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strategy and business
 / Winter 2013 / Issue 73(originally published by Booz & Company)


Are You Your Employees’ Worst Enemy?

2. Do our leaders account for and respect the need for the organizational capacity required to carry out their strategic intent? Even if leaders are clear on strategic intent, they can do more harm than good if they fail to consider the resources required to deliver results. We found that a mere 26 percent of employees in successful organizations believe their leaders account for organizational capacity when rolling out initiatives.

A project leader from a biotech company described the problem bluntly: “They keep asking us to do more and more with less and less, to the point that we will be doing everything with nothing.” This project leader shared a glimpse of her typical day. “I come home at about 7 p.m., feed my family, and put my daughter to bed,” she said. “By 9 p.m., I’m back to work at the computer until about 3 a.m.”

She was victimized by a senior leader who was caught in the hindrance trap, but she confided that she was also setting unrealistic expectations for members of her team who, in turn, experienced similar work–life imbalances. She had essentially become a hindrance trap conduit, assuming that others would also do whatever it took to live up to the often highly unrealis-tic expectations of the senior leader. Such extra unreported hours can hide the human costs of organizational success.

For some organizations, it has become the norm to expect employees to work on six projects at 20 percent each, in addition to fulfilling a range of day-to-day responsibilities. Overloaded employees sometimes deliver remarkable results and make their bosses look good for a season, but they cannot sustain these high levels of productivity. Over time, the quality of their work declines and initiatives miss important deadlines.

3. Do our policies promote or inhibit effectiveness? Leaders at all levels in the organization set policies that govern how decisions are made and executed. We found that only 36 percent of employees in successful organizations believe their leaders set policies that help the organization achieve superior performance.

In considering these results, it’s important to differentiate between types of policies. Those designed to ensure regulatory or safety compliance might not aid superior performance, but avoiding the consequences of being out of compliance makes them necessary. But that’s just one type of policy. Many others tend to be based on the personal preferences of senior leaders or long-standing tradition and may not reinforce current best practices. For example, a senior leader in a pharmaceutical company we studied instituted a 10-slide limit for PowerPoint presentations, ostensibly to focus attention on the important issues. However, he was unwilling to relax the expectation that presenters should be prepared to discuss fine-grained detail on any number of different issues when called upon to do so during their presentation. Anxious presenters were known to labor over getting their presentations down to 10 slides, while producing 100 backup slides to address whatever questions might arise. The process became a huge time and attention sink.

General organizational policies that address the unique “do’s and don’ts” of an organization can also be problematic. Often, these do’s and don’ts are nothing more than a historical record of the way the company has always functioned, or a codification of the organizational or industry practices that worked best in the past. However, over time such policies can become outdated and lose their relevance. In fact, many once-useful policies might actually evolve to undermine effective work practices. Leaders may unwittingly find themselves hindering progress if they stifle constructive criticism of organizational norms and practices.

Some readers may have heard stories about a study that illustrates the inertia of business policies. Researchers placed five monkeys in a cage with a set of stairs in the middle leading to a banana, which dangled high above on a string. Whenever any monkey tried to climb the stairs, the other monkeys were sprayed with cold water. Soon, no monkey could touch the stairs without violent opposition.

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  1. Heike Bruch and Jochen I. Menges, “The Acceleration Trap,” Harvard Business Review, April 2010: Clear thinking on how leaders can get out of the way by reversing the effects of initiative overload.
  2. Ken Favaro, “We’re from Corporate and We’re Here to Help,” s+b [online only], Apr. 8, 2013: Sound prescriptions for shifting from hindering corporate governance to focus on truly helping BUs sustain profitability.
  3. Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters (Random House, 2011): A straightforward way to think about crafting and implementing actionable strategies that overcome obstacles to success.
  4. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at:
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