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Avoid the Pitfall of Indirect Authority

Isn’t it annoying when management bobbles the ball, and then can’t understand why the rest of the team is stumbling around in disarray instead of flawlessly executing plays?

Performance can be compromised when a senior executive is on the road much of the time, and leaves her staff in the care of another exec; or the senior leader is one of those bellow-and-scream types who just doesn’t deal with the day-to-day, but launches himself into the daily dynamic when he’s personally upset. And in a matrixed organization, compromises can exist almost by necessity where the “dotted line” manager is more hands-on than the direct manager.

Watch out for cases where performance management is remanded to a “second manager” who doesn’t have the formal authority to deal with performance problems, lacks the bandwidth to supervise to a sufficiently developmental extent, or perhaps disagrees with the primary manager about how to handle individual performance issues. Any of these circumstances can lead to staff disengagement, inefficiency, and negative business consequences.

Misguided Misdirection

Following are three sad examples of indirect authority; see if you’ve participated in or been affected by anything like them:

The “Because I’ve Had Enough” Boss:

A frontline supervisor recognizes that an employee is underperforming, but doesn’t have the authority to take corrective action other than by “giving feedback” — which eventually turns into nagging when the supervisor is not permitted to impose consequences and the senior manager doesn’t choose to. The rest of the staff resents the non-performer and sees that the supervisor has little real control.

The underperforming employee goes on her merry way. The supervisor grows increasingly frustrated because he recognizes that his staff perceives him as weak and ineffective. Finally the manager gets so fed up with the employee’s inadequacies that he insists that she be fired immediately. When the employee is abruptly let go, the supervisor and manager both look arbitrary and erratic, and the rest of the staff becomes fearful and less disrupted.

The “Just Sweep Around Me” Boss:

A senior exec works directly with a difficult employee in a “creative” functional area, but permits him to maintain a variety of negative and ineffective behaviors. When the exec loses patience with the employee’s disruptive behavior, she bucks the disciplinary intervention to an operations manager who is “used to dealing with that sort of thing.”

But the senior exec’s direction to the ops manager is effectively, “Don’t interfere with his work, just improve his behavior and delivery.” The ops manager has to dance around the reality that conduct and content are intertwined. The rest of the staff recognizes that the senior exec plays favorites, and that the ops manager lacks real authority.

The “Absentee Landlord” Boss:

A department manager has responsibility at multiple facilities and is on the road more than she’s at headquarters. While she’s away, her staff is supposed to “consult” with other managers on premises when they need an “authority-on-the-spot,” but the planned organizational changes go awry based on each of the substitute managers’ perceptions and preferences.

When the department manager returns, she expresses frustration with her direct reports for not doing and handling things the way she wanted. Her staff is confused and resentful — after all, they’ve been struggling on their own with conflicting direction from a whole bunch of substitute managers. Meanwhile, the planned activities haven’t occurred, and customers have been adversely affected.

Redirected Direction

Remember the old saw about there being “no responsibility without authority”: Any authority figure who has to interact directly with staff must have the skill to provide the feedback about consequences and the backup from higher levels needed to carry out those actions.

Skill development and clarity are necessary all the way up the chain — if senior executives are currently incapable of managing staff directly, they need remediation. And if senior execs are incapable of doing the hard work of direct supervision and development — or they’re unwilling — the organization will suffer the consequences until it takes a stand.

Onward and upward,


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