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Blowing Up Soul-Crushing Fiefdoms

Microsoft’s Former COO on Overcoming the Fiefdom Syndrome

Healthy, vibrant workplace cultures make my job as a recruiter easier. People want to work for companies that have cultures that value and reward innovative thinking, passion and commitment. As a result, the magic of how winning cultures are established and evolve has always intrigued me – especially the idea of how to foster teamwork and protect against bad apples.

I read an interesting article by Robert Herbold on this topic: How destructive “fiefdoms” gain a foothold and what companies can do to starve them off. Herbold was COO at Microsoft during the 1990s and is credited with creating cohesive and consistent culture even as the company grew by 30% every year.

We’ve all encountered fiefdoms. They’re dysfunctional alliances within organizations that zap productivity and collaboration by being difficult to work with. I call it the DMV Effect: Process and rules that defy logic, create gridlock and put everyone in a bad mood while accomplishing nothing.

According to Herbold, fiefdoms form when people worry more about protecting their jobs than contributing to company goals. Instead of productive work, their focus is on creating a unique bureaucracy and controlling information so that can become indispensable.

So what can companies do to combat fiefdoms?

1.       Promote job security. Recognizing that fiefdoms originate from defensiveness, leadership teams should establish a culture that rewards effective employees and makes them feel recognized and critical to the company’s success.

2.       Solutions should trump process. Encourage innovative thinking and a proactive, united approach to business challenges, as opposed to defensive and responsive CYA-type behavior.

3.       Make data accessible to everyone. Fiefdoms can’t exist where everyone has access to the same data. Consider how a Sales department could manipulate or “spin” their performance if sales metrics weren’t accessible to everyone in the company. Standardize the way data is shared and interpreted across departments, so that everyone is reading and working toward the same metrics.

4.       Regularly assess strengths and weaknesses. Fiefdoms survive because they focus more on documenting their performance rather than actual, meaningful contributions. Leaders should regularly evaluate real data and acknowledge opportunities for improvement. In other words, keep raising the bar.

Herbold’s book

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