If you’re a manager, your job is one of endless tradeoffs:
Look out for the bottom line, or look out for the people?
Meet a deadline, or meet the needs of your team?
Push for short-term results, or build for long-term success?
There are no simple answers. That’s because none of these are real questions. You can’t answer “this or that” – choosing one side or the other. The answer always has to be some form of “both.” They are fully interdependent.
Here’s what I mean: When you focus on one side of the question for too long, you’ll eventually be faced with problems on the other side. Focus on bottom line at the expense of your people, and you’ll eventually face high turnover, which will be costly and affect the bottom line. On the other hand, focus only on the care of your people at the expense of the bottom line, and eventually, the business will suffer and you’ll have to lay off those same people you wanted to care for.
Focus on meeting deadlines at the expense of your team, and eventually, the team will burnout and leave, which will make it more difficult to meet deadlines. Focus too much on your team, at the expense of deadlines, and you’ll eventually win fewer projects and will have to downsize your team.
You get the idea.
Unfortunately, too many people treat these issues like real questions. They ignore the underlying dilemma and over-focus on just one side.
That creates a lot of pressure for managers. Your company is pushing the side of the business, while you’re holding out, trying to create a more balanced approach that will also meet the needs of your team. Your team is pushing for more employee-friendly policies and decisions, which can sometimes put deadlines and the bottom line at risk. As a manager, you’re constantly needing to find the middle ground. It’s exhausting.
What’s needed is a way to engage others so that they think about and act on the interdependence. Here are some ideas you can use to bring this kind of thinking into your work.
Notice that what you’re dealing with is a polarity. Are the two options interdependent? In other words, would over-focusing on one bring about the reciprocal problem? For more on this see Polarity Management by Barry Johnson and Navigating Polarities by Brian Emerson and Kelly Lewis.
Look for a middle ground that works for now. Polarities are never “once-and-done” solved. The middle ground solution you choose for now will need to shift as your circumstances change. In some ways, knowing this can free you up to make a decision. You’re not deciding forever. You’re deciding for now.
Identify early warning signs. Think about what signals you can be looking out for that will let you know that it’s time to adjust your strategy. For example, on the polarity of balancing meeting deadlines with taking care of my team, what would be the early warning signs that I was maybe being a little too lax with my team and letting deadlines slip, or that I was maybe too focused on the deadlines and the bottom line and not giving enough attention to my team?
Engage others in helping to define the middle ground. You don’t have to figure this out on your own. Invite others – your boss and your team – into the discussion. Rather than taking on the tradeoff yourself, consider bringing them together to find common ground. Your role shifts from decision-maker to facilitator, moving the organization toward a workable solution that meets both sets of needs.
If bringing your boss and team together feels uncomfortable, you can still engage them in thinking through the polarity. Ask questions that invite them to see the polarity and to uncover implications of the “side” they are advocating for. For example, if a team member asks for time off despite a looming deadline, you could engage them in considering the tradeoff with something like, “I really want to support you taking the week off next week, and we’ve got this really important deadline the week after. And so how can we solve this problem of you being away right before this important deadline and still get the work done? What would that have to look like?”
That way, instead of holding the polarity inside yourselves, you can build a culture with your team of shared accountability. You may still hold the final decision, but you can engage them in that conversation. And that gets them to own the trade-off so that it’s not just all on you.
Or if your boss has set a really tight timeline for a project, you could invite them into polarity thinking with something like this, “I know you want to set this deadline really tight so we keep everybody on track and we keep people moving toward it. Can you help me think about how we can keep people from feeling discouraged when the goal feels so unattainable to them?”
A lot of people are shy about having these conversations with their boss. They experience unreasonable requests and feel frustrated and helpless, but don’t actually bring that information back to their boss. Instead, they push through, taking on more and more until they burn out. The reality is that most managers don’t actually know everything that’s involved in what their direct reports are working on. They make what seems like a simple request, not knowing how much work it will entail. That’s why one of the most important things you can do for yourself and your team is to get into partnership with your boss. Help them see the polarities and tradeoffs you’re managing. Ultimately that will help them be a better manager to you, which, in turn, will enable you to be the kind of manager you want to be to your team.
If you find yourself pulled in too many directions by the polarities you’re trying to manage, we’d like to help. Schedule a call with us today. You’ll speak to a member of my team about your current situation, and if we can help with that, we’ll let you know what that could look like. If not, we’ll point you to other resources. Either way, you’ll walk away with some real clarity about what you can do to be the leader and manager you want to be.
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