Every organization needs individuals who can sign off on new ideas. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. But what happens when these people are obstructive gatekeepers who stand in the way of innovation and creativity?
Defining a gatekeeper
In his excellent book The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World (2010), Chris Guillebeau defines a gatekeeper this way:
Gatekeeper. n. 1. A person or group with a vested interest in limiting the choices of other people. 2. An obstacle that must be overcome to achieve unconventional success.
Sound familiar? If so, read on.
Human hedgerows in organizations
Guillebeau encourages people to find more independent ways to work, and many would benefit from considering that possibility. But what about the vast share of people who, by choice or circumstance, work in conventional organizations?
Mediocre, underperforming, and dysfunctional organizations are filled to the brim with gatekeepers. They sap creative and entrepreneurial energies, discourage innovation, and chase away — literally or figuratively — those who bring generosity of spirit and mind to the enterprise.
Dealing and negotiating with a Dr. No can be a maddening experience. He may be limited in terms of his own performance and presence, but often he functions as a mighty human hedgerow at blocking positive change.
Groups functioning as gatekeepers — such as committees with oversight and approval authority — often are driven by shared desires to control organizational agendas. They are master practitioners of groupthink. In worst case scenarios, a gatekeeping group can become a mob, acting out against an innovator or a non-conformist.
It gets personal — and sometimes passively-aggressive
Many gatekeepers resent “live wires” who bring originality and fresh energies into the room. Accordingly, the bureaucratic, gatekeeping mindset resists both new ideas and those suspected of harboring them. It is likely that someone regarded as a non-conformist will experience extra heavy gatekeeping resistance to a proposal or suggestion, simply because of the source.
In darker situations, gatekeeping can be a form of intentional exclusion, perhaps a passive-aggressive, bullying-type tactic. It’s a way of keeping someone in their place, blocking them from advancement, or preventing them from making a unique contribution. A manager who resents a talented subordinate can use gatekeeping as a way to keep them down, while maintaining plausible deniability that the decision was on the merits.
What gatekeeping is not
Okay, there can be another side to the story.
Some ideas just aren’t very good. At times, an individual proposing an initiative may lack the judgment, ability, or even trustworthiness to pull it off successfully. And even the best of organizations have dealt with individuals who cloak naked, clawing ambition and outright power grabs under the guise of being innovative.
Troubleshooting proposals at the outset can save organizations a lot of frustrations and blow-ups later, not to mention time and money. Good organizations wisely and fairly vet new ideas, as well as the individuals who offer them. Good ideas and good people can pass an honest review of asking what can go wrong.
How to cope with them
When confronted with genuinely obstructive organizational gatekeepers, what are your options? Consider these questions and possibilities:
1. What can you do on your own authority, without running afoul of gatekeepers and putting your job in jeopardy? For example, maybe your idea or project doesn’t need gatekeeping approval under the protocols and policies of your organization.
2. Can you go around gatekeepers through intelligent and strategic manipulation of your bureaucracy? Perhaps you can get the green light from someone above them. That said, consider such options very carefully. It can burn bridges and leave you defenseless.
3. Is there a way of packaging your idea that makes it seem less innovative? Boldness is threatening to the average gatekeeper. Maybe you can pitch your proposal as more run-of-the-mill stuff.
4. If you’re not in the good graces of the gatekeepers, can you enlist the support of someone who is less threatening to them? Perhaps a colleague who is perceived as less of a threat can be out front in obtaining the go ahead.
5. Is this an idea that will keep until a gatekeeper is removed or you change your situation? Delaying implementation of an innovative idea creates the risk that someone else will beat you to it. But sometimes you can bide your time until circumstances change.
As you can see, there are no easy answers concerning how to navigate these dreamkillers. But sometimes it is possible to work around them, and hopefully that will be the case when you have an awesome new idea worth pursuing.
This post was revised in August 2020.
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You’re right that these are all good strategies. The question for many of us becomes, though, how long do we (must we) continue to employ them? When is enough … enough?
I dearly wish that most of us had control over the question of how long we continue to employ these gatekeepers. Realistically, though, it usually comes down to can we cope with them, or do things reach a point where we simply give up (i.e., become less engaged, more withdrawn) or move on.
Suggesting that gatekeeping is a destructive act by one of more individuals ignors the fact that even really smart people have different opinions, that a gatekeeper was assigned to keep the gate, and that “unconventional success” is very often off strategy.
Hi Arnold, I think our disagreement may be one of definition rather than substance. As I note at the outset of the post, every organization needs people who can screen ideas and proposals. The definition of gatekeeper used in the post obviously has a more negative connotation — i.e., that of someone who reflexively blocks innovation and creative thinking.
I have to post because I was recently accused of being a gatekeeper by someone. I have a certain skill set and am licensed. The individual who accused me of gatekeeping was poorly placed into a position with limited training and no role clarification. She started to dominate other group members and interfere with my role as a leader/facilitator. This individuals behaviors were fun at first but then she began to interupt the processes of the group. So, I was the one who had to clarify roles and set limits for reasons associated with liability among other things. So now I am the one who is the “bad guy” or “gatekeeper”. Not the responsible person who provides quality services or the one who doesnt want to lose their license, but the gatekeeper. I strive to include everyone and listen to every voice because I believe we get better results but I think its a balance.
Reblogged this on ZaziRareRabbit and commented:
There is a need to some extent to gatekeepers, however they eventually become obstacles which hinder progress.
I couldn’t have written this piece better, well done David.
To Carol – is it possible that the person’s enthusiasm to lead can be used to your advantage? You can work with her instead of against her. A gatekeeper resents the energy of someone like her, is probably threatened in some way, and fails to be a true leader, providing opportunities for professional development.
I think it’s impressive that this piece has aged as well as it has, and even if it has been updated since it was written, older comments seem to suggest the content is largely as it originally was. This is a topic that has continued to grow in both importance and recognition over the last decade, and I especially applaud the suggested strategies as they are practical, effective, timeless, and framed in a very positive way. Thanks for this!