When to Flex and When to be Flexible


I talk with leaders who are on the struggle bus about wanting something from their people and not getting it. It could be something simple like a weekly update or more involved like engaging in positive communication with the team. Whatever the thing is, the leader is getting frustrated and usually asks “why can’t they just do this simple thing?”.


There are two basic reasons:

1 - The people don’t know why the thing matters. Adults are generally good at saving their energy for things that matter. If they don’t know why a thing matters it probably doesn’t warrant their energy. I’m only a little bit saying adults are lazy - the more positive spin is that adults are efficient at conserving their resources. The answer to “why” requires empathy and nuance. Why it matters to you is not the same as why it should matter to me. Also, spoiler alert: “because I said so” does not address the “why” for adults (and it also doesn’t address the “why” for kids but we overlook that sometimes because we like inducing eye-rolls).


“Why” something matters could be that it serves a shared purpose or a common goal. In short - I’m asking you to do something because it matters...to all of us - it gets us closer to where we are going, together. There is strategic relevance.


Another “why” is because of shared or agreed upon values. It is in support of culture or vision for how we get things done? Do you have a mission statement or team vision that is known (or relevant) that addresses culture or the “how” the group operates? If that’s why the thing matters then make that clear. There is shared process relevance.


When there is shared strategic or process relevance you probably need to flex your muscles and hold your ground on the thing being requested. This doesn’t mean being a jerk about it. It means being firm.


2 - The other basic reason people don’t engage with doing the thing could be that you, as a leader, have wasted your energy and standing on fighting too many frivolous battles and now you’ve dug yourself into a hole of irrelevance.


If you find yourself in a hole step one is: stop digging. Take a breath and take a look around - are you constantly fighting battles to get things done? If so, you’re probably doing it wrong. Maybe you have the wrong people on your team, maybe you have many different ideas of purpose or process or values and need unity (or agreement), or maybe you’ve been a crap communicator and have dug yourself into a deep hole by ignoring the autonomy or growth needs of those around you. Have the battles you’ve been fighting been based on meaningful agreed upon strategy or processes? By “meaningful” I mean relevant to everyone involved. Meaningful to you, as the leader, alone does not cut it (see “because I said so” above). A good test of the meaningfulness of a request is to imagine it wasn’t done and the resulting consequences. Are the consequences that a different size font is present or that the entire operation grinds to a halt (I have yet to see an organization stop functioning over font size). Basically, is your request thing actually needed? If not, be flexible and change your mind on needing the thing.


Step two for when you’re in a hole of irrelevance and you want to get out: build a ladder. If you’ve dug yourself into a big-ass hole you’re going to need a big-ass ladder. If it’s just a little divot then maybe just a step in the right direction will do. Things that help build a ladder out of irrelevance include: clarifying and agreeing on shared purpose/values/process/culture, taking ownership for your mistakes or poor choices, listening with empathy to peoples’ concerns/feedback, and, most simply, flexibility.


Realizing that you want a thing that does not move toward a strategic or process goal and letting it go is literally the easiest thing in the world - you need to actually do less (or nothing) for the situation to not happen. Telling people about your decision to be flexible or let something go (that you were once using to dig a hole of your own irrelevance) can somehow become some sort of fraught ego crushing if you are on Team Fixed-Mindset. Luckily, you are probably on Team Growth-Mindset so you recognize this challenge is an opportunity for growth (humility over hubris). Or if you’re more ambivalent, this might just be a way to rebuild some trust and get things moving again. Try flexibility when things are not of strategic or process importance.


So to rewind and sum up:

Your people might not be doing the thing you want because they don’t know why it matters. If this is the case, tell them why it is necessary for the strategic or process goals and why you need to be firm for the sake of these shared outcomes. Another reason the thing might not be done is because you’ve fought too many battles and people are avoiding your hype. In this situation assess whether the thing is actually relevant/needed and get agreement on the shared goals or be flexible and make a change on your end; learn, grow, and (re)build trust and everyone is happy.


Answering the “why” is important as is making sure you are actually in agreement on strategy, process and values. If you’re not sure how to do these things (or are so deep in your hole that you’re not quite sure which way is up) find some trusted advisors to consult or join a mastermind to get perspective and ideas. You don’t have to lead alone.


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