognitive bubble in which leaders erroneously conclude that the success of their teams is a reflection of their good leadership”.
There are common elements to whatever form the hindrance takes, according to the authors, such as a lack of clarity regarding purpose and direction, useless policies and a failure to consider the capacity of the organisation.
If unaddressed, the hindrance trap will take a heavy toll on morale and employee engagement, regardless of the achieved results. It will also result in a high turnover of star performers, as they grow impatient with the problems caused by the leader.
However, Ramaswamy and Youngdahl are keen to emphasise that it’s possible to escape or avoid the hindrance trap. The process, they explain, “begins with recognising that hindrance is a real organisational disease, one with a set of specific symptoms you can diagnose”. Plotting the cure requires an honest assessment.
HOW DO YOU FALL INTO THE TRAP?
Leaders often fall into the hindrance trap subconsciously. As leaders climb the managerial ladder, they are encouraged to concern themselves with the big picture and leave the details to others.
This leads to a disconnect between the conception of a strategy and its implementation. The leader considers an idea feasible whereas others below them know it cannot work in reality.
This problem can be compounded if the leader fails to solicit honest, comprehensive feedback from their people. Sometimes employees are afraid to point out flaws in the leader’s thinking.
The authors’ research suggests that even in successful organisation, only 46% of leaders are perceived to encourage workers to speak up.
ARE YOU CAUGHT IN THE TRAP?
To diagnose the problem, you should pause and consider the way you lead. Think about what you actually do to help your teams produce positive performance outcomes.
Ask yourself whether you seek feedback about the viability of your strategy or potential problems regarding its execution, and whether you encourage constructive criticism of the practices you instigate.
The answers to these questions should help you assess whether you might be hindering your employees’ effectiveness.
It’s also important to get the opinion of the people you are leading to get a better appreciation of what’s happening on the ground.
Ramaswamy and Youngdahl recommend focusing on three key questions when seeking evidence for the hindrance trap:
1) Are employees clear on the purpose and direction of their work? According to the authors’ research, even in successful organisations only 56% of employees believe their leaders are giving them clarity of purpose and direction.
Middle managers often create their own strategies when intent from the top isn’t clear. This leads to activities heading in the wrong direction, even if they are well coordinated.
2) Do leaders have a clear idea of the organisational capacity required to carry out their strategic intent? Ramaswamy and Youngdahl explain: “Even if leaders are clear on strategic intent, they can do more harm than good if they fail to consider the resources required to deliver results. We found that a mere 26% of employees in successful organisations believe their leaders account for organisational capacity when rolling out initiatives.”
The authors warn that overloaded employees might be able to deliver good results on a temporary basis but will not be able to sustain high levels of productivity, meaning the quality of work will suffer and important deadlines will be missed.
3) Do policies promote or inhibit effectiveness? The survey by Ramaswamy and Youngdahl showed that only 36% of employees in successful organisations believe their leaders’ policies help the organisation achieve superior performance.
The authors observe that many policies are based on personal preferences of senior leaders or long-standing tradition rather than best practice. This often applies to policies that address the specific “do’s and don’ts” of an organisation.
ESCAPING THE TRAP
If the answers to these questions point to you being caught in the hindrance trap, the first step is to recognise and acknowledge the problem. Then you have to address each of the issues, making sure you:
- Clarify your intent to employees. Use meetings to present the purpose and direction of your strategy, sharing broad outlines for implementation plans.
- Account for the organisational capacity required. Decide which initiatives are no longer useful and can be eliminated to make room for new strategies.
- Abandon or rewrite unhelpful policies. You should ask yourself: is the policy necessary for regulatory, legal or safety purposes? Does the policy help focus talent and energy in ways that will improve key business outcomes? If the answer is negative for both questions then the policy should be reconsidered.