It’s not secret that complaining about the boss is part of the culture of many teams and organizations. The person in charge is an easy target and a certain amount of healthy griping about the boss may be cathartic for his or her subordinates. It creates a common bond on teams where any form of bonding can help strengthen relationships and possibly performance.
When working with clients in consulting environments or working with teams in workshops, I tend to tune out background boss chatter until the tone and content of the conversation crosses what I call the Performance Line. This line is crossed when it becomes clear to me that the performance of an individual or a team is being held hostage by a weak leader.
In my recent post, Weak Leadership at the Top Derails the Pursuit of Performance Excellence, I characterize the problem as follows: Instead of overwhelming their associates with strict orders in pursuit of rigid targets, they (weak leaders) default on their responsibility to set direction in a poorly constructed attempt to create an environment of empowerment. The results of this approach include endless discussions without resultant actions and massive frustration of well-intended personnel that want to move projects and ideas forward.
If you are working for someone that resembles this description, it can be a truly debilitating experience, especially if your nature is to drive and to innovate and experiment in pursuit of success. Working for a weak leader can make you feel like you are running the Boston Marathon with your feet permanently encased in concrete.
I’ve worked with teams to identify ideas to help people break out of the concrete shoes created by a weak leader. Here are some of the suggestions that they’ve come up with as they’ve talked through this dilemma. Perhaps one or more of these will work for you.
Five Non-confrontational Suggestions for Coping and Even Prospering Under a Well-Meaning but Weak Leader
1. Make the leader the hero. Not all weak leaders are bad people, and sometimes a dose of self-confidence is just what the doctor ordered. Talk with this individual, paint a picture of how things will be different when the initiative in question is successful. Show that you and your team have done a good job isolating and planning for the risks, and tie the expected outcomes back to organizational objectives or in the case of nonprofits, organizational missions.
2. Build Coalitions Across Your Peer Group. A weak leader tends to create a vacuum of decision-making. This vacuum can be filled by the leader’s subordinates aligned around the common need for action. This is not a confrontational coalition, but rather a working coalition that moves things forward in spite of the leader.
3. Recognize the Psychology of the Weak Leader and Use Judo on It. The weak leader syndrome is frequently a function of a lack of self-confidence, fear of having to say no to a subordinate and upsetting them, and perhaps fear of team mistakes shining directly on the leader. This same person has a need to succeed, a desire to be liked and wants to feel that he or she has a voice in the direction. Leverage this leader as you would a counselor. Ask for help in framing solutions (even if it has already been framed), and make the leader very genuinely feel like an advisor and coach. Make it comfortable for him or her to give feedback, and encourage this at every opportunity. Involve the leader in brainstorming or in status reviews and do an extraordinary job of highlighting progress and or problems and how they are being handled.
4. Coach the Leader. In spite of the lofty position, top leaders are often hungry for feedback and interested in receiving coaching from people that they trust. Create opportunities for discussions that are not all about you. If the leader provides an opening (many will), ask a few open ended questions about how things are going, what it’s like to deal with the Board etc., and shut up and let him or her talk. It is amazing how lonely it can be at the top, and this act of listening can do a great deal of good in gaining the trust of a leader.
5. Learn to Understand the Priorities of the Leader. Applying several of the approaches above will help you understand the leader’s individual priorities (personal and professional). This knowledge is priceless if you and your peers use it to help the leader meet his or her targets.
The Bottom-Line for Now
Learning to manage your team leader takes time and requires extraordinary care and handling. Being indecisive and failing to set direction are big shortcomings for a leader, but leaders that carry these attributes are all too common. You and your peers can either let the water-cooler complaints dominate the daily agenda or you can do something about it. Teams and individuals that have leveraged some or all of the suggestions above have reported some nice successes. No complete cures, but some nice successes and sustained progress in the right direction. When your feet are cast in concrete, progress of any kind is good.