As I work with frontline leaders in our Bud to Boss workshops, I frequently hear this concern after we discuss a coaching approach, change management strategy, or communication technique:
“Guy, I hear what you’re saying, and it all sounds great. I just can’t do that with my team.”
It is not always verbalized the same way. It is the same basic frustration:
Frontline leaders frequently feel constrained by organizational policy, frustrated by lack of support from their supervisor or their human resources department, stuck by a union agreement, stymied by lack of cooperation or buy-in from their team, or any number of other limiting factors affecting their daily work life.
I get it. The frustration they express is real. They do see policy, human resources support, union rules, and employee engagement as factors limiting their effectiveness or ability to “take charge.”
While the frustration is real, the real impact of the limiting factors might not be, though.
It might be true that they do not have the freedom and flexibility to do exactly what we discussed in precisely the way we discussed it. They may be constrained by organizational culture. They may be limited by labor laws in the city, state, or county that they are in. They may be boxed-in by company policy. They may have challenges because of what their supervisor will or will not allow them to do. Truth be told, the list of what constrains frontline, or first-level leaders, is pretty long. It is a difficult leadership role. They are asked to do many things with often limited authority. And, as a frontline leader, they cannot set company policy, they cannot negotiate union agreements, and they cannot change labor laws. Most – if not all – of those things are handed to them, and they have to work within those constraints.
As we discuss specific techniques and approaches in a classroom environment, we frequently talk about approaches that cannot be applied exactly the way we are talking about it in the class. There are simply too many local and organizational variations for us to cover every combination of limiting factors. As a result, some approaches we discuss will not work or cannot be used in some situations. For the person in the “that won’t work with my team” position, it triggers an almost immediate negative perception of both the specific technique and the underlying principle that makes the technique work. While I understand and attempt to honor the perspective, the question that always comes to my mind is: “Well, what CAN you do?”
Here is the idea guiding my question:
The principle that makes the technique work is true no matter what constraints are true in a particular environment. Constraints can limit the techniques that can be used. They do not limit the principles that make the techniques work.
In my years of both working with leaders and of being in leadership positions, I have rarely seen a situation where there is nothing that can be done. There is usually something we can do even if there are many things we cannot do. We might have to get creative, and we can usually find an action that applies a positive leadership principle.
When leaders are confronted with a long list of constraints, it is easy (and natural) to fixate on what cannot be done, to feel frustrated by the limited authority, and to get irritated because they cannot take certain actions to fix problems or address behavior challenges. I have been in that situation, and I get it. I have been frustrated with the inability to address particular behavioral or work approach practices on my team, and I have felt that my hands were tied. What I see in those situations is that when I focus on what I cannot do, I feel hopeless, sad, and discouraged. I lose all energy to accomplish things. However, when I focus on what I CAN do, when I work to find an alternative strategy, when I recognize that I CAN do something, then I feel hopeful, engaged, and optimistic.
Because there is usually something you CAN do even when there are many things you cannot do, the mindset I would like to share with you today is to focus on what CAN be done rather than what cannot be done. When you read or hear about a leadership strategy or tactic that cannot be applied to your specific situation, look for the guiding principle that makes it work in the example situation rather than look at the specific implementation. Then look for ways you can apply that principle to your situation. Continue looking for what you CAN do, and you will become a more effective leader.