In every organisation, there are blind spots, power vacuums and no-go areas where money and opportunity leak away into a void where nobody seems accountable. There may be several root causes – too much power accumulating at the top of the organisation, a lack of strategic clarity, poor organisational design or weak leadership. Its effects are corrosive on engagement and performance.

A Senior Vice President, heading up a multi-billion dollar division of a one of the world’s largest software companies, told us: “We’re asked to think and act as CEOs of our own company, but in reality, we have little real control over how we run this organisation – we operate it, we don’t run it.” Our experience tells us that this is a common characteristic, leading to a ‘control gap’, or a ‘No Man’s Land’.

Leaders and managers focus their attention on what they don’t govern, leading them to weaken their grip on what they do control. This can be seen very clearly in the case of an intervention we conducted with the UK division of a global manufacturer. We asked its leadership team to rate the control it exerted over 16 strategic decision areas (e.g. budgetary allocation, sales targets, marketing spend, headcount investment, training and development, research and development). We then asked them to rate the control exerted on those decisions by their line managers at the head office. Combining both sides, the maximum control was 100%, split between the UK division and the HQ.

What they didn’t know was that this exercise was being conducted simultaneously with their bosses, 6,000 miles away. When the data was compared, the average ‘control gap’ was a factor of nearly 40% across the board: the UK team believed it had 30% control over the development of its customer management system, whereas the HQ believed it had less than 10% control. In the majority of the 16 factors, the head office managers perceived that the local team had considerably more autonomy and control over decisions than the local team believed.

The basis of this astonishing gap is undoubtedly a dearth of effective relationships, trust and dialogue, but at its real heart is individuals’ judgment being emotionally distorted by the perceived lack of being in control. What we’ve found is that typically, one or two negative, but relatively minor trigger events or symbols – “we’re not allowed to decide the timing of an event” or “we can’t flex our budget between teams” – lead managers to project a lack of control across the board. This creates a vicious cycle of diminished accountability, with an underlying narrative of “I can’t”. If leaders feel like this, imagine the downstream effect on their people. Regardless of the words they might use, their mind-set of diminished power casts a long shadow over the organisation.

With the rising demands on locally facing parts of organisations to respond ever more rapidly to customer needs, is ‘just’ managing the business enough? Leaders now need to exert maximum control over local needs for innovation and responsiveness. The no-man’s land of turf wars or expedient leadership behaviour increasingly won’t cut it.