Several months ago, I was solicited for executive coaching by the CEO of a large technology company. His request was rather blunt, “Dr. Nadine, I have a problem. My VP of Sales is belligerent. Can you help?”
I can’t help but chuckle when I receive such solicitations. So often executives and others consider adjectives such as “belligerent”, “lethargic”, “impulsive”, and “indecisive” to be identified problems. In reality, there are often much more fundamental issues at play. I knew that the situation was much more complex than it appeared to the CEO. Donning a Sherlock Holmes mentality, I set out to do some detective work. As Sherlock Holmes once said, “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”
Shortly after I began coaching the VP, it became readily apparent to me that, contrary to the CEO’s prognosis, the executive was not belligerent. Rather, she was shackled by the many layers of approval that she needed to circumnavigate in order to get anything done. The red tape and bureaucracy were wreaking much havoc, from compromising product costs to jeopardizing the company’s market position to dampening levels of respect among employee. Through my executive coaching sessions, which entailed extensive training in executive communication, the VP learned to voice her frustration differently. She learned to reframe the situation and, thanks to a higher level of self-awareness, was able to focus on the underlying issues at play and explain them cogently to the CEO. Ultimately, the CEO gained a deep appreciation for the VP's situation.
1. Analysis paralysis
It’s an all too common problem. When there are so many layers of bureaucracy, things rarely make it through all the approval filters. Before employees are able to pass each layer of approval, they are required to gather tremendous amounts of information. Ultimately, the many filters cause employees to second guess themselves, resulting in "analysis paralysis" and decision fatigue. Excessive time is spent gathering more information, tracking and approving expenses, and submitting approvals.
It's critical that we don't let unnecessary layers of approval and intensive processes and procedures thwart our ability to make timely decisions. In order to be most effective, executives and leaders need to be able to take decisive action. Research by ghSmart, economists at the University of Chicago and Copenhagen Business School, and analysts at SAS Inc. revealed that high-performing CEOs are more decisive than their lower-performing counterparts. CEOs who were described as “decisive” were 12 times more likely to be high-performing CEOs.
It's critical that we don't let unnecessary layers of approval and intensive processes and procedures thwart our ability to make timely decisions.
2. Fear of failure
Another fundamental problem associated with too many layers of process is the fact that it tends to result in a fear of failure. As the number of approvals increases, managers become more concerned that their hard work will be prematurely thwarted. Employees fixate on their fear of failure rather than the learning process involved in seeing their work to fruition. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that increased pressure has a negative impact on learning. In many cases, it’s more productive for employees to make decisions quickly with the occasional misstep and learn from failures. Former Greyhound CEO Stephen Gorman recounts, “A bad decision was better than a lack of direction. Most decisions can be undone, but you have to learn to move with the right amount of speed.”
3. Creativity limitations
Creativity is an exercise, and a rather intense one. It requires substantial mental capacity. Research has shown that creativity involves all four hemispheres of both our brain's cerebrum and cerebellum. When we're cognitively constrained by bureaucratic pressures, our creativity levels are severely constrained. Indeed, a recent Stanford study published in Scientific Reports found that over-thinking (due, for example, to intensive processes and procedures) not only impairs our ability to carry out cognitive tasks but also restricts us from reaching our creative potential.
In my work as an executive coach, I frequently witness thick red tape strangling organizations. While processes and procedures are necessary to maintain order, it’s imperative that they don’t unduly limit the performance of employees. My extensive training in mediation positions me well to be able to help facilitate effective conversations between all stakeholders. Armed with active listening and emotional intelligence, my clients are able to productively determine where red tape is necessary and where it can be removed. As Sherlock Holmes once remarked, “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”
Nadine Greiner, Ph.D. provides Executive Coaching and Human Resources solutions. Her mission is to make the executive experience exceptionally enjoyable and effective. She believes that the world needs great leaders, and has dedicated her career to helping them.
As an organization psychologist and former corporate CEO, Dr. Nadine understands the pressures and demands executives face. She offers her clients the high expertise that only comes with three decades of consulting success, and a dual Ph.D. in Organization Development and Clinical Psychology. Dr. Nadine is an in-demand speaker, teaches in doctoral programs, and coaches other consultants. She is the author of two books: ‘The Art of Executive Coaching: Secrets to Unlock Leadership Performance’, and of ‘Stress-less Leadership: How to Lead in Business and in Life’. amazon.com/author/nadinegreiner