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What Happens When Leaders Divide to Conquer

Working with teams or leaders in conflict is a crucial part of many of my assignments — even when it was not included in the original scope of work.

Sometimes these disagreements arise because individual team members or colleagues instigate dissension or turmoil. Historical norms and structural changes can also trigger or perpetuate interpersonal or interdepartmental problems. But surprisingly frequently, conflicts arise from a lack of alignment around goals and responsibilities caused by a leadership structure called “hub-and-spoke.”

The term hub-and-spoke originally referred to a transportation model in which small, regional airports funneled flights to larger, centralized ones. In management terminology, it’s an informal, centralized way for a leader to maintain almost unilateral power, whether or not that’s the leader’s stated or recognized intention.

Who Benefits from Hub-and-Spoke Leadership?

No matter what the published org chart says, many leaders operate in this center-focused mode to foster a stronger sense of both relationship and control. Hub-and-spoke leaders tend to think, proudly, “I’m in charge here! I’m directing Jane, I’m directing Joe, I’m directing Judy, I’m directing Josh, I’m directing Julia.” This type of leader considers what she wants for and from each of the individuals reporting to her, and guides them to accomplish those goals.

Team members may like the hub-and-spoke arrangement too, particularly if they’re the leader’s favorite, or have other clear advantages like the highest-status assignment or largest territory, the biggest budget, the best brand, etc. But underdog employees usually feel unsupported and disengaged, except for those who see it as an opportunity to stay under the radar and do their own thing.

What Can Go Wrong?

Unfortunately, hub-and-spoke leaders often lose sight of their team’s joint potential and the synergy that comes from all members working in concert. Over time, they focus more on their own effectiveness and satisfaction with each relationship, rather than on the team’s overall success.

If an individual relationship feels good, these leaders tend to think everything’s okay, often without realizing where one department stymies another. Some leaders actually assign overlapping responsibilities to give individual team members “what they want” or in the misguided hope of stimulating more action — causing members to step on each other’s turf and toes.

Inevitably, conflict ensues when goals or processes are misaligned. But in the hub-and-spoke setup, the leaders only hear about problems from team members individually; they never see the whole picture at once — just slices, one by one. They don’t benefit from the dialog that occurs among collaborative, open team members, so they rarely adjust their perceptions about the appropriateness of assignments or goals — not even when results are not coming in as expected. Instead, they hold individuals responsible.

Hub-and-spoke leaders usually consider disagreements to be personal matters and believe that employees should work things out on their own. But this distancing mechanism protects the leader from taking uncomfortable problems seriously enough. Unfortunately, such leaders can come across as paternalistic, arbitrary, or unaware when they take themselves off the hook, with no responsibility for finding a way to resolve the conflict. Working in a team like this can feel like being a member of some kind of dysfunctional family model: Who’s Mom mad at today? Who’s Dad’s favorite this quarter?

Can You Remodel the Hub-and Spoke?

It can take a long time for hub-and-spoke ineffectiveness to be accurately diagnosed. Observers often accept the leader’s assessment that any problems are caused by personality issues, an unfair reward system, or an insufficient understanding about how business implementation is supposed to work. So the symptoms may be fixed repeatedly before the underlying cause ever comes to light.

Even then, it’s a significant challenge to shift divide-and-conquer leaders, who need to become more aware of the group’s dynamics as well as their own. Leaders who care about the success of their people and organization are typically open to interventions, but defensive, self-protective leaders of any kind have a hard time hearing and adopting necessary feedback.

And purely goal-oriented leaders, who are more concerned with meeting their metrics than honoring cultural values, rarely change. The overall situation may not improve at all during their tenure.

On rare occasions, team members form a compact and start collaborating on their own for the sake of the business and their joint success. The leader then benefits from the improved outcomes, and sometimes sees that the new way is more productive. But more often than not, a more senior leader — or even the board — must intervene. Executive teams or boards may also bring in an outside consultant or coach to work with leaders who have a blind spot in this regard.

Onward and upward,

LK

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