How to Overcome Wasted Authority When You are Not the Leader

This is a guest post by friend and mentor Bruce Rhoades, who retired after having run several companies. He reluctantly leaves his sail boat to help me with strategy. After convincing him to write here once, I am now hoping he becomes a regular contributor.

Wasted Authority – A Review

Some time ago, I wrote about poor leadership resulting from Wasted Authority.   In that post, I described wasted authority as a result of weak leadership that exhibits one or more of the following traits:

  • Indecisiveness when it is clear that a decision should be made;
  • Failure to take action when cultural expectations are violated or associates misbehave;
  • Inability to provide timely feedback to teach individuals and the organization;
  • Failure to frame an issue, articulate priorities and delegate to others;
  • Ignoring customer issues that the organization simply takes for granted;
  • Failure to address large, well-known issues openly and directly.

These traits result in an environment where:

  • Decisions are delayed by over-analyzing or waiting for consensus to emerge;
  • Poor behavior is overlooked; exceptional efforts and good performance are unrecognized;
  • Meeting topics wander off the agenda into excruciating detail;
  • Customers issues are ignored or met with half measures;
  • Important, uncomfortable topics are not openly discussed.

Working in an environment with wasted authority is very frustrating, wastes the time and talent of the organization and drains the energy of the organization.



What if You Are Not The Leader?

If you are a leader and recognize your behavior in any of these traits, it is time to adjust your style to be more decisive, open, focused and action-oriented. There is a lot a leader can easily do to stop his/her own wasted authority behavior.

But what if you are not the leader and are subjected to wasted authority by one or more of the leaders of your organization? What can you do to help change the environment? How can you lead when you are not the one who should? Even though you are not the one in charge, there are several actions you and others can take to improve specific situations and change the environment. Consider the following actions to overcome wasted authority.




Agree on the Alternatives

When confronted with indecisiveness from the leader, start by making sure everyone agrees to options or alternatives for the decision. For example, say, “Can we simply list the alternatives for this decision?” and then start the list – write it down on a flip chart or whiteboard for the leader or group. You should make the list of alternatives as short as possible, ideally just 2 or 3, and prioritize them.

Define What is Needed and Schedule Closure

The next step is to ask, “If we cannot choose one of these options, what additional information do we need to decide?” List what is required. Then determine who is responsible to get the information. Agree who is going to do what and make assignments. Finally, ask when the group can reconvene to review the structured options and make a decision.

Many times with this approach, a group will be able to make a decision at the time. But if not, this process will structure the alternatives, establish concrete actions and decide when to decide! Another term I like to use is “scheduled closure.”

Orchestrate Support of Others

If you know ahead of time that there will be a tendency to delay a decision, then meet with others who will attend the meeting to structure alternatives before the meeting. If an indecisive leader sees several people on the same page, it will help make the decision.

Develop an Offline Decision

Alternatively, once a list of options for the decision is created, see if a smaller group of individuals can be assigned to return with a decision or recommendation. Indecisive leaders sometimes will let others decide if options are clear and several agree.



Ignored Performance – Good and Bad

When a leader does not recognize good employee performance or ignores poor performance or behavior, the wrong culture is set for the entire organization by lack of action. The attitude spreads rapidly.

If you are not the leader, what can you do?

For Good Performance – Say Something

If good or exceptional performance goes unrecognized, there are several actions you can take even if you are not the leader. First, you can always approach the person and give the comments to the effect of “a job well done,” or compliment them on the great effort and what it means to the organization. If it is appropriate, make your comment in the presence of the leader. It would be even more effective if you encouraged others to do the same. You could invite the person to your staff meeting to give them appropriate recognition. After all, peer recognition is just as important as recognition from supervisors. Your action may also begin to change the leader, if only by embarrassment.

Learn From Mistakes

Dealing with poor performance when you are not the leader is more difficult. If someone just made a mistake or handled a situation incorrectly, they likely already know it. Especially if the leader pointed it out. Your job is not to point out the mistake or emphasize its impact, but to help learn from it. The only real mistake is the one from which no one learns. One simple action you can take if you know the person, is to tell them you would like to learn from the situation and ask them to help you understand. The focus is not on them, but on your learning. By doing this, you will also ensure that they improve. The appropriate action from a leader is not to be punitive but to help the person improve. If the leader won’t do it, you can.



Confront Directly or Indirectly

The most difficult poor performance situation is repeated behavior issues that violate organizational culture, expectations or attitude. If the leader does not deal with it, there is not a lot you can do. If you feel comfortable with confrontation, you can always confront the person on the bad behavior when it happens. Be sure to confront them in specific terms when it happens, not in general at some random time. Tell the person what they are doing and what it represents to the organization. Stay on point and do not wander into other things or generality. It is best not to do it in public, but privately.

If specific confrontation is not comfortable and the poor behavior is a habit, try discussing it with HR. If you can get others to do the same, it will be more effective. In rare situations, you may be able to discuss it with the leader to let him/her know the tone it is setting for the organization. I once was able to do this, resulting in the termination of the person with repeated poor behavior.

Dealing with employee performance when you are not the leader is difficult and must be done carefully, but there are actions you can take. Additionally, through these actions you will enhance your leadership status in the organization and help change the culture.



Poor Meetings

When the leader wastes authority by letting a meeting wander into unrelated topics or allows much too-detailed discussions, it usually results from a failure to frame the issue and to delegate analysis. The result wastes talent, teaches the people not to delegate, and engages the organization on symptoms and detail rather than real causes.

Take Detail Offline

Even if you are not the leader, you can always combat getting into too much detail by asking if the topic can be taken offline from the meeting with a scheduled comeback or position paper. If necessary, get others to help in the effort, so it is not only you who is doing the work. You should clearly define what issue you are going to take offline.

