Don’t obstruct your team

01 July, 2019

Some leaders stall their own team’s progress – either as a way to maintain power, or through sheer thoughtlessness

The success of a leader depends on the performance of their team. While this may seem obvious, an alarming number of leaders end up obstructing their teams – sometimes intentionally, other times unknowingly. It’s extremely unfortunate when the person in charge of the team’s success becomes an obstruction to its progress.

So, this week, my message focuses on obstructive leadership. Which behaviours undermine a team’s performance, and why do leaders display such behaviours? How can we address the problem of obstructive leadership, at an individual as well as organisational level? 

Intentional obstruction

Over the course of your career, you may have noticed some of these bizarre behaviours among leaders:

  • Assigning badly-defined projects with unclear parameters and goals
  • Refusing to allocate resources that the team needs to do a good job
  • Changing priorities constantly, leaving team members with nothing to show for their efforts
  • Scuttling a team member’s excellent output from seeing the light of day

Which brings us to the big question: Why would a manager knowingly hold back their team? Yevgenia Nayberg sheds some light in her article,Why Bad Bosses Sabotage Their Teams, which highlights a fascinating study conducted by Jon Maner, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management.

Maner’s research revealed that leaders who were primarily motivated by a desire for power were more likely to undermine their teams’ productivity and cohesion than those driven by a desire for respect and prestige

Leaders will intentionally sideline high-performing team members, limit communication and social bonding among team members, or compile ill-matched teams if they think it will help ensure their own place at the top.

Moreover, these sabotaging behaviours worsened when leaders were informed that the group’s power structure was unstable and that they may lose their position at the top. In this scenario, team leaders undermined their most skilled group member in a variety of ways – from pairing them with ill-chosen partners, to making them work alone in a room (despite being told that team performance would improve if the most skilled group member worked closely with the rest of the group). As Maner observes:

It’s surprising to me just how willing leaders are to really undermine group success in favor of their own power. These talented, highly skilled group members are in one of the best positions to help the group succeed. But rather than being seen as a valuable ally, they’re instead seen as a threat by leaders who are afraid of losing their power.

In short, power-driven leaders tend to sabotage their own teams, and malleable power hierarchies worsen the problem.

Here are three suggestions about what we could do at an organisational level to curb this kind of obstructive behaviour:

1. Link leader and team success

To start with, we must foster a clear understanding that a leader’s success is measured by the achievements of their team, not independently of it. If leaders intentionally obstruct their team members’ performance, then they will be held accountable for their actions. So, balance measures of individual success with that of team performance – and reward accordingly.

2. Combine security with change

How can an organisation can create power security for its leaders, while still maintaining the flexibility to make changes when required? Maner suggests periods of stability interspersed with times of leadership change, similar to government elections. As he explains:

What might help leaders perform at their best is knowing that they’re not going to lose their job today or tomorrow, that they can really follow through on whatever vision it is they have and if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. But at least they’ve really had a chance to put their vision into action. 

3. Create good leaders 

Power-hungry bosses are more likely to set their teams up to fail. So, our endeavour must be to give managerial roles to people who value respect and prestige – rather than those who desire power for its own sake. Maner notes that this can be tricky, since the former might be happy staying in the background while the latter are more likely to aim for positions of authority.

The challenge is to identify and raise the right kind of people into leadership positions, and this requires us to pay closer attention to up-and-coming talent. What are their core motivations? How do they interact with others in their team? What kind of relationship do they have with power? These are crucial questions to ask when making decisions around promotion and hiring.

Unintentional obstruction 

Even if you genuinely want the best for your team, you may still end up becoming an obstacle to their progress.

Here are four obstructive behaviours that leaders are commonly guilty of, and suggestions on how to curb them:

1. Nitpicking to dismiss ideas 

In The Subtleties of Obstruction, Dan Rockwell explains that while curiosity is an advantage, some leaders unwittingly deploy it as a weapon:

Obstructionists ask questions to block progress. One employee said, “When I don’t want to do something, I start asking lots of questions.” I’m a huge fan of curiosity, but obstructionists nitpick definitions and details to wear you down and get their way.

Rockwell suggests agreeing on a goal before nitpicking about the strategy to get there. Alternatively, if you’re not convinced about an idea, share your concerns openly instead of simply bombarding your team with relentless questions designed to shoot it down.

2.. Micromanagement

Do you demand that your team members check in with you at every stage of a project? Do you oversee each task closely, looking for tiny errors and adjusting details? If yes, you’re getting in the way of your team’s productivity – even though you probably intend exactly the opposite. The role of a manager is to empower team members, trust them to do their jobs, and help to remove the obstacles in their way. So, stop adding additional layers of administration and oversight, and let your team get on with their work!

3. Lack of structured improvement

Some leaders go about improvement and optimisation in a haphazard way – a meeting here, an email there, or a chat in the hallway. This is a confusing and ineffective approach. What you need is a more organised method, such as the Start-Stop-Continue drill, which is a great way to create open lines of communication and identify clear actionables as a team. As a leader, it also gives you the opportunity to listen, offer insight and focus on managing obstacles (rather than people). Here are the three fundamental steps of the drill:

  • Start – What should we start doing? List activities that the team isn’t doing but think they should be. Consider fresh, new ideas. Decide which initiatives to move ahead on.
  • Stop – What should we stop doing? Identify what isn’t working, i.e. – activities that aren’t producing the desired outcome, are unsustainable or have outlived their usefulness. Determine how to phase out these items.
  • Continue – What should we continue doing? Evaluate activities that are working well and should be retained. These include activities that the team considers successful and/or rewarding.

4. Failing to build team culture

In Four ways managers subconsciously sabotage their own teams, Michelle Vitus explains that leaders cannot afford to be passive when it comes to creating team culture:

Every manager’s own team should internally reflect the culture and values of the company at large, while accommodating their group’s unique role and composition. This requires a certain balancing act. A sales team’s culture will inevitably differ from an engineering team’s, for example, but both should foster camaraderie, trust, respect, and fun. Without these elements, employees can feel isolated and unsupported.

Another factor in building a cohesive team is to acknowledge not just individual but also group victories. Recognising and celebrating the success of the unit as a whole is key to creating a sense of unity and reinforcing the fact that everyone is working towards a common objective. Cohesive teams make for high-performing teams, which is turn make for successful leaders.


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