You’ve been in this meeting: Your leadership team is facing a whole bunch of bad news. What seemed like a plausible plan just a few months ago now seems in jeopardy. Maybe worse, it seems like a pipe dream.
You look around the room. The team has the usual characters: the three people you naturally gravitate toward; the guy who rubs everyone the wrong way but doesn’t know it; the little cluster who sees the world very differently from you, who you’ll never get; the peace-maker who is always trying to smooth off the rough edges of any disagreement; the individualist who was never really into this team anyway; the person who must be the smartest person in the room.
You bring your eyes back to the deck placed in front of you by the CFO, whose unenviable job is to communicate in a professional monotone that you, collectively, are screwed. The competition is ramping up. Customers are defecting. Regulators are rattling their keys on the door.
For a moment, you feel yourself slipping into despair, like the Dilbert character who offers to die an hour earlier in exchange for the freedom to skip this meeting.
Right then, stop. Take a deep breath and realize that your team is normal. Under pressure, every team faces four great temptations. It’s your choice whether you give in to them or go another way.
Temptation 1: Denial – It’s easy to turn a blind eye to the realities facing a team under pressure. If you’ve always been successful because of your focus on service or price or innovation or whatever, you double down on that historical strength. You ignore the pressure. Despite the raging storm outside your windows, you make believe it’s sunny and 70. As a leader, you’re tempted to engage in willful denial so that fear doesn’t invade your team. Which leads to…
- Temptation 2: Panic – We should expect action in teams under pressure. But there’s a big difference between action and panic. Panic looks like scattered energy without clear thought. Unless that thought is, “Holy $%#&^$.” There may be a lot of ideas in the team, but most of them are pretty unhelpful.
- Temptation 3: Retreat to Self Interest – Under pressure, it’s easy to lose confidence in the team, to believe that no one else has your back. You’re tempted to retreat, to think If I don’t take care of myself who will? One of the great acts of faith on any team is that the team will watch out for my interests. In this moment, we’re tempted to recant our faith, to implicitly say that we’re unsure anyone else gives a rip about us. And if no one else is going to watch out for me on this team, I’ll have to watch out for myself. So I retreat to my own area of responsibility and hunker down. I know that this won’t help the team succeed. But I’ve given up on the team at this point. Now it’s about self-preservation.
- Temptation 4: Blame – Put any team under pressure and the natural temptation is to blame others. We blame corporate. We blame regulators. We blame competitors. Yes, we even blame customers. But mostly, we blame each other. If someone else would just do their part, we’d be out of this mess. If we stopped long enough, we’d know that it’s not fair or helpful to be that cranky but that doesn’t stop us.
While bad enough when faced by an individual, these temptations accelerate when they’re in a team. They’re contagious. They gain a momentum all their own. Left unaddressed, they can quickly destroy months and years of hard work in building your team’s momentum.
Like any temptations, these can be avoided but only if they’re replaced with something better.
- Replace Denial with Reality: It’s not always sunny and 70. Everyone knows that unless you happen to live in southern California, but I have nothing to say about that. Many leaders are worried about stating the truth because they don’t want to spook the troops. But what really gives confidence to your organization is when you acknowledge challenges, even acknowledge failings, and show positive steps forward. That reassures them that your head isn’t in the sand and that you’re fully invested in the solution side of the problems.
- Replace Panic with Focused Action: I have a client facing tough times right now. One smart guy on the leadership team has reminded us frequently of the famous scene from Apollo 13 when Gene Kranz, the flight director for the doomed mission, gathers his team and says, “Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.” This is what teams need under pressure: structured activities aimed at constructive outcomes to replace the frenetic and random actions of panic.
- Replace Retreat with Partnership: Scattering is easy and reflexive. It’s also depressing because you know deep down that you’ve given up on the team and on your teammates. You’re not the colleague you’d wish for in tough circumstances. You’re normal, but in a bad way. How much better to look around and ask yourself, who can I help on this team right now? As I do my normal work, how could I do it in a way that brings value and extra energy to the person right next to me in the team? It’s amazing how taking your eyes off yourself can raise your own spirits.
- Replace Blame with Ownership: Shouting at the wind is easy and therapeutic in the short term. But it’s a dead end in the long run. Sure, you can’t control everything that happens outside your team. The question is, what can we control or influence? The same applies with blame within the team. I can’t be sure that everyone will own their part of getting the team moving again. But I can be sure that I will do my part.
Just as all of these temptations can spread, so the replacements can build their own kind of momentum. A few people take ownership. A few others make quiet but useful contributions to the success of others. Denial or exaggeration is replaced by the clarity of the truth. People get to work on useful projects to address the core issues. Spirits slowly start to lift as team members look around and say, “Hey, we’re doing something real and productive together. Maybe we can pull through this!” It’s usually slow and fragile, but the tide can turn.
Ending this post now would be convenient, but trite. The truth is that you may choose to replace these four temptations with the virtues of reality, ownership, partnership, and focused action – and your situation still may not improve. This is the real world we live in. Sometimes best efforts and noble responses yield limited results.
If work is about more than results, if it also acts as a sort of laboratory for your soul, wouldn’t you rather walk away from even a circumstantial failure with the clear sense that you had grown as a person?
Wouldn’t you be better prepared to be an exemplary teammate and contributor during the next challenge thrown your way?
Wouldn’t it improve the chances that you would view those on your team as great people on whom you’d call in some future crisis?
Wouldn’t that be worth it?
In that case, even a superficial failure just might provide you with long-term benefit that defies calculation.