Interrupt Wandering and Refocus – Three Steps

If the issue is wandering off-topic in a meeting, one action is to say, “I feel as if we are a bit off our original topic.” Indicate where the discussion started (the original topic), mention that there must be other factors involved, then ask the question: “What is the real issue here?” Hopefully, this will introduce a pause in the wandering and serve to refocus the meeting. The important thing is to ask a question rather than make a statement. This avoids confrontation or grandstanding. If no one speaks, then you might offer some thoughts to begin the discussion, but wait for others first. There are three important steps: Start by saying, “I feel” (none can argue with how you feel); then ask a question. Do not be the next to speak – be quiet. With these actions, you will demonstrate leadership, ability to see larger issues and hopefully improve the discussion. If this does not work, you might as well catch up on your email.



Weak Customer Focus

When the leader allows a customer situation to be resolved in a poor or insufficient manner, it clearly sets a bad example for the organization. The spread of the poor customer-treatment culture is directly proportional to how many know about it. If the leader does not care about customers, there will be few others in the organization that care either. Poor customer treatment poisons the organizational culture and spreads a bad reputation in the market. What should you do if you are not the leader?



Initiate Corrective Action

If the problem is a specific instance that you know about first hand, the best thing to do is to work with the appropriate salesperson and customer service to initiate some corrective action. Do not let the poor customer problem resolution situation continue – initiate the corrective action.

Alternatively, if you are aware of the leader glossing over a customer issue, you can ask if you may follow up to make sure the customer is satisfied by simply stating, “I am not sure that customer X was satisfied with our solution. May I follow up to make sure they are satisfied?”

Your action to resolve the issue will help set the tone for the future. Culture can be established by actions of non-leaders too. Following up with the poorly treated customer will also enhance that customer’s loyalty.

Establish Processes to Highlight Customer Perceptions

When the poor customer treatment is more systemic than a specific instance, it will take a regular process to highlight customer issues for the organization and to take corrective action. By working with sales and customer service associates, there are a few easy processes to initiate that will put a spotlight on customer problems and raise the level of customer attention:

  • Top 10: Have customer service or sales report on the top 10 customer issues each week/month in the leader’s staff meeting. Make sure corrective actions are approved and initiated.
  • Immediate Survey: Establish a regular follow-up satisfaction survey for all customers who had problems and report the results each week. With today’s technology it is very easy and inexpensive to set up surveys to see how customers feel after having a problem resolved. The survey could also be expanded to include a random sample of all customers. Again, it is best to work with customer service and sales to accomplish this.
  • Customer Service Tour of Duty: Begin a customer service rotation program that allows non-customer-service staff to spend a few hours each month working in, or with, customer service. Associates from almost any part of the company would benefit from such a program. Customer service will appreciate the help, and the voice of the customer will be spread to every part of the organization. The initiative to establish such a program can come from anyone – leader or not.

Even if the leader demonstrates weak customer focus, you can always take action to begin to raise the level of attention and service in the organization. Most leaders will not prevent you from doing so, especially if you have the support of customer service and/or sales. Never underestimate the effect of one person taking action on important things.



The Elephant in the Room

When a leader fails to address a large, important issue that is on everyone’s mind, it is not only awkward and distracting to all, but it also undermines a culture of open and direct communication. Failure to address “the elephant in the room” is poor leadership. Even if there is not resolution or an answer to the issue, at a minimum, the leader needs to acknowledge that the issue exists and let the others know that resolution is in progress. Saying nothing at all is worse than no answer.

What can you do about the “elephant in the room” if you are not the leader?



Brief the Leader

One of the easiest and most direct actions you can take is to brief the leader. Before a meeting or other communication, let the leader know that there is an issue that is on everyone’s mind. It is definitely best done one-on-one or even in an email. Brief the leader with a tone of “just letting you know.” State your version of the issue and even some suggestions of what to say about it. If nothing else, suggest that the leader acknowledge the issue. If you are not comfortable directly approaching the leader, ask someone else to do it. HR should always be an option.

Raise the Issue

An obvious action is to simply raise the issue in the meeting, if it is something that is not overly sensitive. By raising the issue, you can demonstrate your leadership and help set the tone for more open communication. Whether you can do this or not depends on your position in the organization and your relationship with the failing leader. One way to raise it is to simply say, “I do not know if you are aware of it, but several of us in the organization are wondering about…” and state the issue. You can also soften it by indicating that you are not pushing for an answer now but will wait if the leader wants some time.

Put Rumor Control on the Agenda

For meetings or employee communication, I have found it beneficial to have a spot on the agenda to address “rumors.” This is a semi-humorous way to find issues, address them and establish open communication. Topics can even be submitted in advance of the meeting. If you are in a position to do so, add a specific topic to the meeting for “rumor control.” When “rumor control” is added to the appropriate regular staff meeting or associate briefing, a culture of very open, direct and honest communication is established. The organizational “grapevine” is very efficient and without the leader’s direct input, something will be on the grapevine anyway. If you are a manager, you can start by putting the topic on your staff meeting agenda. You can always set an example at whatever level you are in the organization.



Even if you are not the leader who is ignoring “the elephant in the room,” you can demonstrate your leadership and help change the culture when you make sure that the issue is open and addressed by several easy actions. Others will follow if you begin.



Wasted authority by a leader creates a frustrating work environment and wastes the time and talent of the organization. Wasted authority is an energy drain on the whole organization.

By taking some simple, straightforward actions to overcome wasted authority, you can help the organization, perhaps teach the leader, set an example and help improve the culture in a very direct way. Even if you are not at the top of the organization, you can still effect change. People will follow if you demonstrate how to resist these wasted authority circumstances. The key is taking action.


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