Managers Under Siege

12 Oct

I recently observed behaviour by a set of managers that took me by surprise. I am very used to seeing managers under stress, even extreme stress, but, what I observed exceeded any of my definitions of ‘normal’.

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I know the individuals personally and can vouch for their integrity, competency and sanity. What I observed, however, were managers acting out of a sense of paranoia and making unilateral decisions that were both counter-intuitive and counterproductive. So out of character was this behaviour that I immediately followed up to determine the cause. What I found was a situation that a colleague termed being “under siege”.

Imagine a battle scene; you are in a foxhole on the front-line. Looking out from this vantage point, you see the enemy advancing from all sides. Your orders are to hold your position, but behind you, you see your own forces retreating. You have just lost one squad member to “friendly fire” and the remainder of your team have lost hope and with it, faith in your leadership. Just before your radio dies, headquarters sends a message that they are sending in an airstrike to ‘save you’, but as you review the given coordinates you realize headquarters is about to bomb your position. No plan, no help, low on ammo, low on morale, no sleep…… Shoot anything or anyone that moves!

This is the state I found these managers in. Tired and beaten down, ready to turn on their own team for fear of new attacks. It would be easy to provide advice about avoiding this predicament, but what advice do you offer given that the situation already exists.

Before turning this situation around, a manager needs to come to terms with the reality of their circumstance without becoming obsessed with the ‘blame game’. The leader in the foxhole did not manufacture their perilous circumstances and it is natural for managers to become defensive about failures that lead to their circumstance. It is critical, however, to move beyond blame in order to correct the situation. The manager must identify the resources that remain within their control and the greatest of those resources is the manager’s team. The most damning aspect of the “under siege” phenomena is the manager’s tendency to withdraw from and alienate their team. The team may be unhappy and “under siege” themselves, but they are not the problem – quite the opposite – they are the solution! Regardless of the pressure: deadlines, workload, customer complaints, budget cuts, or what have you; it is the team and not the manager alone that can have the greatest impact.

Like the foxhole scenario, the team needs leadership and in the face of adversity, the manager must remember that their ultimate purpose is to lead the team. Possibly at the cost of their own self-preservation, the manager must put their team ahead all other priorities. Together with the team, devise a survival strategy and carry it out. There may be negative fall-out as a result and the manager may well have to face consequences. Far better that a manager answer for actions taken to preserve their team than for a manager to turn on the team and succumb to the “siege”.

Robert Ferguson

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