How leaders deal with dilemmas

How leaders deal with dilemmas

Building a business successfully over time involves reconciling a continuous stream of apparently conflicting priorities. Driving the efficiency of existing operations versus innovating for the future. Focusing on the delivery of financial targets versus nurturing the human spirit in the organisation. Keeping personal control in a start-up venture versus maximising growth by bringing in external investment and expertise. Leveraging global scale in a multinational versus responding to local market needs. The list goes on….

One of the challenges in handling these dilemmas is that they are often reinforced by the organisational roles and personality types that tend to be involved. For example, it’s possible that a leader of the Finance function might be relatively rational, rigorous and task-focused in their behavioural style. In contrast, the leader of HR may tend to be more emotionally driven and relationship-focused in their approach. For any business to flourish, it is obvious that both the financial and people agendas need to be working successfully in tandem. And this, in turn, requires that the people involved are able to lift out of their functional silos and mindsets to resolve the inherent tensions from a broader, whole-company perspective.

The secret, of course, is not to think about these dilemmas as being either/or trade-offs. The idea that you either manage the business for financial performance or the wellbeing of its people doesn’t stack up – you seek to do both at the same time or you won’t be around for long! The big question is, how?

In an excellent book called Managerial Dilemmas, the authors John Storey and Graeme Salaman suggest some helpful ways of approaching this challenge. The first and most important is that leaders consciously embrace the fact that a fundamental part of their role is to reconcile these dilemmas. Adopting entrenched siloed positions and arguing one’s corner is not helpful. New ways of thinking are called for in which people seek the bigger picture, work harder to understand each other’s perspectives and become more willing to live with ambiguity and paradox.

Secondly, thinking about the dilemmas as choices between two polarities on a linear spectrum is also limiting. Another leading thinker in this area, Professor Bill Sharpe, recommends using a two-dimensional map, similar to the one below. He notes that our dilemmas frequently involve a crunch between relatively ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ factors (eg money v people, operations v innovation, short term v long term etc). Conceptualising them in this way helps create the mental space to move beyond compromise and conflict and to achieve some form of creative resolution.

As I reflect on my own leadership experience when I had co-founded the Brand Learning consultancy, there’s no doubt that I could have benefitted from some of this insight back then! However, one example does come to mind which helps to illustrate what successful dilemma resolution can look like in reality.

In the early years, when we were still a small company, the leadership team was aligned in our desire to grow the business quickly, to maximise its potential and exploit the exciting market opportunity we’d identified. But we were conscious that several of our key employees were less convinced about the growth strategy, fearing a dilution of our unique and engaging culture. The dilemma we had to resolve was how best to seek commercial growth whilst also maintaining the enthusiasm and commitment of our team.

The insight that helped us unlock this challenge was that the growth we were looking for was not just to realise benefits for the business – it would also enable us to create opportunities for people’s personal growth too. As the company got bigger and more profitable, we would be better able to expand people’s roles, provide them with new career paths and also pay them more generously. And so it proved. In the years that have followed, it’s been wonderful to see so many of the people that joined Brand Learning progress in their jobs, and in their family lives more generally, in a variety of fantastic ways.

This story helps bring out the third and final lesson, that the tension involved in the dilemmas we face as leaders is potentially a source of energy and inspiration. Rather than seeing the apparent trade-offs as problems to deal with, the most effective leaders seek them out as opportunities for creative breakthrough. Indeed, in companies like Toyota and HP, leaders have deliberatively introduced dilemmas to their teams to provoke more imaginative thinking.

So the next time you feel stuck on the horns of a dilemma, try shifting the way you’re framing the problem. Do you really have to trade off one priority for another? Have a go at lifting your team’s perspective to a win-win level. Applying a more exploratory and imaginative mindset may enable you to transform the situation into an energising strategic opportunity.