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Employees Leadership

Shadow leadership

This past weekend, I was listening to an employee share what to them was a collaborative way to solve a problem with the behavior of their customers. These employees organized a meeting among themselves because they weren’t getting sufficient support from their leadership regarding the behavior of their customers. This behavior is a pretty important factor in the successful outcome of the employees’ work.

The interesting thing about this meeting is that the supervisor of these employees is the second-most senior leader in the entire company. This person was not invited to the meeting. In part, they seem to be creating the problem by not carrying their weight leadership-wise, but it’s more complex than that. Remember, part of the role of leadership is supporting your employees and removing roadblocks from their path.

To be sure, some of those roadblocks are the employees’ responsibility. In this particular situation, that’s not the case. The unfortunate thing about this second in command is that they’re essentially first in command on a day to day basis for everything except legal and finance.

The second in command is failing to handle a sizable part of their leadership role because neither the number one leader nor the Board of Directors appear to be fulfilling some parts of their leadership role.

Danger has trailing indicators

When it comes to work that impacts metrics, KPIs, “your numbers”, etc, a lack of effort on your part shows up fairly soon and becomes obvious. When your lack of effort involves leadership, it’s harder to find numbers to tell the tale. Poor leadership has a trailing indicators. You know it when you see it – but if it’s coming from you, the metrics that inform you that you’re not getting it done might not be visible for months or even years.

If you’re not taking care of your responsibilities, someone else has to pick up the slack. Work piles up and metrics trend negative when this happens with measurable work. A lack of effort on work that’s not easy to measure is more difficult to see, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t piling up. In some cases, it’s rolling downhill to your employees and negatively impacting their work.

There’s not enough time, energy, and/or mental bandwidth to do that extra work. This is particularly challenging when the work is not the role of these employees (not within their authority) and/or it involves work they haven’t been trained for, such as leadership. In some cases, leadership duties may even involve work your team cannot legally perform.

The mental bandwidth to get that work done tends to be much higher than the typical bandwidth required for that employee to do their job. It’s very stressful to do your boss’s job, particularly when you have no authority to do so. Your team knows this can come back to bite them, but they’re often forced to make the least negative choice.

Shadow leadership is often born of neglect

We discussed “shadow IT” some time ago. Shadow IT is born when a company’s IT group is such a pain to work with, and is so difficult to get work out of for one reason or another, that a department becomes their own IT staff. They do their own purchasing and their own organization because they have expectations to fill. They have work to get done and they cannot afford to wait for an unresponsive IT department to do their job.

Shadow leadership has similar roots.

When I talked to this employee about their organization, it was clear that there aren’t too many things that I can do to help them because of the nature of the organization itself. I mentioned that if I was on the board of directors, I’d want to know about these situations.

The number one and number two leaders work at the pleasure of the board of directors. If directors don’t know that the employees are being forced to take on duties they have no business dealing with, the board can’t take steps to address the issue. An uninformed board of directors will never see that this unmeasurable work isn’t getting done by reviewing the monthly / quarterly reports they receive from leadership – not because they’re hidden, but because they have no metrics.

Until someone steps up

After numerous conversations about this situation, I suggested that this group of employees needs to find a way to get this scenario in front of one of the board of directors.

Once the director understands the situation with the second in command, they can discuss it with the rest of the directors, determine if the concern is legitimate, assess if the situation is being interpreted correctly, and determine what (if any) action to take.

It’s important to note that this is not me suggesting that employees go outside the “chain of command” as a first attempt to solve the problem. Anything but that, in fact. It’s critical that attempts to communicate this situation to anyone in your chain of command are done with humility because you don’t know what you don’t know.

I already know that this team has repeatedly attempted to address the situation with the number two leader (their manager), but have been turned away because that leader doesn’t have time to deal with the customer behavior issues these employees face. Other evidence presented to me indicates this (in part) prompted by a consistent lack of leadership from the number one leader, who is on their way out the door and as such appears to be treading water until their exit.

Leaders interested in preventing a situation like this should be asking their people what’s keeping them from getting their work done. That’s not the same as “Why aren’t you getting your work done”, or “Why aren’t you getting enough work done?”, or similar questions that won’t yield the right answers.

Questions like “What obstacles consistently come up that impede your work?” and “What work that’s outside of your role / authority is falling to you and/or is creating a situation that’s keeping you from being as effective as you want to be?” not only make it clear you aren’t asking about work output, but that you’re looking for environmental and process-related clues. You want to find out what’s getting in the way of their work and what’s taking time away from the work your team knows they’re accountable for. That’s part of what you’re accountable for.

Some leaders won’t ask

Unfortunately, some leaders won’t ask these questions. As employees, you have to try the chain of command. It’s the right thing to do and it’s what your leaders deserve, until it doesn’t work. It’s what you would expect of your team in the same situation. Still, it doesn’t work.

If you’ve made a legitimate effort to communicate these problems up the chain of command and the situation continues, then you have at least three choices.

  • Get over it. It’s possible that leadership knows more about this than you think. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask leadership to help you understand their decision so that your concern about it can be abated. They may have more data / context than you. Some of it may involve information that cannot be shared, but there is almost always a way to explain a decision to allay the team’s concerns.
  • Leave. Choose other employment / retire / start your own company.
  • Break the chain of command. Skip over a level or two of the chain of command and explain why you’re doing so when you report your concerns, making sure to be clear that you’ve already (perhaps repeatedly) attempted to use the chain of command. How you approach this makes all the difference. It must be clear (and true) that your concerns are for the good of the company and that you’re reporting these concerns because you don’t see any alternative. This can’t be about a class of personalities or egos. Again as in the first option, you need to be aware that you might simply be wrong or not have all the information needed to understand the situation.

Situationally aware

Leaders, all this is on you. your employees can only do so much, because there are some of you who will ignore them. Others will lose their mind with anger when they go around you because they felt they had no choice. You’re the one who may fire somebody who goes around the chain of command because your chain of command isn’t working. Employees know that. And yet, they will risk telling you anyway because the good of the company is that important to them.

You should consider that before you decide it’s a good idea to fire the people who had the gumption to tell you about something that’s not working.

Leadership isn’t an innate skill we magically wake up with. It’s learned. In fact, your team is learning it from you every day. Is your behavior a good instructor?

Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash