It’s happening again. Employee A is in your office asking you to force Employee B to provide some help. “I can’t succeed without this and my work is more important.” Of course, you’ve heard this before. Come to think of it, last week Employee B made making a play for Employee C’s budget. And the week before that, A and C showed up together to talk you out of funding B’s newest program. “We need those resources for our work,” they sniveled, “it’s so important.”
But at the moment it’s Employee A telling the story. And to be honest, this one sounds reasonable. If you’re reading things correctly – that is, seeing the truth behind the attempt to convince – Employee A faces some real challenges. A little nudge from you on B would take care of much of the problem, and it’s fair to say that A’s work represents a critical part of your commitment to your own boss. You certainly don’t want A failing. It’s so compelling, you muse to yourself, it’s tempting to grant the request.
Of course, that’s a problem too. Make an exception and you appear to be favoring one division over another, or one person over another. Just one opens the floodgates for every other request your team can dream up. Besides, you worked hard to assign heads and budgets and such, using the most careful consideration and the best planning you could muster. And you don’t want B failing either. Revisiting one part of who-does-what means revisiting it all, psychologically if not operationally. Who has time? Maybe it’s better not to change anything until the next planning cycle, whenever that is.
Well-meaning HR and peer advisors, using somber tones, have been dispensing that advice since you can remember. Yet they never seem to acknowledge that it’s better suited to an elementary school teacher than a manager running a business. Do they know how absurd that is? Don’t change anything once you’ve made your decisions? Wait until the next planning cycle? You’re pursuing complicated results under dynamic circumstances for intractable customers. Everything is constantly changing in ways “the plan” could never have predicted. Without special exceptions and adjustments, you will fail.
Fine, the advisers cry, but only rarely. Keep it to a minimum. Push back.
So here you sit, across the table from Employee A, one half of the arms-race-escalation in which the people who are supposed to be getting your work done are trying ever harder to get you to change things for their benefit, while you try ever harder to duck their requests.
Is it any wonder that your team members are getting better at pitching you on their unique importance? Your people are literally reading books on how to make themselves appear more valuable than their peers. You did hire smart people, after all. (As those arguments and PowerPoint presentations become increasingly sophisticated, you also wonder how much time is being spent on them.)
Is it any wonder that it’s getting more difficult reading between the lines to detect what’s really going on, more awkward attempting to ignore people asking for your help, and ever more frustrating to still be refereeing turf wars between people who should be able to solve their own problems by now?
The truth is, it doesn’t matter whether you’re avoiding exceptions or making them. Either way, you’ve accepted the wrong job. Once you cast yourself as the impartial arbiter of the relative value of the work of those who report to you, you’re a dysfunctional parent intervening between warring siblings. The moment you run your team like you would a group of elementary school students, with you as the leader who understands the game and they as the underlings who follow you around and ask for help, they begin to behave like a group of elementary school students. This is neither the job you want nor the role your organization needs you to play.
Your exit is simple. Start by clearly defining your own outputs; what do you owe to your own supervisor, how much, by when, and at what quality level? Then gather your employees, put the list in front of them, and say what may be the last thing they want to hear: “I’m leading this team to produce my goals, not yours. Yes, you have output goals too. Yes, I hold you accountable to them. But they’re subordinate to mine. Nobody on this team succeeds if the team doesn’t succeed, and the team doesn’t succeed unless I and we deliver our shared output – these goals, my goals – to the organization. Please try not to fail, and I’ll try to help.”
Now you can hold regular meetings for the whole team with the express purpose of checking in about what’s changed in terms of the team’s likelihood to hit your goals. Anytime an employee shows up one-on-one to pitch you on a tradeoff or swap, refer the issue back to the group. If Employee A wants to argue for more help from Employee B, let the two of them sort it out, together, in front of you and the rest of the team, in the context of your goals. Let all tradeoff conversations be about impact to the team’s output. Let your employees work together to recommend what’s best for your output, instead of forcing you to figure it out. Listen carefully to anything having to do with your goals while pushing back ruthlessly on anything that sounds like A versus B. Get those influencing skills focused on producing output instead of selling value.
They’ll balk at the loss of the illusion of independence, true. But they were never independent anyway. And as soon as you quit the business of helping them pretend they are, you’ll find yourself with a lot more time for the business you should be in.
Previously published by ThoughtLeaders.