When The Leader Won’t Lead

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Note: our blog posts are written to be inclusive of gender-nonconforming and non-binary people; thus, you will see the pronoun “they” in many places where you would traditionally see he or she.

 

Why leaders won’t make difficult decisions or address conflict that the staff can’t resolve on its own: 

  1. Feel stuck, i.e., they can’t fix it alone or they don’t have the help or resources they need.
  2. Feel alone, i.e., they don’t have the support of their upline leader.
  3. Feel antagonized, i.e., they know their downline team is going to complain or be upset.
  4. They want their team to have ownership in the decision, but know their employees aren’t transparent or honest when they communicate. 
  5. They don’t have all of the information they want or need to make a decision.
  6. The answer is evolving and they would rather address the issue once, instead of dealing with iterations.
  7. They are worried about the consequences of making the wrong decisions.
  8. They are worried that the problem itself will be perceived as their personal failure. 
  9. They are afraid of surfacing conflict b/c they believe open conflict will worsen the existing problem. 
  10. Politics & Power. 

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Here’s why a leader/manager or should not go silent on dealing with problems: reputation damage and messaging. 

 

First, a leader’s decision not to address problems, regardless of the reason, has a direct impact on employee engagement. On one hand, employees live a frustrated existence when they cannot get the information they need or feel compelled to function in an unsupportive work environment. On the other hand, most employees will not repeatedly follow up with a leader/manager when it’s that the leader/manager they are frustrated with, especially if the situation is a recurring one. Moreover, how many times should an employee reach out to someone who has more authority than they do to say, “I have a problem or project that I can’t move on because I’m waiting on you to address a particular situation and I’ve brought this up before”? Is it fair to expect an employee to keep coming back and risk being seen as a nuisance or to mask long-term frustration at getting what they perceive as the run around? 

 

Just as inaction undermines engagement, it has a similar effect on a leader’s reputation. If a particular situation, whether it involves conflict or a difficult decision, goes unresolved for too long, employees will focus on finding plausible explanations for the leader’s behavior, which are usually negative. Further, employees tend to believe that managers and leaders are aware of the impact of inaction and their behavior. Whether a leader is or isn’t aware, they are still held accountable for that information. Even the legal system concurs that “ leaders should be aware” of how power dynamics impact people. Federal and State Courts have different standards of accountability for workplace harassment: peer-to-peer harassment versus harassment that occurs between employees of different levels of authority net different consequences. It is up to leaders to study their environment enough to identify mechanisms and build relationships that help them keep their fingers on the pulse of their team and organization. 

 

Finally, the leader’s behavior sends two other messages to the team. If a leader is so paralyzed that important decisions go unmade, even if the face of diminished productivity or morale, it must be because there is no margin for error or flexibility. Essentially, employees learn that there will be hell to pay if they aren’t perfect or make a mistake. In short, they learn fear. This fear will undermine your team’s ability to be creative or innovative because both involve risk-taking and making mistakes. Lastly, the more the team sees the pattern of inaction and its consequences, they will see that you do not trust them enough to be transparent about why things are the way that they are. In turn, they will become increasingly content to let you shoulder the burden of doing everything by yourself. This also means they will take less ownership in outcomes and see themselves primarily as implementers of your ideas, not as part of a team that works together to achieve the mission.

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