A Manager recently exclaimed in a discussion, “Leadership theory is fallacious!” Based on her experience, it seems to be impossible to be a leader in her organization which she characterized as dishonest, abusive and highly controlling. From her perspective, her attempts at being an effective leader are futile because demonstrating leadership competencies is not valued or even possible.
I thought about this indictment and my response was that leadership theory can be applied when your office culture is a healthy one, characterized by integrity, effective communication and trust. Otherwise your environment can lead you down the path to immobility.
Toxic Environments that Immobilize
After my conversation I started thinking about the different types of environments that can slow down or completely immobilize leaders, causing ineffectiveness:
Centralized Authority: In these organizations, authority is centralized with one person or among a chosen few. This can occur in family businesses, companies with international headquarters, or where there is an autocratic executive or business owner who controls everything that happens within the organization because they don’t trust their employees. In cases like these, managers seldom have any decision making authority or opportunities to contribute so they are forced to wait until a decision is made and communicated.
Deliberate Withholding: Some bureaucratic environments require layers and layers of authorization and some senior players in this process use their signing authority as a power tool that can cause Managers to miss deadlines or delay important projects. There are other executives who intentionally withhold information in order to frustrate targeted managers, 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 behaviours like ignoring employees, withholding information, 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 encounter. When there is a bully boss, managers 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 delays is high.
Indecision: Indecision can occur when a manager tends to overanalyze. They are unable to efficiently and effectively distill information and make a decision. Sometimes this 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 their authority and make a decision or they are paralyzed by the fear of making another 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 filing system that allows them to locate files. They are unresponsive to e-mails and voice mails so assigned work falls through the cracks with these executives and business owners and this impacts managers who wait interminably for feedback before taking action.
Dishonesty: If executives and business owners are dishonest, it is uncommon for them to involve front-line managers in their exploitative activities. As a result, deceitful leaders conceal information for fear of unwanted publicity. Consequently, their front line managers are immobilized either because there is a lack of relevant information or because the managers may be the ones forced to deal with the consequences.
Whether or not a middle manager is competent, they can be rendered entirely useless in undermining, toxic environments. There are others who are immobilized purely because they lack the competencies to keep work flowing. No matter the reason for immobility, immobilized managers have far reaching effects on the business like turnover, compromised results, personality conflicts and absenteeism.
The Link Between Immobility and Culture
Author Gabrielle O’Donovan asserts, “Corporate culture evolves during workers' and leaders' learning and development at company start-up stage, and over time will be shaped by influences in the internal and external environment. Thus, corporate culture is created by a company's founders and is shaped by leaders and employees. As new staff join, they imbibe the culture of the company, but at the same time bring in their own values and attitudes that also influence and change the corporate culture.”
O’Donovan goes on to say that, “Corporate culture is leader-led and facilitated. This means it can be controlled, changed and managed to ensure it is healthy and works for the success of a company.” With this in mind, it is apparent that corporate culture appears to be influenced by many sources but despite this, it is shaped by leaders. So in order to migrate from an immobilized state to a productive one, changes need to start at the top.
What to do if you are immobilized
Some immobilized managers attempt to rely heavily on strategies like avoidance, accommodation and compromise which are low on the assertiveness scale. In toxic environments, these leadership styles become a necessity for survival and are probably undergirded by a toxic emotion: fear. Unfortunately, if fear is your motivation, employees perceive these behaviours as powerless, undermined or weak because they are rendered voiceless because you are.
In reality managers take the less assertive route because demonstrating more assertive styles can lead to behaviours like bullying or exclusion. So what do you do? If you are one of the leader architects of the culture of your organization you may decide that change needs to happen. If change is needed, you can commit to personal change and growth. You can also set up a system of accountability for the desired behaviours.
If you are not in a position to influence the culture of your organization and you feel immobilized by the environment, you may decide to take your chances and be patient. If you make this decision, you understand there are no guarantees because the situation is what it is and in some circumstances, the probability that positive change can be motivated is low. By taking the path of patience, it is important to develop your survival skills. Alternatively, if you are frustrated by the lack of productivity and your attempts to influence change are unsuccessful, you can always exercise your choice to find a new employer that mobilizes leaders and supports employee development.
Yvette Bethel is CEO of Organizational Soul, an Organizational Effectiveness Consulting and Leadership Development company. If you are interested in exploring how you can create a higher performing organization, you can contact her at www.orgsoul.com.