It’s great to feel like an important part of your workplace and your team, but when this goes too far, leaders can find themselves being a bottleneck.
The term bottleneck refers to the narrow opening at the top of a bottle. It is the part that lets the liquid out, and it controls the rate of flow when you pour from the bottle, because it’s the smallest opening.
If we think of this in terms of leadership, it’s a little different.
It means we are limiting the flow to or from our team in some way. If a leader is being a bottleneck, they are usually limiting productivity or communication and slowing things down.
How Does a Leadership Bottleneck Show Up In a Team?
There are a few issues that can arise when a leader becomes a bottleneck for the team.
Firstly, the leader may limit the productivity of the team. This could happen when a leader wants to review everything that the team produces, before it is released into the organisation.
Being a bottleneck can also cause issues by limiting communication of the team with the outside world. For example, the leader may choose to be the only person who speaks to senior executives or other important stakeholders, instead of allowing team members to communicate with them directly.
Bottlenecking can occur in decision-making too. When a leader decides that they need to be involved in every decision of a team, this limits the potential of team members. When all decisions need to be made by a single person, team members might need to wait for sign-off before they can make any progress.
Learn More: 3 Simple Leadership Principles to Improve Your Effectiveness,
So What’s the Real Impact the Bottleneck in the Team?
We’ve seen that a few common bottleneck areas can lie in communication, productivity and decision-making.
So what impact does this really have on a team, other than just slowing things down?
Here are a few impacts I’ve noticed when the leader becomes a bottleneck:
- Slower progress. This is obvious. If a leader needs to be involved in reviewing or checking everything, the team members need to wait for the leader to be available.
- Greater risk. If people are relying on you for everything, what happens when you’re sick or on holiday? Things could fall in a big heap pretty quickly if you’re not careful.
- Less autonomy. When team members aren’t able to make decisions about their own work, they’ll have less autonomy. A lack of autonomy generally leads to lower motivation.
- Less proactivity. Linked with lower autonomy, team members will stop being proactive when they know they have no say in decisions within the team. Instead, they’ll simply wait for the leader to tell them what to do.
- Slower growth and development. When team members aren’t able to make their own decisions or communicate with senior leadership, they’ll be stuck in a bubble, relying on the leader for everything. This can slow development, because team members are less exposed to growth opportunities and new situations that may stretch them.
As you can probably appreciate, these impacts can be terrible when it comes to team motivation and development. Being a bottleneck can do a lot of harm to a team over time, so we need to be careful not to fall into bottleneck habits!
Next, we’ll take a look at why leaders may fall into the trap of being a bottleneck in their team.
Learn More: 4 Types of Motivation to Look For In Your Team.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #71: A Simple Model for Team Motivation.
Why Do Leaders Fall Into the Habit of Being a Bottleneck?
There are several common reasons why a leader may fall into the trap of being a bottleneck in their team.
I’ve never met a leader who really wants to be a bottleneck. Often, they find themselves stuck in this situation, and need some help getting out of it.
Some of the reasons for leadership bottlenecking include:
- Fear of failure. Some leaders fear that if they don’t oversee everything, something will go wrong. Then they’ll look bad, or get in trouble.
- Lack of trust. Linked to the fear of failure is often a lack of trust in the team. Leaders feel they can’t depend on their team to deliver, so they exert tighter control over the situation
- Insecurity. Some leaders feel insecure about their own capabilities or their position in the organisation. Instead of delegating or letting others make decisions, they make themselves indispensable by being a bottleneck.
When I’m working with a leader in this situation, I often hear them say that they don’t have any option, other than to keep tight control over everything, and be that bottleneck.
Then my focus is to help them see things differently, and to start to develop small actions that can help them feel more comfortable letting go over time.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #78: Want to Feel More In Control of Your Team? Try Letting Go.
How to Stop Being a Bottleneck In Your Team
We’ve looked at some of the impacts and causes of this bottleneck behaviour. So now it’s time to look ahead and ask “what are we gonna do about it?”
Here are some ideas to try if you want to break your bottlenecking tendencies.
1. Understand Your Own Fears
It’s a good idea to start with yourself, first.
If you are being a bottleneck, there is a reason. We don’t just do it for fun.
Dig deep and ask yourself questions such as:
“What am I afraid will happen if I let go?”
“What is the benefit for me in staying as a bottleneck? And is it really a benefit? Or is it actually damaging the team?”
“What is it specifically about the situation that is making me feel uncomfortable?”
If you can answer these questions honestly, it’s a great starting point to improving the situation.
Not only can these answers motivate you to make a change, they can also help you pinpoint the areas you’ll need to fix to stop being a bottleneck.
Learn More: Are You Holding Yourself Back? Spot the Signs.
2. Tell Your Team What You’re Trying to Do
A good first step is to communicate with your team, to let them know what you are trying to achieve.
For example, you might tell them that you’d like them to step up and contribute more, to develop their skills further, or to gain more exposure to senior leadership within the organisation.
