25 Organizational Barriers That Waste Potential

When you’re not getting the most out of your team, it may be tempting to start up the fire-hire cycle. But employee turnover is expensive. It’s worthwhile to first take a look inward, to see if anything in the organization could be blocking progress.

Below are 25 organizational barriers to explore and get the gears turning. It’s surely not an exhaustive list, but many issues that cause wasted potential fall into these buckets.

  1. An unclear (or nonexistent) vision. When you don’t know where you’re going, the team is guaranteed to never get there. They’ll strive to look busy, yet have no idea what they should be working on or what “finished” looks like.
  2. Fear. The creative capabilities of the brain shut down when people are trapped in fight, flight, freeze or fawn. What causes fear? Fear of conflict, job loss, punishment, being ostracized, cruelty, identity loss, or other physical, emotional, and spiritual needs being taken away.
  3. Abusive management leaves teams trying to fly under the radar, lest they have to have endure a cruel encounter. They’ll avoid speaking up even when things are not working or when they know a better way. Gaslighting is abuse too. If people feel crazy, they’ll never be at their best.
  4. Management with no “skin in the game”. With risk comes reward — both the team and organization suffer alike when leaders are not held equally responsible for the risk and suffering produced by that which they benefit from. Survival and evolution, not politics and opinion, decide the true winners and losers in the end. Managers who are disconnected from disincentives will make decisions from a place of happily preserving their own power, rather than striving in service of the team. That’s a dangerous game to play.
  5. Absentee leadership, where management not only has no skin in the game, but they have no meaningful connection with the team at all. Of course, don’t mistake a functional self managing team for a dysfunctional absentee leader. The point is people need a mechanism for getting feedback from those they are accountable to, whether that’s the self-managing team or the appointed leader.
  6. Chaos leaves teams living in the weeds, never able to catch their breath or see the big picture. It comes in many different forms, such as interruptions, poor quality operations, all shallow work and no deep work, context switching, unnecessary clutter, etc. Yes, systems can help, but remember: imposing a bad system can be worse than not having any system at all. Managers should be wary of systems designed to benefit management rather than the people doing the work.
  7. Lack of freedom and autonomy. Where teams could be continuously uncovering improvements, they are instead locked into excessive regulations or an absolute process. They can’t make use of trial and error, which is essential to making new discoveries.
  8. Political environments create enemies within the walls. Rather than competing with the real threats externally, team members spend their time competing amongst each other, every man and woman for themself.
  9. Lack of data prevents the ability to spot patterns and trends. It forces bad decisions made on intuition. Teams need easy and timely access to information to reach smart and creative insights. A lack of data can be caused by many things: no access, poor transparency, no feedback mechanisms (from people or the environment), lack of training. It can even be caused by the manipulation and lies that drive political environments.
  10. Lack of education, both in hard and soft skills. Team members must continuously grow and practice new skills, or they’ll lack both the confidence and ability to progress. This is increasingly relevant in modern times due to the speed in which change occurs nowadays. Sometimes improving education is as straightforward as providing training, but there’s other factors too: Have they been presented opportunities? Are they allowed enough time to learn? What about the repetitions to learn? Etc.
  11. No time or space to safely reflect. Overcoming challenges can be a great learning experience, but don’t stop there. Teams also need time and space to reflect on those experiences, both together and individually. They need to mull over what went well and discuss options for integrating those learnings into future challenges. Reflection is necessary for insights.
  12. Goals which are purely financial. Not only does it crush motivation to feel as if you’re nothing but a cog in a wheel, but it deprives the team of important context needed to deliver high value. For example: A) Manage $100k MRR in client contracts, or B) Lead 3 month onboarding program transforming internal client culture of experimentation from Level 1 (no knowledge) to Level 2 (key stakeholders can define, frame, and initiate experiments). See the difference?
  13. No bonding experiences with other team members. Imagine what it’s like being a new member on a team. There’s so many things to know about others — who to ask what, how to deliver feedback, where individual talents lie. And people are dynamic, so you have to stay up-to-date too. Building relationships can’t be forced, scripted, or scheduled. It happens spontaneously through repeat and sustained contact over common challenges. Teams need time and space to jive with one another in order to become functional.
  14. Unclear identity. Without a clear sense of self, people force themselves down career paths they aren’t meant for, trying to gain skills that don’t match their strengths. It’s a recipe for burn out. Never mind the opportunity cost of having a person in the wrong role. This is one reason why people management skills are so crucial in leadership roles. Helping team members see themselves clearly unlocks amazing potential.
  15. No play. There are two forms — enjoying your work and having leisure time — and both are important. Finding play in work tasks is intrinsic to good role design and is a top predictor of performance. And no matter how much you love work, leisure is essential to recharge and enjoy the lighter side of things. Without play, people struggle with all manner of mental difficulty, from poor focus, to anxiety, depression, and burn out.
  16. Low wages. There is a base set of financial needs that people must meet to care for mind, body, and spirit. When these needs are left unmet, the mind is clouded with fear around income and savings and what must be done to make ends meet. All this worry and penny-pinching diverts energy away from creativity and insights.
  17. No diversity from which to source genuinely new thoughts and ideas. Many organizations struggle to attract diverse talent. One trouble area to examine is your accommodations. By definition diversity is, well… diverse, so you must be flexible to accommodate varying needs for an equitable and inclusive workplace.
  18. No dissent. That may be some managers’ worst nightmare, but research shows dissent leads to divergent thinking and innovation. It makes sense — without dissent from the status quo, commonly held beliefs, and groupthink, there would be no impetus to even begin discussions on improvements which could take place. Cherish your courageous dissenters.
  19. Overvaluing specialists or generalists. Specialists excel at producing work that does not deviate from prior performance. Generalists excel as systems thinkers and innovators across domains. The reality is you need both. And remember, you can never make someone play to strengths they don’t have. Spreading a specialist too thin across contexts or demanding a generalist work in a tiny box is wasted potential.
  20. Inadequate tools. These can be physical tools, but also mental ones. Imagine a builder with no hammer, or a strategist with no mental models. Without a basic set of tools and a safe environment to use them in, you’ll never have what’s needed at a fundamental level to make progress.
  21. No inspiration. It can bloom from leadership, purpose, free time, curiosity, peers, family, autonomy, or something else entirely. You can never force someone to be inspired — it’s born within the self through discovery, novelty, and variety. A source of inspiration is a highly individual thing.
  22. Lack of constraints. It may be tempting to have none — after all, wouldn’t they restrict a problem space? But no constraints result in big swings to achieve too much and often end up achieving nothing at all. Don’t confuse constraints with regulation. Over-regulating restricts important trial and error discoveries. Proper constraints can produce brilliant creativity through critical thinking in unexpected ways.
  23. Poor physical health and diet among the team. Whether folks suffer from RSI, eye strain, low energy, or something else, if they feel like garbage day after day, the results will end up garbage in the long term too.
  24. Micromanagement, and its cousin, meddling management. Both undermine team trust and their ability to make progress, all for the sake of a manager’s ego. The team needs space to think their own thoughts and make their own mistakes, to turn small short term losses into huge long term gains. The manager’s role in this process is to facilitate and serve, not dictate.
  25. Promoting the wrong people. Gallup found that 82% of managers lack the necessary skills for the job, and that 70% of variance in employee engagement can be accounted to management. Read that again. If the team isn’t progressing, start investigating your management. Often neither the loud confident speaker nor the most diligent specialist is the right fit. Rather, great managers know how to motivate every individual with a vision, assertively move towards outcomes, create clear accountability, build transparent relationships, make decisions on productivity, and resist workplace politics.

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