The Tyranny of the Functionary

The Tyranny of the Functionary


If you have managed a group of people for any period of time, you’ve run across the phenomena I like to call the “Tyranny of the Functionary.”

The buying manager who withholds approval on purchasing because of a laundry list of vendor rules. The tech manager who adheres to a monoculture ecosystem unwilling to consider other alternatives. The creative in your company who refuses to do as a customer wants, hiding behind design guidelines. The “indispensable man” who simply flat out refuses assignments that they don’t want to do.

All of these scenarios have the following in common:

  • Your company’s policies and guidelines are being used to shirk or avoid work, rather than advance your company’s mission of service to your customers;
  • The person is in a bottleneck or gatekeeper role; and,
  • The person is perceived to be irreplaceable, either by themselves or their direct supervisors.

Sadly, these are the people that are keeping your enterprise from being great. And you’re letting them.

In 99% of the cases above, these “human productivity inhibitors” are knowledgeable, capable, and competent. They simply want to do things their way, how they want to do it, and when they want to do it, regardless of the larger enterprise priorities in play.

And they don’t imagine themselves as inhibitors at all. In fact, most of them will tell anyone interested that the place couldn’t run without them. Sometimes, this is even true.

Think about how many meetings you have been in in your career where that “one person” sidetracks every discussion and decision, on some procedural matter or precedent. The person who is always throwing up objections.

Dr. No.

It is your responsibility as a leader, to apply some long overdue institutional Drano to your organization’s productivity blockage.

How does one go about doing this?

  • By making sure everyone in your organization understands your larger institutional mission, and applying that to every decision, from the color of your drapes to what markets you’re going to compete in. When your “tyrannical functionary” rears their head on process or procedure, apply this larger institutional litmus test to the contretemps, and push your way through.
  • By going into every meeting prepared and armed with the best facts at your disposal.
  • By making sure that you have a team of cross-trained and cross functional talent in your organization, with no single point of failure living in one person’s irreplaceable domain knowledge.

Ultimately, dealing with the tyranny of the functionary comes down to a matter of will: your will to do what’s right for the organization, against the will of the individual(s) in your company holding things up.

Persuade them. Train them. Reassign them. Fire them.

You’re the leader. Lead.

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