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No boss wakes up each morning wondering how to damage his or her company, but research by Bill Youngdahl shows many are oblivious that they are doing just that.

A majority of workers say projects and initiatives succeed not because of their leaders, but in spite of them, explains Youngdahl, who is an associate professor of project and operations leadership at Thunderbird School of Global Management. “The fact is, as a boss you might be hindering and not know it. There’s probably been a time when you’ve gotten in the way.”

“Most projects and initiatives succeed not because of their leaders, but in spite of them.” – Click to tweet

Youngdahl discussed his research with Denis Leclerc, a professor of cross-cultural communication at Thunderbird, in the webinar "How to Avoid Becoming a Hindering Leader," which is available on-demand.

Youngdahl’s research, conducted with another Thunderbird professor Kannan Ramaswamy, highlights the areas where workers say their leaders are lacking:

  • 51% of workers said their leaders hinder more than they help
  • 44% said leaders don’t communicate the purpose and reasons driving the work
  • 77% said leaders don’t ensure that workers have the resources they need to get the job done
  • 64% said their leaders aren’t setting and maintaining the organizational procedures that help achieve the stated goals

As for leaders who think the findings don’t apply to them because their teams are performing well: these results are from successful companies, not failing ones.

So true leaders, Youngdahl says, may need to change their leadership styles if they want better efficiency and buy-in from their workers.

“Babies like to be changed,” Youngdahl says. “Adults, we typically don’t like to change. So the most important thing is to get some early wins, to be able to point to them when you say you want results.”

“The fact is, as a boss you might be hindering your team and not know it.” – Click to tweet

Learning to be helpful

Fortunately, each type of hindrance has a relatively straightforward manner in which it can be overcome. For instance, leaders can set organizational policies and procedures inclusively. Soliciting feedback from employees on the policies not dictated by law or ethics forces workers and bosses alike to think broadly about what is being asked of them, Youngdahl says. Aligning clarity of purpose with best methods will force leaders to see how organizations should be working.

“Many high-performing teams are renegade teams because they really focus on what they’re trying to achieve, which may be at odds with official policies or procedures,” he says. “Sometimes they’re punished for that way of thinking, when they should be rewarded.”

“Aligning clarity of purpose with best methods forces leaders to see how the organization should be working.” – Click to tweet

Aligning expectations with capacity is another area where leaders can relatively easily overcome hindrances. Too often, Youngdahl says, leaders overload their teams with initiatives, without considering project portfolio management. That is, not every project can be a priority. Leadership requires clear decision-making on what tasks matter most and whether the organization has the capacity to do them well. Even passionate workers can’t be expected to routinely work into the wee hours to accomplish daily demands.

“Misalignment of capacity and expectations is a hidden cost of productivity,” Youngdahl says. 

Clarify what and why

As leaders focus on those issues, they will naturally develop better communication skills. Effective communication is more than just seeking input and laying out strategies, though. Strong communication starts with a leader clarifying what needs to be done and why it needs to be done, from a business perspective.

“Clarify what needs to be done and WHY it needs to be done, from a business perspective.” – Click to tweet

Once intent is clear throughout the organization, it will naturally reduce other disconnects, such as that between strategy and reality when it comes to resources.

Leaders must be willing to question the foundation of their success. Even greater success lies ahead, Youngdahl says, if bosses are willing to take that first step to move from unaware to enlightened. “Start by asking the question, ‘Could I be hindering my employees?’” Youngdahl says.

“In many organizations, for many leaders, the answer is a very strong yes.”

Bill Youngdahl and Denis Leclerc will discuss these concepts, and many others, in the 4-day executive education course Leading Diverse Teams for Collaborative Results, which runs September 27-30 on the Thunderbird campus in Glendale, Arizona. This course helps attendees develop sophisticated and relevant skills for managing people and projects across cultures and time zones in a business environment characterized by less time, smaller budgets and fewer resources.

Join the discussion! Had a boss who stood in your way? Been a leader lulled in a sense of accomplishment and needing to do more? Share your story on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

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