If you have managed a group of people for any period of time, you’ve run across the phenomena I like to call the “tyranny of the functionary.”
We see this manifested in the buying manager who withholds approval on purchasing because of a laundry list of vendor rules; the tech manager who adheres to a monoculture ecosystem unwilling to consider other alternatives; the creative in your company who refuses to do as a customer wants, hiding behind design guidelines; or the “indispensable man” who simply flat-out refuses assignments that they don’t want to do.
In all of these scenarios, your company’s policies and guidelines are being used to shirk or avoid work, rather than advance your company’s mission of service to your customers. Oftentimes offenders are in a bottleneck or gatekeeper role, and they are perceived to be irreplaceable, either by themselves or their direct supervisors.
Sadly, these are the people that are keeping your enterprise from being great. And you’re letting them.
In most of the cases above, these productivity inhibitors are knowledgeable, capable, and competent. They simply want to do things their way, how they want to do it, and when they want to do it, regardless of the larger enterprise priorities in play.
And they don’t imagine themselves as inhibitors at all. In fact, most of them will tell anyone interested that the place couldn’t run without them. Sometimes, this is even true.
Think about how many meetings you have been in throughout your career where that “one person” sidetracks every discussion and decision with some procedural matter or precedent. This person is always throwing up objections and loves the word, “no.”
It’s your responsibility as a leader to apply some long overdue institutional Drano to your organization’s productivity blockage. But how does one go about doing this? There are three simple steps:
Make sure everyone in your organization understands your larger institutional mission and apply that to every decision, from the color of your drapes to what markets you’re going to compete in.
When the naysayers rear their heads on process or procedure, apply this larger institutional litmus test to the argument and push your way through.
Go into every meeting armed with the best facts at your disposal.
Make sure that you have a team of cross-trained and cross-functional talent in your organization and no one person who is “irreplaceable.”
Ultimately, dealing with the tyranny of the functionary comes down to a matter of will: your will to do what’s right for the organization against the will of the individuals in your company holding things up.
Persuade them, train them, reassign them, or fire them. You’re the leader. Lead.
—David J. Hinson is an entrepreneur who specializes in startups, higher education, mobility, and the Internet of Everything. He currently resides in Conway, Ark.