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


Are You Your Employees’ Worst Enemy?

The researchers then removed one monkey and replaced it with an outsider. To the newcomer’s surprise and horror, all the other monkeys blocked its way to the banana. After two attempts and attacks, the new monkey gave up its quest for the banana.

Next the researchers removed another of the original five monkeys and replaced it with a new one. As expected, the newcomer went to the stairs and was pulled back. Joining the attack was the previous newcomer, who took part in the punishment with enthusiasm. One by one, all the original monkeys were replaced, until none had ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approached the stairs to reach the banana. As far as they knew, this was just “the way we do things around here.”

The three questions addressing strategic clarity, organizational capacity, and soundness of policies are crucial in identifying the extent to which leaders might be hindering more than helping. Leaders can’t afford to avoid these questions simply because they are achieving a high degree of success or because they may not like the answers. They need to consider how much better their people could perform with help rather than hindrance.

Planning Your Escape

Freeing yourself from the hindrance trap requires a certain degree of vulnerability (see Exhibit 3). You need to be willing to honestly examine your role in hindering or helping progress along an organization’s strategic pathways. At the risk of sounding like a 12-step program, the first step in escaping the hindrance trap is to recognize that you have a problem. Looking back at the disasters that struck BP under his watch, former CEO John Browne observed in his memoir, Beyond Business: An Inspirational Memoir from a Visionary Leader (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2010), “I wish someone had challenged me and been brave enough to say: ‘We need to ask more disagreeable questions.’” The challenge is to hone one’s self-awareness well before disasters strike.

Bosses caught in the hindrance trap frequently find out only after the damage has been done. But some enlightened leaders do have the self-awareness to discover, and the courage to admit, that they are getting in the way—and to take corrective action. Consider the case of Ralph Stayer, the CEO and cofounder of Johnsonville Foods. Stayer recognized that he had hindered the ability of employees to take on responsibilities and hold themselves accountable for positive performance. Of both his own transformation and that of Johnsonville Foods, Stayer wrote in First Person: Tales of Management Courage and Tenacity (Harvard Business School Press, 1996), “If I was going to fix what I had made, I would have to start by fixing myself.”

Stayer knew that changing company results would require a change in the way he led. Instead of simply declaring a new strategic direction, he sought more up-front engagement and accountability from those involved in the work of implementing those plans. Strategic intent was clearly communicated throughout the organization. He cut the layers of hierarchy from six to three, which helped ensure a shared understanding of the real organizational capacity required to deliver results. Revenues, margins, productivity, and quality all improved significantly.

Stayer admitted that he had been blinded by the earlier success and growth of Johnsonville; he believed success was the biggest obstacle to personal and organizational change. He realized that the control he had over the organization was misdirected and that he had become too removed from day-to-day realities as the structure of the organization had evolved.

Toward Clarity of Purpose

The second step in escaping the hindrance trap is to clarify leaders’ intent. If you are the CEO, then the solution focuses on you. If you are a leader somewhere in the middle of the organization, the solution focuses on both you and others. You need to seek clarity as much as deliver it.

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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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