When The Heart Of Darkness Beats For You
If you work in an organization big enough or wide enough to have at least two different locations, Theorem 1 of the Colonel Kurz Theory of Probability is that some percentage of one office think that, generally, there is something wrong with the people in the other office. If the organization is big enough to have more than two places to work, and at least one of them is designated as the “main” or “HQ” or “home”, Theorem 2 of the Kurz Theory suggests that the other offices/branches/divisions are somewhat convinced that in the HQ are people who are either complete idiots, or actively scheming to figure out ways to screw them over. And lastly, if the office/branch/division has a manager/leader/supervisor in charge of that location, and who is on site, Theorem 3 of the Kurz Theory suggests that this person may, at some point, journey to the center of the heart of darkness.
It is Theorem 3 that is the most confounding, and in your organization, potentially the most damaging of the Kurz Theory’s belief system. Theorem’s 1 and 2 really have little likelihood of developing, let alone taking root, if the leaders on-site are emotionally intelligent, focused on the big picture, and connected and committed to the mission. Under those circumstances, distance doesn’t matter. This is not to say that a leader running their unit far away from the next big boss in line can’t be all those things and still have to deal with actual jackwagons at headquarters. It happens.
However, the distance that you are from the center of your organizational universe increases exponentially the risk that you can fall prey to Theorem 3, or as I like to call it, Distant Leader Syndrome (DLS). This affliction happens when the connections between a leader and their peer group (other leaders), and their own chain of command, reduces their daily contacts to themselves and their team, at a distance from everyone. When this happens, the vacuum of space in an organization that lacks trust or cohesiveness can create unchecked perception, an easy martyrdom atmosphere, a sense that no one knows the struggles you have, and a general “woe is me” attitude.
Even worse is the potential temptation for a distant leader to abuse authority and become an island unto themselves. With no prying eyes or big bosses to peek over a shoulder at how you handle your business, the distant leader is free to create whatever environment suits them. In some cases, that can be a fairly negative one, in which the leader presents themselves to the staff as the savior, or the only person standing between the numbskulls at the home office and their own cubicle. This potential falsity is fed by a desire to create a cult of personality in which people come to work each day forced to choose between the leader in front of them, writing their performance appraisals, recommending their promotions, and setting their workload, and the invisible higher bosses far away. Little wonder which way that choice gets made. Under these conditions, the team goes into Employee Survival Mode, in which every minute is focused on surviving till lunch, or the end of the day. A tough place to gain commitment to whatever you do, but a place pretty adept in finding some blame to place.
How do you know DLS affects your organization? For a start, carefully note how the main office is referred to in conversation. Are individuals noted, like Bob or Alice, or is it always “HQ” or “those people”? (My personal favorite is “Mordor”). Another key behavior is the general temperament of the staff. One or two bad attitudes can always be present, but if the entire team uniformly hates on the distant command, go no farther than the person in charge. Such a uniform dislike cannot exist unless the Distant Leader allows it. Another key component of DLS is when two (or three or four) sets of procedures for the same process exist, throughout the organization, specific to a location, with no apparent reason. These happen when Distant Leaders have the environment to decide what’s best for them, and their team, rather than for the organization. They view every policy, procedure, and potential change from the view of what’s best for them rather than the group at large. And they can cut the legs out from under a global strategy in a heartbeat.
It may have been noticed by regular readers of this blog that there is a certain formula to some of the topics raised here. State the problem, identify some of the “indicators” and propose or discuss solutions. So, the next development in the discussion at hand would be the “solution”. Well, in this case, that is a tough one. Some things are simple and some are not. Some of these scenario’s take years to develop and others can happen overnight. With that as my caveats, here are a few suggestions:
(1) Early intervention is one solution. Look for keywords like impersonal referrals to any process or person that is outside your current location. Always seize opportunities to put a face to every name or process in your organization so “those jerks in Finance” or “the people in Fargo” become Larry and Betty and Jane.
(2) To the extent possible, make sure that your people have frequent opportunities to meet personally with each other, see each other’s workspace, and talk about what you do, as a group. This is easier said than done but the benefits are that it reduces the ability to turn a human being into an impersonal territorial location. Do not let new employees work for months (or years) without ever meeting their fellow teammates.
(3) The presence of a mission statement accepted by all, and a common and well-communicated vision for the organization could help isolate and marginalize counter-productive behaviors and attitudes. (This also supports the inclusion of every member of your organization in putting together such a device).
(4) Watch for signs of DLS on your team and make every effort to wisely assign your leaders to these important posts. The leaders in your organization need to get an equal amount of oversight and attention and not be managed according to their distance. Does the leader 10 feet from you get more face time than the one 300 miles away? If so, how can you address that? Put your thinking cap on.
(5) And lastly, if you work in the HQ, understand how people view “The Mother Ship” and be sensitive to a perception that there is a center of the universe in your organization. “One team, one fight” is not just a slogan, it is a strategy. Make sure that you walk the walk when you use the word “team”.