Quicksand is one of most prolific adventure fiction obstacles in Hollywood movies, and it’s easy to see why – being absorbed by a mass of sand or mud is one of the scariest moments you could ever encounter.

Quicksand often appears to be solid, but a minor change in stress on the quicksand will spark a sudden drop in its viscosity, causing someone stepping on it to sink. A quicksand warning sign would make you alert and extremely cautious with every step, but what happens when you are already on quicksand?

If we consider quicksand as a business metaphor, are there any warning signs to help guide the way safely?

Business organisations aspire to scale-up after a few successful years of operation amidst market uncertainties and turmoil. Scaling-up is an exciting process, but one which often presents unprecedented challenges capable of derailing even the most successful of businesses. Organisations embark on the journey of scaling-up, only to suddenly realise that they are in quicksand, with ill-equipped crew and sick managers.

Are you a sick manager?

Sick managers pose a severe threat to an organisation’s ability to navigate market challenges, through biased actions and incompatible motives. A manager turns ‘sick’ when they are exposed to sudden change or turbulent events and are unable to cope with the resulting constraints. Once a high-performing resource becomes sick, personal ambitions starts prevailing over organisational goals and the situation converts them into a rebel force within the organisation.

Sick manager symptoms

• Fear of substandard performance

Being a high performing resource, managers are often concerned about their authority and stature when they are presented with a challenge or a change. With scaling-up, a manager who was successful in the past may prove to be incompetent in the current context. The possible consequences of inferior performance make them risk-averse and they could become a dividing force against change within the organisation. New strategies and initiatives can be discarded without validation of merits as a result.

• Fear of surveillance and insecurity

The notion of feeling secure when you are under surveillance is the opposite to what  a sick manager feels. The fact that performance is measured against specified standards makes them vulnerable and drives them towards disorienting processes and the hindering of information flow to top management. Quite often only information that is ‘nice’ to hear is passed on to top management, which depicts a far-from-realistic scenario.

• Obsession with being a focal point or centre of attraction

The desire to hold key information in a manner which is not accessible to anyone else is another key trait of sick managers. They believe it is a source of power which makes them a focal point and they often shield this with the notion of confidentiality. A person-centric culture is developed, wherein organisations needs to depend upon an individual for key decisions. This fear of power erosion prevents the transformation of an organisation from a person-driven culture to a process-driven culture.

It can be wrong for an organisation to diagnose symptoms of sickness in its early stages itself. Unlike rivals, sick managers impact the core capability of the organisation. When the leaders are biased, the organisation can miss the warning signs of quicksand and perish in the long run. In that case it’s an internal force making the firm sink in the quicksand, rather than external factors.

Transparency: the panacea

Assimilating transparency into the culture of the organisation from the initial stages is the key to addressing the concern of managerial sickness.

Transparency in processes, workflows, and decision-making creates accountability and channels all efforts towards attainment of organisational goals. While scaling-up or navigating through market turmoil, the transparent view of organisational performance will be helpful in adopting a suitable strategy. Once transparency is established, performance parameters can be assigned and effectively monitored for every employee.

Are you a sick manager? If the answer is even a partial yes, be prepared for a cultural shift on the horizon.