What is Organizational Whiplash?

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Leaders, particularly entrepreneurial, visionary leaders, have great ideas on the daily. Well, some ideas are greater than others, but these leaders certainly don’t lack the ability to generate ideas at a sometimes alarming rate. I’m sure you’ve been in a meeting or on an email thread where your Executive came up with an idea for adding revenue, sent the team off to execute in one direction, before thinking of an even better idea, causing the team to scramble to change course and keep up. This can happen over and over again in a day, a week, or even constantly throughout the year. It feels like you, or the company as a whole, are taking one step forward, then one step to the right, to the left, then you take it back, then hop one time, stomp twice, slide to the left, slide to the right, criss cross… and then you may be right back where you started.

This is organizational whiplash, also known as whiplash leadership.

What is Organizational Whiplash?

Author of Rocket Fuel, Mark C. Winters, describes organizational whiplash as follows:
“The organization is so tuned into you and you’re ideas that when you turn your head in a certain direction, the whole organization turns along with you. Being a good visionary, soon another idea will come along and you’ll turn your head in a completely different direction. Guess what? The whole organization turns their head in the same direction with you again. Then you turn your head back in another direction, and the whole organization is just turning their head from side to side trying to keep up with you. They can’t keep up with your pace.”

Leadership development and coaching company, Korn Ferry, defines whiplash leadership “as a leader’s rapid series of decisions that often send entry-level employees, senior executives, institutional shareholders, die-hard customers, and every other form of stakeholder scrambling.”

Team members (and customers and clients) are always looking to their leader to set the pace, vision, and direction for the organization. Organizational whiplash is an extreme example of what happens when there is a constant barrage of ideas, unclear communication, rapid-fire decisions, and the lack of following any sort of strategy or plan.

Why Do Leaders Create Organizational Whiplash?

If organizational whiplash is clearly a negative, then why do leaders do it in the first place? From my experience, it’s certainly not intentional.

  • Leaders (especially visionary leaders) have a unique gift to see the future clearly and effortlessly generate ideas. And, of course, they want to share all these ideas and their vision with everyone!
  • Leaders move quickly and worry about the consequences later. They are confident in their ability to figure things out, so if their decision isn’t right, they will just pivot.
  • Leaders tend to have a relentless drive when they are passionate about an idea. That is, until the idea not longer holds their passion or interest. They can burn hot and fast, and before long they are on to the next thing.

All of these characteristics are what make visionary leaders so incredible. But, like with all strengths, they can be weaknesses too.

What Are the Consequences of Organizational Whiplash?

Leaders, employees, and companies can all suffer due to organizational whiplash. Here are seven consequences that can occur:

  1. Lack of respect for the leader – Every time a leader changes their mind, initiates a new idea, or course corrects, especially if this is a pattern or if there is little to no warning, the leader risks losing credibility, respect, and the trust of their stakeholders.
  2. Decreased productivity – When the team doesn’t know what to focus on next, or is only given a limited amount of time to make progress before a new idea or project gets put in front of them, productivity suffers.
  3. Burnout – Over time, employees may feel burned out due to lack of clarity and direction, and start to believe that their work effort is futile. This “flip-flopping” and “whiplash” from the top, can dampen morale , which may lead to more decreases in productivity, or even to the exodus of team members.
  4. Decrease in employee retention – If organizational whiplash goes on for too long, employees may move on to new opportunities where they can feel confident in their leader’s vision and leadership and see the fruits of their labor.
  5. Misuse of time and money – Moving from idea to idea doesn’t just cause issues among the team, it can have significant impact on the company’s bottom line – from wasted time and effort, to deployment of capital without any real strategy or plan. While unintentional, the consequences are real.
  6. Missed deadlines – Inevitably, without clear direction and constant changes to projects and priorities, deadlines are going to get missed. This effects deliverables to stakeholders, as well as employee morale (not to mention the P&L).
  7. Slower (or no) growth – If a leader spends money on a new project, then changes their mind, sets the team in various directions, loses employees due to lack of clarity, and generally has an unproductive team due to organizational whiplash, then growth is going to be an issue.

How Can Force Multipliers Help Their Leader Prevent Organizational Whiplash?

Jason Williford says, “The Visionary’s greatest threat to their current idea, is this next great idea that they’ve got coming along.” Well, Force Multipliers, it’s our duty to make sure the two don’t interfere with each other. So, how can Force Multipliers help their leader prevent organizational whiplash?

First, you have to do the hard thing and tell your leaders what you’re seeing. They may not even be aware that they are causing chaos in the ranks. They need to know how their ideas, lack of direction, and fast-paced decision making are impacting the team (and not in a good way!). Leaders need trusted team members to keep an eye out for their blind spots. If not you, then who? Need help having a fierce conversation? Click here.

Second, know that visionary leaders are not going to stop generating ideas, and we don’t want them too! But Force Multipliers can help prioritize those ideas and determine which are the most important ones to act on and which ones can wait. How? By asking really great questions. Not sure where to start? Check out these 10 questions to ask your leader to help prioritize and execute projects.

Finally, it’s important to create a system to capture your leader’s ideas. Just because they are not the right idea right now doesn’t mean that they aren’t a great idea to either implement, delegate, or even sell to someone else in the future. Capturing the information is key. Then, make sure you have a reminder to review the ideas on a monthly or quarterly basis. There may be an idea in there that could be harnessed to help your leader move their next initiative forward – strategically, of course.

Have you experienced whiplash in your organization? Are you a whiplash leader? What has helped you and your leader bring clarity and direction to the company?

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