In almost all organizations, some leaders pave the way for their employees to do their best work, and others inadvertently make things much harder than they should be. Where do you fall on this continuum? Do you help or do you hinder? In all probability, it’s the latter. According to our research, your employees are more likely to view you as an obstacle to their effectiveness than as an enabler of it—and that holds true whether your organization is successful or stumbling.
People expect to find bad bosses in failing companies. However, in surveys and interviews with more than 250 working professionals in 37 countries, we’ve found that 51 percent of employees across the full spectrum of organizational performance believe initiatives tend to succeed despite, not because of, their leaders. All employees think that their bosses hinder their effectiveness from time to time. But the prevalence of this phenomenon even in successful organizations (as defined by respondents to our surveys) is eye-opening.
It is hardly conceivable that the majority of bosses arrive at work each day with fresh ideas on how to actively scuttle the efforts of their teams. Rather, they are lured into what we 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. As a result, organizations are settling for less than what they could achieve if they had more self-aware leaders throughout their hierarchies. The exact nature of the hindrance varies, but there are some common elements. They include a lack of clarity on purpose and direction, failure to consider the organization’s capacity, and useless policies (see Exhibit 1). Our research also indicates that leaders’ hindrance, left unaddressed, will eventually exact a stiff toll on employee engagement and morale, no matter how strong the latest quarterly report. To make matters worse, a pattern of hindrance will drive up the rate of churn among the highest performers. The average performers might silently suffer the consequences of a boss stuck in the hindrance trap, but high performers can hardly be expected to be as patient.
The good news is that any leader can escape the hindrance trap—or perhaps even avoid it altogether. It’s a process that begins with recognizing that hindrance is a real organizational disease, one with a set of specific symptoms you can diagnose. Only with an honest assessment can you plot your cure.
How Hindrance Takes Root
Falling into the hindrance trap is frequently a subconscious process. The trouble starts with the socialization of becoming a leader. As managers move up the ranks, they are encouraged to think big and leave the details to others. The result is often a disconnect between strategy conception and implementation. Some ideas that seem feasible in the C-suite simply do not work on the ground.
Leaders compound the problem when they fail to encourage honest, complete feedback from their employees. Such bosses believe they are helping because nobody tells them otherwise. They attribute success to their own efforts, when in fact the company’s positive results might be coming from self-motivated individuals making up for their leader’s shortcomings.
Variations of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” play out in organizations around the world. Few individuals are willing to point out the flaws of their bosses. Many employees may fear retribution. Others may not believe that it is their job to offer unsolicited developmental advice to their superiors. Our research shows that only 46 percent of leaders in successful organizations are perceived as supporting speak-up cultures. Thus, the lack of honest feedback is hardly surprising.