September 17, 2015

When Resources Shrink and Demands Grow, Managers Get Caught in the Middle

Author Q&A from

Last week, author, leadership expert, and contributor Dr. Jesse Sostrin published a piece on our site about “leaky” talent pools. According to Dr. Sostrin, a “deep bench of emerging leaders” means nothing if your company routinely places impossible demands on the shoulders of those leaders

These impossible demands are part of what Dr. Sostrin calls “the manager’s dilemma,” which is also the title and subject of his latest book. When managers face increasing workloads and decreasing resources, they are forced to make an “endless” series of trade-offs. Rather than working at their optimal levels, they’re busy picking and choosing which fires to put out — which means that some fires just keep on raging.

To learn more about what the manager’s dilemma is and how emerging leaders can combat it, I carried out a Q&A session with Dr. Sostrin via email. That exchange is reproduced below, with minimal editing for style and clarity. Can you explain what, exactly, ‘the manager’s dilemma’ is?

Dr. Jesse Sostrin: When the demands you face outpace the resources you have available to address them, you end up negotiating with yourself about which fire of the day you will put out, while others are painfully neglected. I call this set of imperfect choices ‘the manager’s dilemma’ because it is truly a no-win situation. When 80 percent of managers say the demands they face are increasing, but the resources to meet those growing responsibilities are not, it signals a dangerous problem for millions of managerial professionals in every industry.

 RC: How does a manager know when they are facing the manager’s dilemma?

JS: When your dilemma sets in, there is always unfinished business. In an effort to keep pace, you inadvertently begin to work against yourself in counterproductive ways that reduce your effectiveness and make your already scarce supply of time, energy, resources, and focus even more tenuous. The harder you struggle, the more you lose the very performance edge you need to break the cycle.

If you find yourself making paradoxical statements about your own work – ‘I can’t afford to relax because things are too busy right now’; ‘With so many deadlines and demands, some priorities will just have to be sacrificed’  — that is a sign that the dilemma is creeping in.

RC: Is it possible to avoid the manager’s dilemma? If so, how?

JS: When a leader asks me to bottom-line the concept of the manager’s dilemma, I’ll often say this: It’s the easy improvement you don’t have time to make. It’s the good advice you don’t have the energy to follow. It’s the logical next step you’re too resource-strapped to take. It’s the obvious solution you’re too distracted to notice.

We’ve all experienced these counterintuitive situations where we just can’t do the things we know we need to do and we just can’t stop the habits we know we should stop.

The good news is that the dilemma’s triggers are swinging doors, and within each one there is an alternative path that acts as an escape hatch. My book offers eight specific strategies to overcome the manager’s dilemma, including one that offers a simple place to start: ‘determine your line of sight.’

Your day has a plan for you, and the dilemma often has a mind of its own. The interruptive demands can disorient you, and when you’re turned around, distractions could be opportunities and opportunities could be distractions. Your ‘line of sight’ anchors you amid all the clutter and noise.

To establish a clear line of sight, answer these questions: What aspect of my work requires a greater level of focus? Within this area, what are all of the factors that matter to me and to other people that I have to satisfy? Which of these specific factors are important enough to track in my line of sight? If any of these fell away, what impact would that have on the outcomes and goals that this line must produce?

Once you put your responses on paper, the line of sight becomes your guide to saying ‘yes,’ saying ‘no,’ and negotiating the in-between in a way that keeps you focused on the right priorities.

RC: What do HR professionals and recruiters need to think about when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent that might be susceptible to the manager’s dilemma?

JS: HR and recruiting leaders are in a constant struggle to attract and retain top talent to meet their organizations’ ever-changing needs. While many leaders focus on sourcing talent externally, I think an internal focus is just as important. Your talent pool is only as deep as your capacity to engage your people in ways that engender their sustainable contributions over time. Getting the best and brightest high-potential leaders through the door makes no difference when they burn out or fade away because the demands they face outpace their capacity to address them. It’s vital to make a parallel investment in resources to address the fundamental imbalance of demands that produces conditions that are ripe for the manager’s dilemma to emerge.

RC: Do you have any advice to give people and companies that are currently facing the manager’s dilemma?

JS: Whether your organization’s culture is notoriously demanding or not, the inverse equation of shrinking resources and rising demands makes even your best people prone to the manager’s dilemma and its self-defeating habits. When your best and brightest get stuck in the dilemma, their engagement levels and performance suffer.

By exposing the stuff that makes and sustains the dilemma’s conditions, leaders can gain a perspective on the shifts needed to create something better. So, be honest about the trade-offs people are forced to make when they are stuck in constant firefighting mode. Give people the freedom they need to focus on fewer priorities, and empower them to say ‘no’ to distractions.

Finally, send clear signals that people do not have to put on a cape and do the impossible. When your people talk about ‘doing the job that three people once did before the last round of cutbacks,’ that means you’ve enabled a culture in which the dilemma thrives.

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