Eileen Dooley is a talent and leadership development specialist, and a leadership coach, based in Calgary.
If you’ve been working long enough, you’ve likely encountered a “gatekeeper” leadership persona. The one who doesn’t let anyone in their organization do anything without cumbersome and often painfully slow personal approvals from them.
The signs are easy to spot. The leader requires all significant communications with client groups and stakeholders to go through them, or immediately be reported to them with regular status updates or rounds of forwarded e-mails. Individual team members develop a protective attitude of “I’d better ask if this is okay to do” based on past interactions that have landed them in trouble for acting independently.
Clients have learned that the group with such leadership is often slow to respond and often seeks to work around the leader in question when floating new assignments.
Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common issue for new or insecure leaders, and inhibits developing an effective leadership culture of trust and empowerment. This type of permission-based and controlling culture quickly erodes employee creativity, engagement and morale.
The good news is that there are ways to change such a culture, both from the leader’s perspective and those on the team.
For the leader who feels that gatekeeping is a necessary approach to manage their team’s work or their professional standing, or is insecure in their role, it’s important to start clarifying expectations on both sides. Realize your role is going to get increasingly more complex the more you try and control all the flows associated with your team’s work.
In most professional environments, the pace of work is too fast and the details too great for a gatekeeper-minded leader to be effective. If this is you, get better at leadership by starting to let go.
Instead, the leader must start clarifying team-member roles and responsibilities so that people on the team know that they’ve got reasonable room to make independent decisions. Some of those decisions might occasionally push the envelope, and that’s okay: it’s part of growing great employees and innovating.
That doesn’t mean letting people go rogue, but it does mean that they shouldn’t have to refer every decision up the chain of command. If the leader has deliberately or accidentally created that type of culture, it’s time to reassess and spend time clarifying work scope.
From a leader’s perspective, your team is much more effective when it feels empowered and supported to do the best possible work with minimal interference. Delegating work but then micromanaging it in the absence of any notable performance issues erodes the perception of employee trust and puts people in a literal check-box exercise where they won’t make a move without the leader’s consent.
To someone new in a role or insecure in their leadership style, that may seem to be the work of leadership, but it’s not: It’s creating a cast of followers rather than an effective high-performing team culture.
From an employee perspective, working for the gatekeeper-style leader is often frustrating, especially for higher performers. These are the people on the team who are bubbling with ideas for improvements and who are consummate professionals in their work. They’re usually seen by their counterparts as having more creativity and effectiveness than how their role is typically defined. The roadblocks being created by the gatekeeper start adding up to progressive disengagement. That rubs off on others, who then also don’t rise to their work potential.
If you’re that high performer, it’s risky to step too far out of line until you’ve at least tried to work with the leader to clarify why you don’t have more independent scope. Perhaps it’s the leader being uncomfortable with the expectations for the team that might arise when one team member is able to perform a level of work that is well beyond the capability of others. This type of “always-under-promise” model does nothing to raise team capability, and quickly will lead to top performers losing their edge, or leaving altogether.
If you’ve stepped out of the gatekeeper’s shadow and done an excellent piece of independent work, don’t hide it, flaunt it. This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s a way to protect yourself by having others validate the quality and responsiveness of your work to your leader, especially when those applauding are other leaders at the same level or higher.
You might get a few cross glances at the outset, but anything that makes your leader look good usually will be seen in a positive light at performance-review time.
And, it might just start to nudge your leader out of their gatekeeping approach.