Isn’t it annoying when management bobbles the ball, and then can’t understand why the rest of the team is stumbling around in disarray instead of flawlessly executing plays?

All kinds of management compromises can occur when a senior executive is on the road much of the time, and leaves her staff in the care of another exec; or the senior leader is one of those bellow-and-scream types who just doesn’t deal with the day-to-day, but launches himself into the daily dynamic when he’s personally upset. And in a matrixed organization, compromises can exist almost by necessity where the “dotted line” manager is more hands-on than the direct manager.

In these cases, performance management is often remanded to “the second manager” who does not actually have the formal authority to deal with performance problems, lacks the bandwidth to supervise to a sufficiently developmental extent, or perhaps disagrees with the primary manager about how to handle individual performance issues. All of these circumstances can lead to staff disengagement, inefficiency, and negative business consequences.

Misguided Misdirection

Following are three sad examples of indirect authority; see if you’ve participated in or been affected by anything like them:

The “Because I’ve Had Enough” Boss:

A frontline supervisor recognizes that an employee is underperforming, but this is one of those organizations where the supervisor doesn’t have the authority to take corrective action other than by “giving feedback” — which eventually turns into nagging when the supervisor is not permitted to impose consequences and the senior manager doesn’t choose to. The rest of the staff resents the non-performer and sees that the supervisor has little real control.

The employee basically goes on her merry way. The supervisor grows increasingly frustrated because he recognizes that his staff perceives him as weak and ineffective. Finally the manager gets so fed up with the employee’s behavior and inadequacies that he insists that she be fired immediately. When the employee is abruptly let go, the supervisor and manager both look arbitrary and erratic, and the rest of the staff becomes more fearful and less committed.

The “Just Sweep Around Me” Boss:

A senior exec works directly with a difficult employee in a “creative” functional area, but permits the employee to maintain a variety of negative and ineffective behaviors. When the exec eventually starts to lose her patience with the employee’s disruptive behavior, she bucks the disciplinary intervention to an operations manager who is “used to dealing with that sort of thing.”

Unfortunately, the direction to the ops manager is effectively saying, “Don’t interfere with his work, just improve his behavior and delivery.” The ops manager has to dance around the reality that conduct and content are intertwined. The rest of the staff recognizes that the senior executive plays favorites, and that the ops manager lacks real authority.

The “Absentee Landlord” Boss:

A department manager has responsibility at multiple facilities and is on the road more than she’s at headquarters. While she’s away, her staff is supposed to “consult” with other managers on premises when they need an “authority-on-the-spot,” but planned organizational changes go awry based on each of the substitute managers’ perceptions and preferences.

When the department manager returns, she expresses frustration with her direct reports for not doing and handling things the way she wanted. Her staff is confused and resentful — after all, they’ve been struggling on their own with conflicting direction. Meanwhile, planned activities haven’t occurred, and both production and customers are adversely affected.

Redirected Direction

How can organizations do better? The old saw about there being “no responsibility without authority” is a first step: Any authority figure who has to interact directly with staff must be able to provide the feedback concomitant with the role and communicate the likely consequences of inaction even if higher-level backup is needed to carry out those actions.

This requires not only the training to deliver feedback, but clarity from the organization about the definitions of good and poor behavior and satisfactory and unsatisfactory performance.

Training and clarity are necessities all the way up the chain — if senior executives are currently incapable of managing staff directly, they need remediation. And if the senior execs are incapable of doing the hard work of direct supervision and development — or they’re unwilling — the organization will suffer the consequences until it takes a stand.