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It’s All Okay

When we are in the midst of conflict, distress or discomfort all we can think about is how to make it stop. We problem solve, minimize, deny or take extreme control to resolve the bad moment so we can return to a much steadier state. We humans like our homeostasis and we will take measures to get there all the time.

But what if it’s all okay? What if a low performing individual or a crappy product launch or a clique of saboteurs or a clueless leader or a questionable culture is just fine? What if these challenges are just part of the process and the imperfect ethos of any organization? And what if our job as leaders is to embrace these frustrations and not push too hard to make it go away quickly? Hmmm…easy to say, hard to do.

Here is what I hear every day from leaders:

  • “I don’t know what else I can do to fix this crazy culture! I just want to fire the whole lot of them.”
  • “I try to keep the executive team focused on our strategic goals but every new shiny object gets added to the mix.”
  • “I tried to convince the team we had to move quickly to capture the market but no one bought in. Now we lost that race.”
  • “My team is making me nuts! I’ve got two great players who are carrying the rest of them. I’ve talked to the knuckleheads but they just can’t get it together.”
  • “The gossip that flies around this place is so toxic. Don’t people have real jobs to do? Why are they spending so much time bad mouthing everyone?”

These statements are usually followed by detailed explanations of what they have tried but didn’t work well enough. Then the ranting starts. Then the hands and shoulders shrug to let me know that they give up. I listen, offer empathy, remark that these things are normal and then pause. “What if you are trying too hard? What if you are pushing against the current rather than accepting that this is part of organizational life?”

“Are you telling me I have to just sit back and accept this b.s? Now you’re the crazy one.”

Leaders are do-ers and thinkers and problem solvers. They are always working towards good and smart outcomes so rooting out the bad stuff is what keeps them up at night. The great staff and productive behaviors will take care of themselves but the troublesome crap is their domain. I’m not suggesting that leaders stop taking appropriate actions to manage the people, culture and product problems. What I’m recommending is a mental shift from “this is catastrophic” to “this is all part of the ordinary process”. To normalize the situation and (please forgive the new age-ness) go with the flow is a useful strategy.

True story. A CEO saw the destructive nature of a small but potent group of employees who worked every day to block progress forward. She enacted all the best strategies to address this: setting clear behavioral expectations, providing timely feedback, firing a critical mass of folks who continued to act outside the expectations, engaging staff to create desired cultural norms and constantly communicating and acting on the strategic goals. Over the course of 18 months she was alternately pleased with the culture shifts or bone tired from all the effort. Woven throughout our conversations was a thread of “this happens in all companies, you are doing the right things and take a breath.” She appreciated that her organization was not an outlier and the support for her actions but she struggled to relax.

And then one day she shared that she had been reflecting on where the organization was two years ago. “It dawned on me that there wasn’t much difference between the crazy times and the productive times. It was all part of a larger process. Two steps forward and one step back. I was impatient and frustrated and pissed that my control and will could not fix this quickly. Maybe I made things worse for myself. I couldn’t see in each moment that things will change. The good moment yields to a less good one and a bad moment shifts to a better one. But my emotional state stayed static. I didn’t trust the good times and I hated the bad ones.”

In other words, it’s all okay. It’s the nature of human beings, organizational life, business ebbs and flows and life in general. When we learn to embrace all the moments along the way we can manage the rough times more productively and enjoy the good times more fully. This is not the normal modus operandi for leaders. They are always in the ready position to slay the next dragon. That’s not wrong. It’s just not enough to take on these big roles and maintain perspective and sanity.

Imagine not being kept up at night with the latest office drama? Instead, your head hits the pillow and you fall asleep quickly thinking “it’s all okay”. And you don’t have to become a zen master to achieve this.

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