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Are Your Managers Marking Their Territory?
Business Journal

Are Your Managers Marking Their Territory?

How controlling and micromanaging supervisors build barriers between departments

by Tom Rieger

This article is the second in a three-part series on the internal barriers that fear creates in organizations: parochialism, territorialism, and empire building.

In 1993, IBM hired Louis Gerstner, Jr. as CEO. He said that the IBM of the time was a "hermetically sealed" world with turf wars, three separate budgets, a slow management system, facilities scattered all over the world, 70 different ad agencies, and control largely in the hands of a management committee that had a tremendous amount of power but little accountability. Gerstner said that operating this way gave IBM "a foxhole mentality." That mentality is what caused a legendarily innovative company to become very nearly inert.

Breaking the Fear Barrier

Many managers can relate to this situation. In every company, fulfilling each department's needs requires resources -- and there is only so much to go around. Competition over resources can become intense, particularly during budget season; budgets require tough decisions. There are usually more worthwhile requests than there are resources available, even in the best of times. To many department leaders, decisions become less about what's "equitable" and more about how to get their projects pushed through, no matter what happens to other departments.

The battle for resources intensifies with growth. Every department has a list of initiatives and pet projects, and the more departments, the more voices there are clamoring for funds. The company has a responsibility to allocate resources in a way that best enables it to meet its overall strategic goals. However, the goals of individual departments may become harder to achieve if managers can't get the resources they request. So what does a manager do?

Often, managers feel that they have no choice but to maintain the tightest level of control possible over people and budgets to ensure that no penny is wasted and no assets are lost, especially to other departments. They may pressure frontline workers to meet short-term goals at the expense of meeting their specific departmental goals. By doing so, these managers create even thicker barriers to protect their turf.

These barriers institutionalize the problem of fear. If managers are worried enough, they may feel forced to start controlling resources, projects, and people just to maintain control. They believe this is a solution to a temporary problem, but it rarely is. What starts out as a fear-based reaction can soon become standard operating procedure. Tight control becomes more and more prevalent, and it inevitably affects interdepartmental behavior. The whole scenario creates a low-grade siege mentality.

This condition is the second level of the pyramid of bureaucracy: territorialism.

The Pyramid of Bureaucracy

To be clear about terms, parochialism and territorialism differ in various ways. They are the result of different dynamics, and they have different manifestations: While parochialism is about protection from outside, territorialism is about control over what is inside, regardless of the impact on frontline staff or other departments. While parochialism and territorialism are not the same thing, they are not mutually exclusive. A parochial manager can also be territorial, and vice versa.

A parochial manager focuses on controlling those outside her sphere of influence to make them see things her way. A territorial manager focuses on controlling those inside his area to maintain a tight grip on resources. A parochial manager will set up unnecessary rules, policies, and procedures to put her local goals ahead of the goals of others or those of the rest of the organization. A territorial manager will seek to maintain absolute control over the people and resources at his disposal.

Taking away freedom

Among the many ways territorial managers exercise control, one of the most common is to limit employees' empowerment by taking away their freedom. Low empowerment, despite high levels of accountability, is a serious barrier that exists to some degree in virtually all organizations. Limited empowerment is especially common with customer-facing employees. No company would say that it wants to hire brainless robots with no free will. And yet all too often, companies script every word and deed of frontline employees, not allowing them to make any decisions whatsoever, while holding them solely responsible for their results.

No matter how well-intentioned scripting is, it almost always backfires. For example, if a representative is unable to solve a customer's problem, if the customer is clearly in a hurry, or if the representative isn't empowered to actually help, uttering a phrase as harmless as "Is there anything else I can help you with?" at the end of a service encounter adds insult to irritation. Even something as innocuous as telling representatives to smile throughout transactions can drive customers into a frenzy. A customer who is angry and upset will be even more infuriated by a rep who just grins while the customer rants about why he is dissatisfied.

