Your team loves you. You love them. So why do they fall just short of goals? Or let things fall through the cracks? Or never aim higher?
Sit down, because you might not take this well. The problem might be you, dear leader.
Sometimes, good managers do stupid things that sabotage teams.
The bigger problem: Managers often don’t recognize their mistakes. So they can’t control or stop themselves.
Gov’t taught us to sabotage teams!
Here’s something you might find amazing about sabotage in the workplace. In 1944, the government de-classified a training manual on simple sabotage. CIA agents printed and handed out portions of the booklet to anyone who wanted to “inflict sabotage through ordinary means.”
The booklet had sections for specific audiences including “Managers and Supervisor” and “Employees”! (You can download it through the link above, or listen to it here.)
At that time, the government wanted civilians to sabotage teams and co-workers to help end WWII. But guess what: The tactics they suggested — for instance, create unpleasant work conditions by making it more difficult for employees to get the tools they need and foster poor decision-making by bickering or playing stupid — were used and forgotten.
Team sabotage today
Today, many of these tactics have made their way back into the workplace.
Of course, managers don’t want to sabotage their teams. But they unwittingly do with actions and words that confuse, undermine or upset their teams.
“Unconscious psychological processes can sabotage individual lives, the functioning of groups, teams and organizations, and even global politics,” says Michael Drayton in his book, The Saboteur at Work. “If you manage a team or lead an organization, you need to understand the role played by the saboteur in your workplace and in your own career and life.”
To help your people succeed, you want to avoid these top six ways managers sabotage teams:
1. Living, working in the past
Great leaders are at the top of their game because they’ve learned and honed great management strategies. But even the best of those strategies deserve a little scrutiny from time to time.
Sabotage-causing problem is, we tend to stick with what we know longer than it’s actually useful. Some leadership tactics and trends actually go out of style before you give them up. So you bring prior experiences, assumptions and interpretations of success into everyday decisions — even though so much has changed.
Fix it: Form or get involved in groups with other leaders from different backgrounds, tenures and lines of business to share and discuss best management practices.
2. Overcomplicating things
In an effort to gain or maintain credibility, some managers overcomplicate things. They explain too much to highlight their authority. Or use too many complex words to sound smart. Or drop too many names to appear important.
Some experts call the overdoing it an imposter syndrome. But even leaders who aren’t afraid of “being found out,” overcomplicate things because they don’t believe enough in their employees.
“Bad managers often feel the need to control every aspect of their team’s work,” says Bonnie Low Kramen, author of of Staff Matters: People-Focused Solutions for the Ultimate New Workplace. “They don’t trust their employees to do their jobs, which leads to frustration and low morale.”
Fix it: When you feel you need to give more detail, qualify a request or justify a decision, stop. Give employees the minimum, inviting them to ask questions if they need more. Then, and as long as they do the right things with what you’ve shared, give them more autonomy going forward.
Sometimes managers project their emotions and reactions to situations beyond themselves — straight down to their employees, who tend to absorb the negative kind more easily.
The most disastrous emotion: stress. Managers who instinctively react to situations with outward signs of stress usually cause their team to feel overwhelmed and unprepared to handle it. They’re set up for failure.
Fix it: It’s not a simple fix to just change the way you respond to stressful situations. First, it calls for the reminder that you likely can’t change the situation, but you can change how you respond to it. Secondly, turn to a group of trusted managers to share your situation and get suggestions on how to handle it and cope with the emotions.
Alright, we get it: You’re the boss and you get to make the rules. But when a boss lives and dies by “the rules,” the team will likely fail under them.
If the pandemic years has taught us anything, it’s the need for flexibility in the workplace — and the resilience of our workforce. Given difficult circumstances, employees in most places proved they could produce under almost any conditions. Yet, some leaders remain rigid in their approach to managing teams, and the structure suffocates them.
Fix it: Check your rules. Just because they work for you doesn’t mean they work for everyone all the time. “Managing is not about power and control. It’s about creating a safe and supportive environment where people can do their best work,” says Low Kramen.
5. Over analysis
I had a colleague who used hand work to her boss, keeping a tight grip on the bottom of the paper (yes, I’m from an era that we handed over actual paper!) Then she’d pull back, saying she needed to make another change. She told me once, “I just can’t let go of my copy.”
She over analyzed everything. You know where it got her? Nowhere. It was and is analysis paralysis. Her work was late, others refused to rely on her and her career stalled.
Too many managers — especially new ones — overanalyze, fearing they’ll get something wrong. So their teams can’t move forward.
Fix it: Stop holding on to that sheet of paper and accept that you’ll learn from mistakes — if you even make one.
6. Seeking consensus
And then there are the bosses who won’t make a decision until everyone agrees or they force employees to see it their way. They seek and cause groupthink, which hurts team creativity and effectiveness.
Some conflict and pushback is OK, often leading to more critical-thinking, better problem-solving and breakthrough ideas.
Fix it: Become an inner cynic. Poke holes in your ideas first, if you must, to get the team to offer more constructive criticism. Leave behind the need for harmony and consensus.
“It’s about being a mentor, a coach, and a cheerleader, as well as a boss,” says Low Kramen. “It’s about recognizing that you don’t have all the answers, and that your success is ultimately tied to the success of your team.”