The perils of over-functioning

Sep 30, 2019

When executives do too much, they might be avoiding a problem, and they can damage the firm in the process.

A well-meaning executive zooms around the office taking care of everything, and I mean, everything: announcing the new company health plan rather than the finance director who negotiated it; revising a business forecast prepared by the department’s financial analyst; rearranging the marketing boards late at night after that department has gone home; testing the video links for a speech another executive plans to give. Sometimes, they even make coffee.

Have you met this person? They exist everywhere and at all levels of leadership. While their intentions may be pure, over-functioners create more problems than they solve. Their drive to get things done can eclipse organizational issues and, if not addressed, impair company growth and morale.

Organizational consequences. Below are some of the many possible organizational consequences:

  • Avoidance of responsibilities. The over-functioner might invade the turf of others because they don’t like their home turf or want to avoid something. The leader who reorders marketing department photo displays might be seeking a diversion from thinking about whether they have developed a winning pitch.
  • Letting others off the hook. The over-functioner’s willingness to assume a task assigned to others frees those employees of unpleasant job responsibilities. The finance director might welcome not having to announce new health plan benefits and fielding the ensuing complaints, but it does not advance their career.
  • Mediocre work. Taking over the work of others could result in doing work outside the leader’s expertise. For example, executives often dive into marketing, underestimating the depth of customer analysis required. In fact, marketing is not just pretty pictures and the executive meddling could yield a suboptimal result.
  • Role and responsibilities confusion. Roles and responsibilities are hard to establish and maintain at the best of times. When someone invades the territory of others, things get confused. Over-functioning might slap a Band-Aid on an issue of a neglected function, but Band-Aids wear out and fall off.
  • It masks a performance issue. There are times when shouldering the responsibilities of an employee signals an employee performance issue. The executive who announced the new health plan wanted to dodge confronting the finance director’s refusal to do their job. The executive’s failure to address it perpetuated the issue and wasted valuable time and energy that the executive could have directed toward business development.
  • It does not cure the underlying fear issue. Over-functioning and its first cousins – micromanagement and perfectionism – pull from a place of fear. The feeling might be warranted because of a true emergency, such as a client threatening to fire you. More likely, it represents that person’s approach to risk. Rather than live with the scariness of others producing work upon which the executive must rely, they try to control the outcome by doing the work themselves. This defensive behavior leads to disempowerment and disengagement of employees who will ratchet down their efforts and vote with their feet.

Over-functioners intervention plan. With so many negative consequences, it behooves an organization to address over-functioning behavior directly. Here are three steps:

  1. Recognize it. People usually know when their turf has been invaded. The challenge is to call it out. This is hard, particularly when the over-functioner is a senior executive. No one wants to say the emperor has no clothes. If several executives are implicated, conduct an evaluation of firm culture and the optimization of its roles and responsibilities. Then address individual executive needs. If the issue lies with the chief executive, the board must address it as part of that person’s performance evaluation.
  2. Determine root causes. Once the over-functioning behavior is identified, create a process to investigate the underlying cause. It could include any or all of the following: The executive is interfering because of an underperforming employee. The role of the employee is ill-defined, leaving it open as to who does what. The executive has trouble trusting the work of others on properly delegable items.
  3. Make a plan. After determining the root causes, make a plan to rectify them. An underperforming employee will require feedback and training. Role confusion points to a need for developing explicit roles and responsibilities. Coaching will help a fearful executive with trust issues, their relationship with risk, and motivating employees.

While an executive fussing with marketing boards late at night might be amusing, widening the view to the larger firm picture will benefit both the company and the executive.

Julie Benezet spent 25 years in law and business, and for the past 18 years has coached and consulted with executives from virtually every industry. She earned her stripes for leading in the discomfort of the new as Amazon’s first global real estate executive. She is author of the award-winning The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None. Her new workbook, The Journal of Not Knowing, a self-guided discovery mission to learn how to navigate the discomfort of the new to pursue one’s dreams, was released in fall 2018. She can be reached at

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