It's impossible to script every customer-employee interaction. But companies still try because it's an attempt to control the situation -- and the employee. One bank offered call center service seven days a week, 365 days a year, even though the rest of the company was closed on weekends and holidays. One Presidents' Day, a call center representative received a call from a customer who wanted to set up an automatic billing plan. The phone rep would have had to transfer the customer to another department to set up the automatic payment, but it was a holiday, and the other department was closed.

In one manufacturing company, the innovation program was nicknamed the "Black Hole."

The representative offered the customer three options: The rep could contact the customer at another time that was convenient for him, she could give the customer the direct number to the other department to call the next day, or the customer could call back during regular business hours and any customer service rep could transfer him to the right place. The customer chose the second option, seemed satisfied, and the call ended.

That call was randomly selected by quality assurance for monitoring, and it earned a failing grade, causing the rep to lose her bonus for the month. Why? Because the rule said that if a call needed to be transferred, then the rep must attempt the transfer. There was no provision for if the department was closed. Ultimately, controlling what the representative said and did was more important than allowing her to serve her customer properly -- and the rep still believes she lost her bonus for choosing to do the right thing.

Taking away extra time

Every job requires a certain amount of time to perform. Territorialism systematically fills every minute with bare-minimum tasks, leaving no time for outstanding performance and certainly none for personal empowerment. The accompanying scarcity of resources forces employees to work at maximum capacity to meet their local goals, with no room or time for anything else. If an employee does not have the time to step outside the process or go the extra mile for a customer or associate, the territorial rule remains intact because the employee simply won't have time to break it.

In one hospital, a clinical staff member told us through tears of frustration that in the past, she was able to take the time to comfort patients and try to make them feel at ease. But as the hospital grew, it pressured staff to boost patient throughput. That employee no longer had time to comfort patients and instead felt like she had to tell them to "lie down, shut up, sit still, and get out." To boost that department's numbers, time pressure stripped away her empowerment.

Eliminating opportunities to gain knowledge or skills

Employees have to try new things and acquire skills to move into new areas of responsibility. In times of scarcity, training is often the first thing to go, even though that training may help prepare employees for transfers, advancement, or new ways of doing things. Lack of a particular competency will render them powerless, and as a result, controlled. Leaders seldom cut or limit training opportunities out of malice, but the end result is the same. It guarantees that employees will stay inside the territorial walls built by those in control.

Restricting information flow

Employees who don't know what's going on are extremely dependent on their manager. That gives managers more power than they are entitled to and creates a bottleneck of information, which is another form of control. If managers keep employees in the dark -- about issues as major as strategy or as minor as office supply entitlements -- they limit employee participation and effectiveness. Moreover, lack of knowledge makes it virtually impossible for employees to suggest ideas or to get approval for exceptions. In one manufacturing company, the innovation program was nicknamed the "Black Hole." Once employees made a suggestion, they never heard anything about it again. One hospital gave e-mail access to only one-third of its employees, and yet it communicated most major initiatives and solicitations for input, of course, via e-mail.

Withholding support

Perhaps the most insidious way for a territorial manager to limit empowerment is to implicitly or explicitly express that employees are empowered at their own risk and that they will not be supported if things go south. One college chairperson told his assistant that she should never learn to do anything exceptionally well because it would make the department's other assistants feel inferior, and he didn't want to have to hear their complaints. A newly promoted manager in a healthcare manufacturing company was told by one of his peers, "You should never hire anyone who might seem to be smarter than you. You always want someone to blame if things go wrong, so make sure your hires don't get promoted above you."

This type of control keeps employees from using their talents, stifles innovation, and prevents leaders from being either outshined or embarrassed. And because withholding support is interpersonal and subjective, territorial managers can easily refute that they've done it.

The Barriers That Fear Creates

Barrier: A policy, practice, or behavior that limits the success of an individual, group, or organization.

Empire building: Attempts to assert control over people, functions, or resources in an effort to regain or enhance self-sufficiency.

Parochialism: A tendency to force others to view the world from only one perspective or through a narrow filter, when local needs and goals are viewed as more important than broader objectives and outcomes.

Territorialism: Hoarding or micromanaging internal headcount, resources, or decision authority in an effort to maintain control.


Tom Rieger is the author of Breaking the Fear Barrier.

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