I had an exchange of messages with a reader about my blog post Stupid Busy: Is Your Leadership Team Overloading Your Organization? The reader, who we’ll call George, wrote,
As a middle manager who is on the receiving end of this, you are hitting the nail squarely on the head. Unfortunately, there is no way in the world I would dare share this on my LinkedIn feed as any critique of senior management is a huge risk to my job. Maybe when I give notice after finding another job!
Too many senior leadership teams are like me in a buffet line: loading up their plates with more than they can eat. The overload problem often stems from a combination of urgency about all the change needed today, being out of touch with what their organization can deliver, too many moose on the loose, and failure to make tough choices. Both Steve Jobs and Warren Buffet have said that saying no to all the demands on a leader’s time was critical to their success. Jim Collins finds that a laser focus and disciplined priority setting is a critical factor separating great organizations from good ones.
George may be victimized by undisciplined senior leaders, but he refuses to be a victim. He’s developed upward leadership strategies. He says,
Sometimes I get senior managers to think that our ideas are really their ideas (which has worked quite well but comes with its own costs). Other times, I build such strong support with other key leaders, that they present my ideas for me.
George also observed that the roots of many poor behaviors are fear.
…fear of being accountable for others’ work, of having to clean up messes, or of things not going well. Senior leaders can still get results with many poor leadership approaches, but it’s hard on people. Fear is something we all deal with. I am no exception. It is one of the biggest obstacles leaders have to overcome.
I agree. Fear is at the root of many poor management practices. A culture of fear is a major reason senior leaders can get so stupidly off track with their plans and projects. When teams aren’t having authentic communication or courageous conversations, leaders don’t know what they don’t know.
An online survey by Crucial Conversations found respondents compared their failing projects to “slow-motion train wrecks.” Tellingly, over 80 percent said, “approaching a key decision maker about the project is nearly impossible.”
Ironically, leaders who create fearful workplaces don’t know they’ve done so because people are afraid to tell them. Mid-level leaders like George refuse to let fear infect them with the “victimitus virus.” Strong leaders know there are three choices:
- Live with the status quo (too many people who do, then jump on the Bitter Bus with lots of criticizing, condemning, and complaining).
- Provide strong leadership within your own team or area while practicing upward leadership.
What would you do if you weren’t afraid?