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Volume 15, Issue 5;   February 4, 2015: Bottlenecks: I

Bottlenecks: I

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

Some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks." The people around them repeatedly find themselves stuck, awaiting responses or decisions. Why does this happen and what are the costs?
The Niagara River and cantilever bridge

The Niagara River and the Niagara Cantilever Bridge. The turbulence of the river is due, in part, to the sheer volume of water that must pass through the narrow gorge. So it is with bottlenecks in organizations. When the volume of work that must pass through the "bottleneck" exceeds what the bottleneck can handle, turbulence and chaos are the results.

Photo by Detroit Publishing Co., courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

Some people are bottlenecks. We wait for them to decide, or to approve activities or efforts that truly are beneath their station. They and they alone can report on certain activities. They and they alone can represent those activities in meetings. Their calendars are so full that we have trouble scheduling meetings. In frustration, we call these people names: "micromanagers" or "nanomanagers" or something worse.

But labeling them doesn't solve the problem or offer much of a path to understanding it. As their supervisors, if we want to solve the problem, or as subordinates, if we want to work around it or avoid it, we'll do much better if we understand it.

Let's begin with examples of reasons why some people cannot release these tasks to the care of their subordinates or staff or team members.

Pseudo-parental attachments
Some bottleneckers attained their positions by completing particular projects successfully. They maintain emotional attachments to those projects — attachments not as strong as what parents feel for children, but in other ways analogous. Their concern for the welfare of these "child-projects" makes them reluctant to release them to others. Release, if it comes at all, can be incomplete. Thus the bottlenecker remains responsible for work that can be appropriately delegated to others.
Anxiety
Anxiety about the success of efforts that are properly the responsibility of subordinates need not derive from pseudo-parental attachments. It can arise, for example, if the bottlenecker has a mistakenly low opinion of the capabilities of the person responsible for the effort. Or the bottlenecker might fear that the effort could be at risk for other reasons, such as poor design or poor planning. Whatever the source of anxiety, instead of addressing it, the bottlenecker uses the concern to avoid entrusting the effort to the subordinate.
Political ambitions
Some activities Labeling people as micromanagers
doesn't solve the problem or
offer much of a path
to understanding it
inherently confer political stature on those who represent them to other parts of the organization. An example is reporting on the status of the development of a new product that's expected to form a future raison d'être for the company. Other examples are negotiating for funding or justifying requests for funding increases. Bottleneckers often strive to be the public face of such efforts, even if they aren't actually involved in the performance of the work itself.
Addiction to feeling needed
Although most of us feel good when others express appreciation for our work, some people measure their own self-worth almost solely in terms of how others see them. For these people, maintaining ownership of activities that others value is more than desirable. It is essential to a definition of self-worth. In a real sense, they can become addicted to feeling needed, and incapable of delegating detailed responsibility for efforts that others regard as important.

We'll continue next time with an exploration of tactics for dealing with the bottlenecking pattern.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Bottlenecks: II  Next Issue

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