Strong performance results further mask the problem. When things aren’t going well, leadership behaviors tend to be readily highlighted as a root cause. But when results are positive, we tend to look the other way or simply don’t notice damaging behavior—and bosses see no reason to adjust their approaches or work on their own development.
Are You Trapped?
We know that leadership acculturation, lack of honest feedback, and the mask of success combine to draw many bosses into the hindrance trap (see Exhibit 2). The first step in diagnosis is therefore to pause for a moment and consider the way you lead. Have you reflected on the role that you play in helping your teams deliver positive performance outcomes? Do you proactively seek feedback from your teams about potential pressure points that line the pathways to successful strategy execution? Do you encourage constructive criticism of organizational norms and practices? Your answers to these introspective questions are one good way to assess your propensity to hinder your employees’ effectiveness.
Of course, validating your conclusions with those you lead is also critical. Reaching down and across the organization to solicit unvarnished feedback, both formal and informal, can help a leader gain a better appreciation of the realities on the ground. It’s best to turn to outsiders to help facilitate feedback about potentially hindering leadership behaviors. In our own experience, for example, we have concluded that individuals feel freer to speak with us about leaders who hinder them than they do to speak with their boss or an HR professional.
When looking for evidence of the hindrance trap, we focus on three key questions.
1. Are employees clear on the purpose and direction driving their work? Even in successful organizations, we found that only 56 percent of employees believed their leaders were providing clarity of purpose and direction.
When intent from the top is not clear, middle managers often create their own strategies to help focus resources on specific initiatives and activities. The assumptions embedded within the process of achieving clarity in the middle of the organization can lead to well-coordinated activities that head in the wrong direction. Positive results can pivot to disaster—sometimes without warning.
Consider the high-profile Deepwater Horizon incident that nearly sank BP. On April 20, 2010, the oil and gas giant reported a catastrophic failure at its Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico. When all was said and done, 11 people had lost their lives and an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil had seeped into the Gulf. Just nine days after the spill, BP shares had dropped US$25 billion in market value. By June 2013, BP had concluded its cleanup operations for Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, but the cleanup of Louisiana continues today with no clear end in sight.
Although BP’s top leadership had previously identified safety as a key element of its corporate strategy, cost cutting emerged as the implied core value—and the key driver of people’s behavior. The incongruence first showed up in 2005, when a massive explosion at BP’s Texas City, Texas, refinery killed 15 people and injured 170, following cuts in preventive maintenance enacted in order to achieve aggressive financial goals. After the explosion, BP commissioned an independent panel, chaired by former U.S. secretary of state James Baker. The panel concluded that issues of management quality and lack of clarity in role definitions and responsibilities were largely to blame. Unfortunately, the lessons learned in Texas did not prevent the Deepwater Horizon spill. Once certain patterns of behavior take root, they can be frustratingly slow to change even after they have been identified.