Tensions faced by leaders: The inherent conflict and tension that exist within manager's and leader's roles
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Tensions faced by leaders: The inherent conflict and tension that exist within manager’s and leader’s roles

Tensions faced by leaders

Tensions faced by leaders: An interesting paper, about the tensions faced by leaders in health care scenarios shows some really useful constructs for leaders and managers in other contexts. The study found that there are often perceived differences between the aims of different parts of managers jobs. In this case between the aims of the role of being a nursing manager and the aims of being a health service provider. The tensions between the differing aims of different parts of the job usually means that the leaders’ and managers’ ability to deliver improvements are frequently undermined.

This research briefing was sent to members in May 2017

3 main sets of tensions faced by leaders

The study found that there tend to be three main management themes around the issue of tensions faced by leaders:

1.    Visibility and leading by example
2.    Empty conformity
3.    Authority and autonomy

Management tension

Visibility and leading by example

The managers felt that they should be visible to the staff and acting as role models. Being seen and leading by example is a primary role for managers at the practice level but this is often perceived also as an issue of tension by leaders and managers as they feel they are always on show.

As one manager stated “Leading by example and having high standards and making sure that everyone’s aware of the standards… because you’ve shown them… If they see you’ve got really high standards and that’s what you expect of yourself then that’s what you expect of everyone else.”

Further that leaders with such a mind-set tend to have a much better grasp of what is going on in their areas and how their people are performing, than managers who remain removed.


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Out of balance

However, the managers often found that they were being removed from this primary management and leadership role in order to feed an administrative system that wasn’t designed around their core function. In effect the managers were rapidly becoming servants of the system rather than helping to manage the system. For example, it was found that the managers were often having to supply the extensive requirements of audits, providing information for other IT systems, form filling and conforming to administrative tasks and organisational targets.


Leaders tensions

Empty conformity

Managers were in effect experiencing a sense of empty conformity to largely administrative edicts and tasks, rather than being engaged in their primary aims as managers. Part of the problem stems from the fact that the administrative functions of the organisation have the power to demand attention to tasks in a way that interferes with and often supersedes the operational requirements of the job. As a result the managers end up being regularly diverted from their primary role as manager.

As one manager put it “If you sent me something rubbish to do, I’d think all right I’ll do it… a complete waste of time. I don’t agree with what you’re asking me to do, but I’m not gonna change anything. So I might as well just do it… you pay me to be here… if you really want me to waste my time by transcribing this onto there… Before, I’d just get angry about it and now I only argue if I really think it’s out of order, what you’re asking me to do. I just think “Oh, whatever.”

This creates a systemic issue of empty conformity, where managers just accept and get used to feeding a system, with little enthusiasm. This then becomes a management habit.

The researchers found that this pressure from the system means the managers lose focus and lose sight of what is important and what their real aims are. In effect the administrative system is creating more than just a burden on the managers, it is slowing productivity and demotivating managers.



Loss of authority and autonomy

A secondary but important issue is that managers frequently feel that the system, the organisation and the senior management are taking away their professional authority and autonomy by imposing ever stricter rules and polices and not allowing the managers to take responsibility and make decisions. In the end the managers get a sense that “It’s not worth fighting it”. It’s easier just to conform.


There is usually a tension between the operational and administrative functions of any role. However, when this isn’t being monitored and managed effectively it can get out of balance, creating long term demotivation, empty conformity and a lack of willingness to challenge the status-quo.

Reference – available to members


Overview There is usually a tension between the operational and administrative functions of any role. When this isn’t being monitored and managed effectively it can get out of balance, creating long term demotivation, empty conformity and a lack of willingness to challenge the status-quo. Where the operational work and administrative tasks do get out of balance 3 things tend to happen: 1. Managers tend to reduce their level of visibility and presence in the workplace 2. The tend to engage in empty conformity 3. They tend to feel a loss of authority and autonomy

A model for coping with the paradoxes of management

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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page