When well meaning senior leaders rob managers of their authority

Dear Joan:
Have you ever encountered an organization where the employees frequently go two, three or more levels above their supervisor to complain? We have a few VP’s and a COO who have open door policies. Employees feel comfortable bringing all sorts of complaints about their supervisors and /or managers to them.   

These Executives think they are being accessible and they like the idea of “defending the little guy.” Managers are not necessarily reprimanded, but they are frequently told to just leave the employee alone, or be nicer to the employee. As a result, managers have little authority to address performance and behavior issues with their employees. I am interested in your comments about how managers can regain their authority in a situation like this.   

This is Hero Management at its best.  To understand the repercussions of a management practice such as this, imagine what would happen if your own parents lived with you and your children used their “open door policy” to complain about every unpopular decision you made. If you imposed a curfew of 11 pm for your 16-year old, for example, Grandpa would overrule you and scold you that you were too strict. He’d admonish you with,  “You have to be nicer to that boy.” Your son would soon find it pays to stay on the good side of Grandpa and ignore you.  

The “Chain of Command” has an antiquated ring to it, but it serves a valuable purpose. Problems are better solved at the appropriate level. If the chain of command is skipped and authority only exists at the top, there is no need for layers of management with decision-making authority, and all employees should report directly to the senior officer (which, of course, would be unwieldy to manage).   

The senior managers, in the organization you describe, are having a gay old time playing grandparents. They have all the fun and little of the daily hard work and responsibility when it comes to actually resolving all sides of the problems they are hearing about.    

They feel like heroes but they are actually saboteurs. By robbing their managers of their authority, they are weakening their own organization. They are limiting the growth of their company, since their time is spent meddling in the wrong issues. The best managers will leave. The line outside their doors will grow and the problems will get more complex. Playing hero will have a price.  

To turn this situation around, the executives need to adopt a different strategy. They can still keep their open door policy, but when someone from several layers down, walks through them with a concern, here is what they should do:   

Chain of Command Complaint Resolution:

  • The senior manager should listen to the person’s concern and ask for specific examples, facts and how it is negatively affecting the person’s work. 
  • Don’t take sides. 
  • Ask the person for a detailed account about what they have done about it and how they have worked with their own manager to resolve it. 
  • If the person has skipped their own manager, or didn’t like the answer they received, the senior manager should send the person back to resolve it with their own manager first. (The employee shouldn’t be sent back to his/her own manager, if there is a charge of discrimination or harassment. In these cases, an investigation should ensue.) 
  • If the individual doesn’t feel equipped to talk with his or her own manager, the senior officer should coach the person on an approach. (The senior manager should not do the talking for the employee.) 
  • The senior manager can ask the employee to report back on how it went. This is intended to hold the person accountable for following through. 
  • The senior manager can inquire about the progress of the issue with the employee and the manager but shouldn’t be the mediator unless the first steps of the process have failed.

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) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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