Senior managers with good intentions can undermine their managers’ authority

I have a problem that I don’t think you have written about before and I hope you can help me. My boss is what I would call a “power rejecter.” He claims he doesn’t like power and doesn’t want power. He thinks that power is a bad thing and makes people arrogant and egotistical. Unfortunately, he tries to be “one of us.”  I say “unfortunately” because he keeps trying to be our buddy instead of our boss.  

He has a hard time making a decision and wants us to discuss everything in detail before he feels comfortable that we have consensus. I and my fellow managers are being meetinged to death! Also, if one person on our team doesn’t agree completely, he sometimes goes in to our manager’s office and tries to make a pitch for his point of view. But we have already spent a couple of hours discussing the topic already as a group! This is very frustrating.  

Lately, several disgruntled employees have gone in to see our manager to complain about several of the managers (me included). Unfortunately, these employees got a very warm reception and a willing listener. Our manager completely took their side and was very accusatory with me and another manager about what the employees told him. He only knew half the story about this situation but because he wants to be seen as a good guy to the employees, he took their side. We were very angry and insulted. Do you have any ideas about how to make him understand that by refusing to use his power he is making things worse? 

Answer:

The problem is that your manager is confusing having the authority with being authoritarian. Your manager has power whether he wants it or not, by virtue of his position. It’s not something he can ignore or pretend doesn’t exist. His actions and words have weight, his opinions count, and his decisions—or lack of them—impact everyone in his organization. 

He is what I call a “reluctant leader.” He wants to stay in the background and make everyone happy. He doesn’t want to make a tough decision, for fear he will be seen as throwing his power around. Meanwhile, the department (or company—in the case of a reluctant CEO) becomes dysfunctional because of the pushing and pulling, lobbying and manipulating, backstabbing and grandstanding that goes on when there is a power vacuum. 

Some of these situations are as predictable as rain and you are already seeing the clouds form. For instance, the employees may have had innocent intentions when they went to complain to him (after all, most leaders today have an “open door policy”). But when they see that he will side with them, without so much as a fact-finding conversation with the managers involved, they will quickly see that their managers have no real authority. Why should they try to resolve things with their own manager, when it’s so much easier to go straight to their buddy at the top? 

Your fellow manager is doing a version of the same behavior. He is bypassing the regular meeting format to do an end run around the rest of you to lobby for his position. 

Your manager is going to become the “complaint department” and he will be dragged into petty problems and find himself the judge and jury of every perceived “wrong.” He is likely to become very frustrated and worn out trying to be everyone’s friend.  

I suggest that you (and perhaps your fellow managers) ask him for his support. Appeal to his desire to be helpful to his management team. Start with one area: end runs. For example, you could say, “I know consensus decision-making is important to you but we get frustrated when we spend time hammering out a decision only to find out someone has gone in to see you later about a view they didn’t bring up during the meeting. It’s not a productive use of your time or ours.  

One suggestion we have is to add a few ground rules to our meetings: Silence is agreement (that means that a participant can’t sit in a meeting and say nothing and later disagree with our decision after the meeting). Another ground rule for managers’ meetings could be: Disagree in private but be united in public. The leaders need to be united and consistent, so employees don’t play one against the other. It would also force us to come up with decisions we can all live with.” Suggest that if one of the managers tries to lobby him, he should stop the conversation by reminding the person of the groundrules and suggesting that the new view be discussed during the staff meeting with everyone present. 

Regarding the employees doing end runs around their managers, tell your manager that it isn’t fair to put him in that position, without knowing all the facts. Request that he send the employee back to the manager to resolve it at that level first. Then, if it doesn’t get resolved at the manager/employee level, his involvement with both parties may be needed. Explain how it diminishes each manager’s role, if the employees feel that the only person in the department with any real authority and power is him—the very “power” he never wanted to have.


Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 354-9500, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
 
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