what do you do when they won’t let you drive the bus

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I don’t know about you but sometimes I read an article or a blog online and it gets to me. A few weeks ago I read an article that still irritates me. The article was: 4 Dysfunctions That Will Eat Away at a Growing Business.

But let me save you the trouble of clicking over to the link — the authors said the 4 dysfunctions were:

Unclear Vision

Poor Leadership

Change-Averse Culture


Well duh. This is like saying that one of the worst things for a growing organization is to have more expenses than income. The article was such a simplistic, obvious list of dysfunctions that it got completely under my skin. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

It just bugged me.

Think about your worklife . . . how often have you known about these problems in your organization, but you couldn’t change them?

I bet most of the time.

Maybe if you’re the CEO, the board wouldn’t let you make your big change. Or your boss has such unclear vision that she couldn’t see that she had poor leadership.

Here’s Career Safety Tip: Typically, people who have unclear vision and poor leadership really don’t like you to call them on it. And most people with poor leadership and unclear vision just don’t know it.

OK, back on my little soapbox.

I mean, if you’re working in “The Bureaucracy” and you’re not in charge of it, how do you change it?

Sadly, you probably can’t.

The question for me becomes, “What do you do when your organization has these 4 dysfunctions that you can’t change?”

That’s what most of us deal with in one form or another.

Or put another way, what do you do when you don’t like where the bus is going but they won’t let you drive it (hat-tip to Jim Collins).

I respect you too much to knowingly hand you the bleeding obvious or dish out tepid platitudes.

Here’s what I think you can do when you’re neck-deep in organization dysfunction:

You just have to get over it. I’m not saying you have to like unclear vision or bureaucracy, but you can’t spend your life waiting for change that’s not coming. You can’t use someone else’s failure to excuse your poor performance or your lack of effort. Face it. Identify it. Decide if you’re going to stay or move on. If you’re moving on, dust off your resume and start calling. If you’re staying, you can start on the next point:

You have to clean up what you can control. These 4 dysfunctions are messy and contagious. They spill out everywhere. Working in these dysfunctions day in and day out will make good leaders sloppy. We get lazy. We convince ourselves that because the boss or the system or the organization is messy, we can be messy. You can’t. You’re better than that. You have to stop it in your corner of the world. Don’t tolerate lack of vision in whatever it is in your control. No one reports to you? Fine. Are you 100% on task or are you coasting? Are you 100% on-track with the vision for your role? Are you willing to risk and make changes (not to other people) but to they way you work? Are you willing to stomp out every bureaucratic element in your control? Work on what you can control, don’t be looking at other people’s failures. Oh, and you’re going to have to get really good at setting boundaries and expectations, but you can do it. Next you should:

Earn the right to speak up. As I said, few leaders enjoy having their failings pointed out. The people who have the best chance to make a difference are the people who earn the right to speak up. What does your organization or boss appreciate? What’s important? Rather than focus on all of their failings, begin over-delivering on your work. If you’re in a risk-adverse culture, take a few risks and be the one who takes the blame but shares the glory. Don’t complain about bad vision or poor leadership — demonstrate it. If your job is to sweep the floor, then sweep the floor with a smile and then dust the desks and leave flowers at the reception counter. Even the most dysfunctional cultures notice and appreciate over-delivery (it certainly will freak-out some people, but some will pay attention in a positive way). You should also:

Gather Allies. Don’t complain about how bad the boss is or the board is or the vice president is . . . Stop it. Really. Stop it. Don’t fall into that trap. It’ll kill your soul. Instead, seek out allies in the organization you can inspire with your vision of change. Again, careful about what you say. Who can you encourage? Who can you help do a better job? Who can you ask to critique your work? Who can you involve in your conspiracy of over-delivering? How can serving those around you change the game? Be careful, you’re not recruiting subversives. You’re finding co-workers who’ll join you in changing your corner, your spot within the organization. How can you serve those who struggle in leadership? You should:

Expect Setbacks. Dysfunctional organizations won’t change quickly or easily. And particularly, if you’re not the “bus driver,” your motivations can be misunderstood. Expect it. I suspect, if you’re like me, you’ll slip up and complain or gripe about the poor leadership (if only to yourself). Watch for it. Own it when it happens but don’t let it deter you. Prove to yourself that you have the clear vision required to lead.

So what do you think? Do “simple answer articles” bug you as much as they bug me? (Hopefully I haven’t contributed to your frustrations with this one). Can good people work well in dysfunctional organizations? How does that work? I’d love to hear about your experiences and what you’re thinking.

Always my best to you, we’re on the journey together.

All my best,

And as a reminder, if you want to give the Oneicity weekly newsletter a try, click here to subscribe…

Steve Thomas
Partner, Oneicity

(photo credit: Andre C)

Picture of Steve Thomas

Steve Thomas

5 thoughts on “what do you do when they won’t let you drive the bus”

  1. Wow, a lot to process here.

    First, the “just get over it” piece. We are not in an economy where a “stay or go” decision is easy, Steve. Unless you already have a place to “go” the answer is “stay”. The decision to leave should never be taken lightly.

    I absolutely agree with stepping up to what you can control. However, I’d add more. Control what you can, influence what you can’t control. John Maxwell has written more on the topic of influence that just about anyone I’ve ever read, and he makes it sound so easy. **GRIN** It’s not. Influence is a game of respect, trust, competency, and selling yourself. To gain the advocates that you mention later, and even the right to speak up, you MUST be good at exercising influence. With the right amount of influence, you can, in fact, steer the bus….but it’s subtle and slow.

    Okay, I covered the right to speak up in my previous statement. Nothing more to say on that. You are spot on.

    Gather allies….oh, let the political games begin. Now you’re talking about choosing sides. Be careful with this one. I’ve gathered allies in the past, only to find out I gathered the wrong ones. Let’s go back to influence. If you gather allies, gather the ones that have influence!!! You are correct that it’s about helping others, but it’s also about change. If you help the people who won’t help the change, you’ve gained nothing. Oh, there’s another thing. Be humble, and willing to admit when your view of “change” is wrong. Be open, not stubborn.

    Expect setbacks. Usually, this comes in the form of getting fired. If you appear to be a discordant note in the harmony, you will be asked to leave. Any element of change, with you as a leader, must be melodic, flowing with the team culture, and in line with the business objectives. The setbacks are often in the form of poorly defined business objectives…..back to what you can’t control. Just keep plugging along.

    Good words! Important words! Thanks for sharing!!!!


  2. @Brad — I thought about you as this was going up! I’m so glad you hopped on to discuss. The gather allies thing: I nearly edited that out but I feel strongly that if you don’t gather people around you to help, it can be miserable or impossible to survive. It’s so lonely. I don’t want anyone thinking subversive or sabotaging, but good people can work together for good.

    Love hearing from you. I know you’re in the trenches! Thanks.

  3. Peter Senge’s book “The Fifth Discipline” lays out a solid argument for having “Advocates”. Gathering allies is important, but they have to be people who will advocate for you. You and I are on the same page. You cannot fight the battle alone.

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