Five ways leaders discourage involvement

As promised in our recent newsletter Things only get done when I'm here, I'm sharing five ways I've seen leaders discourage the involvement they actually need from their people.

Over the years, I’ve listened to many highly talented and enthusiastic people who, frankly, have had the life sucked out of them by the people for whom they work. The reason they were still in the job had everything to do with some other overriding factor:  the need to provide for their family, their professional reputation, their desire to continue working with the people on their own team, and yes, their desire to protect the people on their own team from the boss.

Now I'm sure you aren't the kind of boss that does these things - this list can just assist you in helping your colleagues and friends when they are trying to figure out why they are discouraged. And if by some chance any of these ring a bell for you personally, feel free to contact us for a complementary conversation to learn about some options.

Number 5 - Do the employee’s job...after they've done it

Imagine consoling a senior electrical engineer - with a Masters degree from MIT - who is leaning forward in his chair, head in hands. "My team and I have spent 8 months of intensive work developing this product. It's amazing. And yet I'm sitting at my desk, waiting for my Senior VP of Engineering to change components on the layout." He looks up at you. "Why am I even here?"

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I am sad to say that I know of several companies where senior people put glaringly obvious errors in their work to allow their bosses the satisfaction of fixing something. "If I don't give them something to change, they'll screw something up that's really important," said one anonymous source.

Number 4 - Ask for input...then discredit it

One executive I worked with got to a point where the team was finally willing to give him some honest feedback.

"When you ask for my input, and I'll start sharing, you start listening, but then it's as if a switch flips in your head. It's like I don't matter, and you've just used me to get some need met. I feel that you don't appreciate what I have to offer," one brave soul offered. The team agreed, and the leader uncomfortably fessed up that once he got a sense of where the conversation was headed, he didn't see value in continuing it but kept going out of a sense of politeness.

With some focused coaching of the leader and team, the leader learned to ask for people's perspective and then when he received sufficient information, request to end the conversation. Per their agreement, at that point, team members had permission to either agree, or ask for the leader to hear them out on the rest of their opinion. Then the leader and team member, jointly, determined whether that moment or some time later was best in which to continue the conversation.

Needless to say, involvement took a big jump and remains high.

Number 3 - Compliment...then ask for better results

While working in a company in a leadership position, I was approached by several senior people who shared that there was a problem with unclear definitions of responsibility across the organization. Where there was overlap, the clients were confused and resources were often wasted. Where there was underlap, clients were disappointed and fingers were pointed between functions blaming each other for dropping the ball.

In my spare time (as this wasn't my main job), I brokered a reasonable solution among the functional managers and went to the boss to brief him on the problem and get his authority to implement the solution. He showered me with compliments:  "What a responsible, proactive, organizational thinker!" Then he said he wanted to give me some formal authority to get an even better result. I was flattered, and took to the assignment with vigor. After a few more weeks, I indeed had some better results.

"This is great - yet I believe with your talents it can be amazing! Come back in a couple weeks with an even better version!"

After a few iterations like this, the energy to do the work simply drained out of me. I didn't even realize that I had given up until the boss left a few months later.

During his first week, my new boss summoned me to his office to report on the project. He'd heard about it, and at his first staff meeting, had empowered me in front of everyone to implement the solution. When I got back to my desk, I realized my old boss had hoodwinked me with smiling compliments. 

Number 2 - Focus on not failing...and induce it through your actions

You get what you focus on.

I once worked (briefly) with a CEO of a mid-sized health care company on the East Coast who was driven by the fear of failure. He thought that by stamping out failure he would ensure success for his company, his team, and himself. He was so driven by this that he jumped on everything that even smelled like it might not work. In the teammembers' opinions, getting this unwanted attention didn't feel like help. One member said it was "...merciless round-the-clock work, endless updates to the CEO with him constantly breathing down my neck. I just wanted it to be over."

To avoid getting "rewarded" with this CEO's attention, his staff members did everything humanly possible to resolve issues without involving anyone - not even their other colleagues. Since most problems are system-related, individual efforts usually failed, and the CEO would eventually be notified - but only after things failed. This, of course, reinforced his perception that his involvement was critical, and he doubled his efforts to stamp out failure - until he was replaced by his board.

Number 1 - Assume everything is ok...and don't challenge that assumption

This is number 1 for a reason - every leader I know, including me, has done this.


Recently I did this with my staff. I was operating with some significant - and in my mind very reasonable - assumptions about how people understood my perception of their performance and that everyone was growing in and feeling good about the part they played in the organization. Everything was going well - until a senior staff member came in to give notice.

It was a significant wake-up call for me to regularly challenge my own assumptions about how people are doing in the organization. I tend to operate in a no-news-is-good-news manner - and I hope I'm doing a better job of checking in to understand how people specifically see their role, the importance of their involvement to the company, and the amount of their engagement.

Chris Hutchinson, CEO

Chris Hutchinson, CEO

While these are plenty, anyone have any additional ways leaders discourage involvement?


Chris Hutchinson

As CEO of Trebuchet Group, Chris Hutchinson thrives working with clients and his team to improve organizational clarity, teamwork, and leadership impact.

After years of building Legos® and tree houses around the world, Chris earned his Mechanical Engineering degree and followed that with an MBA. His experiences in the military and the business world taught him great leadership can be learned, and everyone is in some way a leader.

Clients and peers describe him as an inspirational catalyst for positive change. He is the author of Ripple - A Field Manual for Leadership That Works.

Chris and his wife live, garden, and bike in Fort Collins, Colorado, and have four children. He has an unrequited love affair with brownies.