You might also tell them that you’re trying to focus on the “big picture”. To take a more strategic view to improve the team, instead of being caught up in the details of the work.
This will help your team to get on board with your approach, rather than trying to work out what’s behind your change of behaviour.
3. Develop the Skills of Your Team Members
One of the common reasons that leaders become a bottleneck is because they fear failure. They feel that their team members are not up to the task, or won’t be able to deliver to the right level of quality.
Building the skills of your team can help with this. If you can trust them to perform at the right level, and deliver the right outcome, this can help you to feel more comfortable letting go.
Focus on your key areas of concern, and help your people grow their skills. Set clear expectations of quality and what you need from them. Provide feedback, and coach your team to help them overcome their challenges.
In short, support your team to help them develop faster. This will help them… but it will also help you feel more comfortable.
Learn More: Risk & Reward: How to Provide Development Opportunities For Your Team.
4. Lower Your Standards
Some leaders have very high standards and perfectionist tendencies. These are big drivers of bottleneck behaviour.
Look for areas where you may be able to compromise on standards.
Does everything need to be of the very highest quality? Or can you relax a little? Does it need to be perfect? Or just pretty good?
Yes, there are some areas where you need things to be just right. But rarely does everything fall into this category.
If you can lower your standards just a little, you might find your team members can meet them. Over time, this will help you to feel more confident about letting them get on with it.
Learn More: How Being a Perfectionist Leader is Killing Your Leadership.
5. Embrace the Possibility of Failure
It’s time to be honest.
If you let go and stop being a bottleneck … something could go wrong. Your team could make a mistake, people might get angry, the company could lose money.
However, failure is always a possibility when you make a change. It’s also the time when you learn the most.
Prepare for the possibility of failure. Consider what might go wrong, and develop some measures to reduce the risks. But above all, you’ll need to accept that failure is a possibility.
It’s not all bad though, because below are a few extra steps that will help to reduce the issues associated with failure!
6. Delegate and Implement “Guard Rails”
If you’re a bottleneck for your team, you’ll probably need to delegate more.
This doesn’t just mean delegating tasks – it also means delegating accountability. For example, you might delegate some aspect of decision-making to your team members, rather than making all the decisions yourself.
You can also look for opportunities to delegate responsibility for a function of the team. For example, perhaps your team uses a special system to deliver its work.
You could make a team member accountable for “owning” the system. Making sure it is working properly, that it’s kept up to date, and that any new features can be implemented and that there is documentation available to help others learn about the system.
After you’ve delegated, you can then set up what I call “guard rails”. Guard rails will help you maintain oversight of progress and quality, without resorting to micromanagement.
For example, you may check-in with a team member once per week to discuss progress and provide coaching, after you’ve delegated. Delegation doesn’t always mean you just “leave them to it” without checking in.
Put some steps in place so that you can still have an idea of what’s going on, without needing to be involved the entire time.
For more about delegation, you can read the related articles below.
Learn More: The Downsides of the Delegating Leadership Style.
Learn More: How to Delegate Work to Improve Your Team.
Learn More: Why Leaders Don’t Delegate Tasks (and How to Fix It).
7. Communicate With Your Key Stakeholders
Removing yourself as a bottleneck comes with risk. Your team members will be used to operating with you as an integral part of every process, and now you’re trying to step back.
One way to reduce this risk is to communicate your goals with your key stakeholders. This might include your own manager, colleagues or any senior leaders that need to know.
Communicate what you are trying to achieve, and why. If you can get them on board, they will support you to remove yourself as a bottleneck and improve the team.
They will also be aware of the risks, and the possibility that quality may suffer in the short term, while your team is making the change.
Learn More: Stakeholder Management Tips For the Everyday Leader.
8. Focus On More Strategic Activities
As a bottleneck, you’re probably used to focusing on the detailed work of your team.
Instead, it’s time to step up a level. To focus more on the strategic, big-picture view, rather than the detail. The detail is often better handled by your team members who are closer to the work.
Some strategic activities to focus on include:
- Planning. What’s next for your team? How can you set it up for success?
- Continuous Improvement. Are there improvement opportunities that could make your team better? These can also be used as development opportunities for your team.
- Networking. Strategic leaders are well-connected. They speak often with other leaders at all levels, build strong relationships and help themselves remain “in the know.”
- Development and Growth. How can you help your people develop their skills? Can you create a pathway for them to improve? What about succession planning – for someone to eventually replace you when you go onto bigger and better things?
Taking a more strategic view will help you to step back from the minute details, and hopefully encourage you to let go a little more!
Being a Bottleneck Isn’t the Goal, But It Happens
Few leaders set out to become a bottleneck for their team, but it can happen over time.
Before you know it, people are relying on you too much and you’re involved in everything.
But there is hope.
Start by working on yourself, then see if you can put some of these steps in place to slowly reduce your bottlenecking tendencies over time.
You can do it, if you want to.
Are you a recovering bottleneck leader, or are you struggling with this issues? Tell your story in the comments below!
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