Now, we realize "Dead Man Walking" is a grim term, but so is the experience, which in company situations happens much more often to people in lower and middle management than at the top, as with Gonzales and Wolfowitz. Regardless of where in the organization it happens, however, the dynamic occurs when everyone senses a person is going to be fired, including the person himself, but the boss delays making it official. Why? The reasons run the gamut from fear of legal action to lack of guts. But most often, bosses stall because they want the organization to see—and, figuratively speaking, sign off on—the necessity of the firing decision. Maybe that's cruel to the waiting "victim," but most bosses would rather be known as cautious than quick-triggered.
The result of that impulse can take a variety of dysfunctional forms. The most simple is when the Dead Man Walking is a co-worker, in which case an office can slowly but surely become consumed with shared embarrassment and discomfort. But if the Dead Man happens to be a boss, the most typical response is paralysis, as people wait to see where the chips will fall and how they will be rearranged. In an alternative scenario, a Dead Boss Walking can give rise to frantic maneuvering. After all, people may care about the individual on his way to the gallows—they may even vehemently oppose his fate—but self-preservation is a compelling human instinct. At any rate, whether there is awkwardness, paralysis, or politicking, you're talking about environments of diminished productivity. You can only imagine how much—or rather how little—meaningful work is getting done right now at the U.S. Attorney General's office and at World Bank headquarters.
If the organizational toll of Dead Man Walking is bad, it's obviously worse for the Man himself. Both Gonzales and Wolfowitz are certainly noticing that "friends" are suddenly unable to make eye contact or return phone calls. They are seeing once-loyal lieutenants claiming neutrality, while surreptitiously pledging their allegiance elsewhere. They are watching their relevance slip away along with their hopes and dreams of making an impact. Like every Dead Man Walking, they are discovering that jumping might have its merits. The outcome may be the same, but it's faster and hurts less.
To be clear: We're not taking a stand here on the merits of either the Gonzales or the Wolfowitz case. Both are more about politics than substance. But we will say that both men committed classic managerial mistakes that, not surprisingly, landed them in their Dead Man Walking binds. Finding himself in the middle of a public-relations conflagration about the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, Gonzales tried to minimize and contain, rather than get out in front with full disclosure. His too-typical crisis management behavior of dodging and weaving gave others the chance to define him—and his opponents gladly took the opportunity and ran with it. As for Wolfowitz, he took the top job at the World Bank with an outspoken agenda for change. Now, any change mandate breeds resistance. At the World Bank, an entrenched bureaucracy, it bred an insurgency, and Wolfowitz' relationship with his companion conveniently provided the ammunition for its soldiers-in-waiting. Wolfowitz might have handled his companion's promotion with perfect ethics. It doesn't matter. His effectiveness and reputation, like those of Gonzales, have taken a crippling blow.
Your case, of course, doesn't seem as dire, nor is the entire world watching. But we'd still give you the same advice. Go now, before you and your team enter an ugly downward spiral. You will, most understandably, miss the paychecks you would have earned, but in the long run your dignity will be worth more. Jack and Suzy Welch look forward to answering your questions about business, company, or career challenges. Please e-mail them at thewelchway@BusinessWeek.com For their podcast discussion of this column, go to www.businessweek.com/search/podcasting.htm