Updated: Jul 13, 2021
There is a silent cancer that has infiltrated the working world. Its impacts are truly insidious and have far-reaching consequences on employees. It creates bottlenecks where none need be, complacency within people who were once driven and passionate, and resentment within teams.
So what is this culture-killer? Some new management fad? Some poor leadership training?
Nope. It’s actually a mindset.--and a common one, to boot.
Specifically, it’s the mindset that has been hardwired into many of us over the years that if we work our way up in an organization, we can earn our way into a position where we no longer need to do the actual work of our teams, but where we can simply call the shots and delegate the work to other people. It stems from the idea that we can "earn our way" to a cushy title that requires little effort.
We’ve all had that boss who sat in meetings or on calls all day and told the rest of us what to do. They never offered to help cover our breaks, even if we hadn’t eaten 6 hours into our shift. Instead, they would tell us that we needed to wait for so-and-so to come back before we could take our break. Or maybe you’ve worked on a product team where the team lead saw their role as “Chief Decision-Maker.” They weren’t concerned with your needs, only that we’re behind schedule and need you to “pick it up.” No offers for support, no feedback on anything you were doing right, only negative feedback when you were messing up (in their eyes).
Now, think about that amazing leader that you had (I hope you had at least one). How did they show up? I bet they got into the trenches with you when you needed some help or coverage. I bet they considered your needs before issuing blind orders. They went out of their way to let you know when you did a great job.
The biggest difference between these leaders? Their mindset. The first manager saw their job as some sort of chess player, moving pieces around the board at their whim, making a play in which they felt like they were the one who would win. The second leader saw their role as a support to their team members. They saw their job as lessening the burden of the hard, unpleasant parts of work. Their job was to make your work easier and more enjoyable, not the other way around. Helping you out wasn’t an inconvenience, it WAS the job.
Unfortunately, leaders with this servant mindset are the exception these days, rather than the rule. Even in organizations with great purposes and values, it happens all the time. I’ve experienced it firsthand in not only my work with clients but even in idealistic organizations I’ve worked for. Once a certain rank or title is achieved (which rank or title depends on the org) the once hard-worker thinks to themself, “Ah, good. Now I can offload all of those not-fun things that have been on my plate.” And unfortunately, unless we’re intentional about how we design our systems and processes, it’s an easy, often consequence-free transition to this mindset.
So, as you think about developing leaders in your teams and organization, don’t think about this as just setting up trainings for them to attend. People-centric skills are only a part of the equation when it comes to healthy leadership practices in your organization. If you put good people in a bad system, the system will almost always win. We must be mindful of how we create our roles, set expectations, reward people, and define “leadership.” Any organization can fall victim, so we have to stay vigilant and be intentional through every part of the business.
Here are a few things you can do right now to avoid (or correct) this pitfall-
Examine the power dynamics in your teams. Does the team lead or manager have disproportionate authority versus their team members? Perhaps breaking up some of this centralized power to other team members and roles will help keep the focus on the work instead of the power.
Make sure your managers have specific, observable, and measurable accountabilities. Take a look at the job descriptions you have for your team leads. Are there vague words in there, like “manage,” “facilitate,” “lead,” or “ensure?” Often, these generic management terms create the space for the role-holder to dictate the work rather than do it. Make sure that they have some shared responsibilities with those that they manage to keep a healthy balance.
Re-evaluate your promotion practices. How are you communicating leadership roles to your employees? How are you evaluating those in leadership roles and what’s the feedback loop like? Are you unconsciously setting the expectation for your team members that when they become a leader that they are above the team they are meant to serve? Make sure that you’re rewarding leaders who are serving their team, not ones who are dictating and delegating—regardless of bottom-line number performance. If you reward managers just because they hit their numbers in spite of the fact that they treat their team members like second-class citizens, what you are communicating to your employees is that leaders here value numbers over people. And when that becomes normalized, the servant leader mindset becomes rare, creating resentment and tension within your teams.
Mindsets may initially be learned at the individual level, but they are reinforced, perpetuated, or discouraged by the systems into which we put people. Make sure yours are sending the right message, or the message you may start seeing from your team members will be, “Adios and good riddance.”