Julie Bradbury
Management Consultant

Management is a lonely occupation and it seems loneliest when you know that your leadership is being undermined. Let’s say that you’ve found out that hard won agreements are being ignored, standards not followed, or foot dragging is slowing progress on innovations. While not everyday situations, you realize they can cause needless damage to productivity, products, and morale. You also know that your group and company are likely to pay a price for this behavior. You are uniquely positioned to turn things around, but it takes focus and effort.

What’s the cause?

Given that you know what is happening and the people involved, your first step is to surface the root cause or causes. There are several possibilities—NIH (not-invented-here) syndrome, communication holes and breakdowns, indigenous leaders feeling excluded, insufficient motivation, no strong leadership or vision, and so on. Often a combination of factors fuels the undermining force. You can note the root causes in your journal or make a mental note. If you have trusted peers or mentors, use them to test your conclusions, at the same time being careful not to open yourself to political attack. Next, pair the root cause with a business impact.

What’s the cost?

Your second step is to find out or predict the damage this behavior will cause. Put the results in business impact terms—time, productivity, or dollar amounts. For example, three writers are not making the formatting changes needed to successfully submit their documents to the new content management system. The documents must undergo troubleshooting by the production department editors and have changes entered. The documents’ lateness causes the release to slip. Product credibility with early-adopter customers is hurt and an order for $50,000 is cancelled. This undermining was very expensive to the business.

Another example might be that an energetic and productive writer who normally quickly adopts changes and supports innovations sees others ignoring management direction without consequence. The writer is discouraged, and she is less likely to volunteer for tasks needed to move the innovations forward. If enough people lose energy, innovations stall.

How will you proceed?

Once you have a good idea of the underlying causes and identified business impacts, you can make action plans. Problem analysis and commitment to a plan can force you from any lingering inertia and propel you into coping with the undermining behavior. Here are some action suggestions to consider:

  • Include indigenous leaders in planning a change. It’s easier to draw people into different ways of doing things when their ideas are part of the process.
  • Formally or informally evaluate the writing team on their contributions to your innovations and reassign and remix personnel to strengthen teams that are holding back on your changes.
  • Reward desired behavior with money, time, recognition, and other rewards.
  • Re-plan stalled projects to address glitches that the original plan did not cover.
  • Revisit company and organization visions and show how your plans align.
  • Reassign ownership of key project pieces to supporters (consider doing this even if they need additional management support or training) to get immediate results or improve the time in which results occur.
  • Abide by company and legal requirements to release undermining personnel. This action assumes you’ve done your best to communicate your expectations.
  • Create new job descriptions for roles that support your innovation plans and move well qualified personnel into them.
  • Hire people who will support your leadership and have skills that support your innovations.
  • Examine your communication at all levels and improve it.
  • Leverage trusted executives to speak in support of your efforts.

You can overcome undermining behavior by thoughtful analysis and focused action. Leaving such behavior to chance will exact a cost for you, your products, and your company. Taking action can energize your team and move you closer to success.