An exasperated manager exclaimed in a discussion, “Leadership theory is only theory, it doesn’t work in reality!” Based on her experiences, the manager felt it was impossible to be a leader in her organization which she characterized as highly controlling. From her perspective, her attempts at being an effective leader are futile because demonstrating leadership competencies is not valued, accepted, or understood.
Causes of Immobilization
There are different types of behaviors or cultures that can slow down, or completely immobilize leaders, causing ineffectiveness:
Centralized Authority: In organizations where there is centralized authority, authority is centralized with one person or closely held by a chosen few. This dynamic can occur in family businesses, companies with international headquarters, or where there is an autocratic executive or business owner who controls everything that happens because they don’t trust their employees. In cases like these, middle-managers seldom have decision-making authority or opportunities to contribute, so they are forced to wait until a decision is made and communicated.
Deliberate Withholding: Bureaucratic environments force the need for layers and layers of authorization. There can be senior players in bureaucratic environments who purposefully use their signing authority as a tool of power that may cause coworkers to miss deadlines or lead to delays. Some of these leaders intentionally withhold information in order to frustrate targeted persons, attempting to show them who is in charge. Unfortunately, these strategies are short-sighted as they decelerate the progress of not only the targeted managers; they negatively affect the withholders and the results of the entire team.
Bullying: There are some environments where bullies are allowed to thrive. Harassment by bullies includes behaviors like ignoring requests, withholding information, name calling, and profanity. Whether bullying exists at executive or entry levels, middle managers can become immobilized by the fear of the perpetual threat of an aggressive or unpleasant encounter. When there is a bully boss, employees are usually unwilling or unable to do anything without the boss’ consent because they prefer not to be exposed to the threat of attack so the probability of setback is high.
Indecision: Indecision can occur when a manager overanalyzes. This happens when managers are unable to effectively distill information and make a decision. Sometimes indecision is based on fear, and at other times it is based on a predisposition to perfectionism. Indecision can also occur when there is incompetence. Incompetent managers are either ill-equipped to manage within their authority and make decisions or they are paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake.
Disorganization: Some leaders are immobilized by a lack of organization. They don’t have an effective system of follow up, nor do they have a well organized filing system that allows them to locate files. They are unresponsive to e-mails and voice mails so assigned work may fall through the cracks all employees who have to wait interminably for feedback before taking action.
Dishonesty: If executives and business owners are dishonest, it is unrealistic to expect them to involve front-line managers in their activities. As a result, deceitful leaders conceal information for fear of unwanted publicity. Consequently, their front-line colleagues are immobilized or delayed because of a lack of accurate information.
Toxic Environments: Whether a manager is competent or not, he/she can be rendered entirely immobilized in undermining, toxic environments. For instance, a manager may meet all deadlines established, but is immobilized because two decision makers are not speaking to each other. Alternatively the two decision makers may not have the skills they need to manage differences of opinion.
Immobilization can be both intrinsic and extrinsic. No matter the reason for the perceived paralysis, immobilized managers can have far reaching effects on the business like turnover, compromised results, conflict, or absenteeism.
Moving to Mobilization
Immobilized managers sometimes rely heavily on strategies like avoidance, accommodation or compromise which are not particularly high on the assertiveness scale. In dysfunctional environments, these strategies become necessary for survival and are usually undergirded by fear. Unfortunately, if fear paralyses managers, employees perceive the lack of response as powerless, undermined or weak because they are rendered voiceless because their manager is incapable of expressing the views of others.
In reality, there are managers who take the path of least resistance because demonstrating assertive styles can lead to responses like bullying, exclusion or the label, “not a team player”. So what can be done? The first step for managers is to accept that change needs to happen and the change starts within. Accountability is always important when change is occurring. With this in mind, managers can commit to personal change and growth through establishing a system of accountability for sustaining behaviors that lead to mobilization. For instance, managers can hold themselves accountable by meeting set deadlines or they can seek feedback through sources like 360o multi-rater assessments.
Managers can also reflect on whether or not they have the authority to make decisions and if so, they should reflect on the effectiveness of their decisions. Another important consideration is how well you organize yourself and how you communicate with your staff.
If your efforts to develop and mobilize yourself have not created the results you desire, it is important to remember you always have multiple choices. For instance, you may decide to take your chances and do nothing differently. Alternatively, you can attempt to influence or drive personal and team transformation. If your attempts to change yourself or influence decision makers are opposed, you can always exercise your choice to find a new employer that mobilizes leaders and supports employee development.
Yvette Bethel is an EQ Practitioner, author of E.Q. Librium and CEO of Organizational Soul, an HR and Change Consulting company. If you are interested in exploring how you can create new synergies in your workplace, you can contact her at www.orgsoul.com.