From Bottleneck to Breakthrough: How to Address Leadership as the Root Cause of Team Challenges

In many organizations, the leader is often perceived as the backbone of team success (and is often measured this way, even when they might not know what is happening right under their noses). However, there are instances where the leader themselves might become the root cause of team challenges. Identifying and addressing this delicate issue can be fraught with potential conflicts and fears, making it a topic that the majority prefer to skirt around rather than confront – which impacts not only the individuals, but also the team dynamics, culture and performance! In this article, we explore the common scenarios where leadership may inadvertently hinder team performance, and offer practical advice on navigating these sensitive situations, with examples.

Here are some of the the more common scenarios where leadership impedes progress or team dynamics:

  • Lack of clarity in vision and goals: more common than you think is a leader’s inability to clearly articulate the team’s objectives and expectations can lead to confusion and inefficiency. Team members may find themselves working towards different goals, or worse, working counterproductively to each other, other teams or the organizations growth objectives.
  • Resistance to feedback: leaders who do not welcome or actively seek feedback are usually blind to their shortcomings and those of the team. This resistance, typically show up with a lack of self awareness, low EQ, or ego-led fear, can stifle innovation and deter team members from voicing their valuable insights, and have them stopped, stuck or struggling for extended periods of time, or until it’s too late.
  • The bottleneck leader: in some cases, leaders can become obstacles themselves by insisting on approving all decisions, no matter how minor, which slows down operations and frustrates team members. This usually occurs when a leader wants to maintain ‘control’ for one reason or another.
  • Favoritism: favoritism can demoralize a team. When leaders consistently favor certain individuals over others, whether in task delegation, rewards, or professional opportunities, it can lead to resentment and a decline in team morale. This feeds the normalization of mediocrity and the 80/20 rule when the expectation is only 20% of the team will be high performers.
  • Lack of competence: (we’ve all come across this leader at some point)… leaders who find themselves promoted or hired into roles that exceed their current capabilities can create a gap in guidance and decision-making, leaving the team directionless, uncertain and frustrated. It can also create resentment within the team with higher skilled individuals that will impact morale and dynamics. If a leader is unaware, or unwilling to acknowledge the need for help or gaps in their abilities, this can have devastating impact on a teams’ ability to perform.
  • Fear of confrontation: often, team members might recognize the issues stemming from leadership but choose to remain silent due to fear of retribution or disrupting the peace, either because of the current environment, or past negative experience in a similar situation. This fear, coupled with a lack of skill in providing constructive feedback, leaves issues unaddressed, allowing them to fester and potentially worsen. This creates at best a disconnect, and at work eventual toxicity in a team.

So how is this best addressed?

Handling a situation where the leader is the problem in team dynamics requires a careful, strategic approach that respects both the leader as a person and their position, while addressing the issues impacting the team and their ability to perform. 

If you haven’t tried providing feedback yet, here’s a guide on how to navigate this challenging situation:

  • Assess the situation: before taking any action, it’s crucial that you take the time to understand the issues. Identify specific behaviors or decisions by the leader that are causing challenges. Work to get a comprehensive view of the issues.
  • Seek support: if you’re not in a position to address the leader directly, consider seeking advice or support from HR or another trusted advisor within your organization who understands its dynamics and can offer guidance on the best approach.
  • Use constructive feedback: leverage a structured feedback model, like the A.E.I.O.U. model (example below), to communicate with the leader. This approach helps keep the discussion focused on specific behaviors and their impact, rather than personal attributes or personal criticism, which can help prevent defensiveness. Remove the blame and “you” and instead focus on “when x happens, I experience y”.
  • Focus on the impact: as part of the suggested A.E.I.O.U model, focus on how the leader’s actions affect you, the team’s performance, morale, and outcomes. Leaders are often more receptive to feedback that is framed in terms of outcomes and objectives.
  • Suggest actionable solutions: rather than just presenting problems, propose clear, actionable solutions. For example, if the leader is a bottleneck, suggest specific changes to the decision-making process that could help alleviate the issue. Or if meetings are creating too much time burden, offer a new solution to share updates.
  • Offer support and resources: (depending on your position and ability to have this conversation) leaders, like anyone else, can benefit from support and resources to improve their skills. Suggesting training in areas like communication, delegation, and leadership can be a constructive part of the conversation.
  • Follow-up and monitor progress: after the initial discussion, it’s important to follow up to monitor progress and provide ongoing support. Change often takes time, and regular check-ins can help maintain momentum and adjust strategies as needed.
  • Prepare for different outcomes: Be prepared for various outcomes, including resistance or denial from the leader. If the leader is unresponsive to feedback and no change occurs, it may be necessary to escalate the issue within the organization or seek support as mentioned above.

Regardless of what you think of the leader, it is really important to handle such situations with empathy, professionalism, and a focus on solutions. 

Here is an example of the A.E.I.O.U (Wisinski) model in action:

Ask, acknowledge and assume the best intention: “I know that you work hard to make this team run smoothly and efficiently, and that you like to know what is happening at all times.”

Express your feelings: “I, too, want to work in an efficient environment, however I am feeling slowed down when I am sitting in daily updates covering off the same details about what I am working on”

Identify what you would like to happen: “I propose giving you a full report of my work at a specific time, once a week, rather than on a daily basis, and if there is any major change I can report that immediately.”

Outcome expected: “I anticipate that the weekly reports will give you a clear and concise view of the status of all projects, your time will be saved, and I will have a little more flexibility and time back for work. Would that work?”

Understanding on a mutual basis: “I understand that we’ve agreed to try this plan for a month to see how it goes and then review it to see if it meets both our needs.”

Here are some other strategies we recommend to address leadership challenges:

  • Cultivate a feedback forward environment: encourage leaders and their teams to foster an open environment where feedback is not only accepted but sought after. Tools such as 360-degree or peer reviews to gather feedback can be invaluable.
  • Training and development: continuous (not one and done) professional development for leaders and their teams should be a priority. Workshops on emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, and effective communication can equip leaders with the skills necessary to handle diverse team dynamics.
  • Implement clear processes and SOP’s: we see this time and time again, that simple fixes that deliver clear processes for decision-making and project management can help alleviate bottlenecks. Empowering team members with certain decision-making powers can also help in this regard, and will also enable accountability and responsibility. 
  • Promote open communication and transparency: regular open discussions about projects, challenges, and the team’s direction can promote transparency and a sense of collective responsibility.
  • Conflict resolution and communications training: both leaders and team members should be trained in conflict resolution and how to communicate effectively, including giving & receiving feedback and having difficult conversations, to ensure that confrontations (rather conversations) are constructive and lead to growth rather than dissent.
  • Encourage responsibility and vulnerability: at the end of the day we are all human, and leaders should be encouraged to acknowledge their own limitations and mistakes openly. This not only sets a precedent for transparency but also humanizes the leader, making them more approachable.

We hope you’ve found this article insightful. Addressing leadership issues within a team is a nuanced challenge that requires tact, understanding, and the right tools. By embracing a culture of feedback, transparency, and continuous improvement, organizations can more effectively manage and mitigate leadership-related obstacles, ultimately fostering a more harmonious and productive workplace.

Looking for support with your team dynamics and development? Get in touch for a conversation today.

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