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Are you a help or a hindrance to your team? Most leaders are sure they are helpful – indeed, extremely useful – to their subordinates, paving the way to success.

But after years of talking with a wide range of employees at various companies, professors Kannan Ramaswamy and Bill Youngdahl of the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona began to think differently.

In surveys and interviews, the two found that 51 per cent of employees believe that initiatives tend to succeed despite, not because of, their leaders.

"Be open to the possibility that as a leader you may be hindering your team," Prof. Ramaswamy said in an interview. "Don't be fooled by thinking that if performance is great it's because of you, not despite you."

The professors call it the "hindrance trap." And leaders fall into it when they are promoted up the managerial ladder. These managers are encouraged to think big and leave the details to others. They become disconnected from the actual activity in their organization, lost in strategy and removed from the reality of executing that strategy. In particular, they can't determine when an organization can take on the burden of a new initiative that they are propounding. The professors note that second-tier managers often worry when top executives come back from a vacation because they know that new projects will be lobbed at them.

Are you a help or a hindrance to your organization? To find out, the professors suggest in strategy + business that you ask yourself three questions.

First, are your employees clear on the purpose and direction driving their work? Again, don't expect a chorus of approval. Even in successful organizations, the professors found that only 56 per cent of employees believe their leaders were providing clarity of purpose and direction.

Yet this is a fundamental skill of leadership. Employees need to understand the "what" and "why" of their work. You may feel you're clear in expressing those essentials, but can you track your message down to people on the front lines doing the work? "Go to the water cooler and ask people, 'What's our strategy?' Make sure the key elements of what they say are congruent with what you want," Prof. Ramaswamy said.

He cites the case of oil giant BP, where former chief executive officer John Browne had made a commitment to safety, but budget stringency during his term and that of his successor led to the opposite, with a fatal explosion at Texas refinery and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. "In [Mr. Browne's] mind, it was all about safety but they didn't hear, 'Safety at all costs.' They heard, 'Safety at reasonable cost.' They were making their own interpretation," Prof. Ramaswamy said.

The second question is: Does your organization have the capacity to do what you want? At a time when the leadership mantra in many workplaces is "more with less," it's likely you are piling on too much. "You need the will, the skill, and the capacity to succeed," Prof. Youngdahl said.

The pair say they run into this issue repeatedly when talking to CEOs. Corporate chieftains love to expound on the many initiatives on many fronts they are directing. But when asked to name three priorities, they fumble. Only a small number can provide such focus – and so it's likely their employees are struggling with unrealistic, unfocused expectations.

The third question is: Do our policies promote or inhibit effectiveness? Leaders set policies. But the professors found that only 36 per cent of staff in successful organizations believe their leaders develop policies that help the organization achieve superior performance. Often, policies are instituted to handle a past mistake and continue, perhaps unwisely, to guide current behaviour.

Not all policies are bad, of course. Prof. Ramaswamy notes that the current head of BP, Bob Dudley, has pushed a policy whereby executives listen to the quietest voice in the room. "You could create a policy that leaders will start questioning policies," Prof. Ramaswamy said.

Escaping the hindrance trap means counteracting the insidious practices these questions unearth. The professors suggest four steps:

1. Become self-aware

Consider the possibility that you may be hindering organizational effectiveness. It may not just be individual leaders hindering effectiveness, but pockets within the organization.

2. Clarify intent

Make the "what" and the "why" known. Check at the water cooler and cafeteria, or through surveys, to ensure that the message you are sending is the message being received.

3. Consider capacity

Leaders need to be able to say no – or not yet. They also need to determine which initiatives have outlived their purpose and can be abandoned to allow new ones to emerge.

4. Pare poor policies

Develop a mental model of how your organization makes money, sniff out the policies that don't contribute (that hinder), and eliminate them.

By applying these four steps, you'll soon be out of the hindrance trap.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter