June 13, 2015

Understanding the Manager’s Dilemma

The Manager’s Dilemma is a phenomenon that affects roughly 80% of all managers. It gets triggered when your demands and responsibilities increase, yet the resources you have available to meet them do not.

The problem with this inverse equation is that when demands outpace capacity 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 without an obvious solution.

The dilemma is more than your everyday stress. There is a big difference between episodic stress where you might say “I’m feeling maxed out!” and the consistent form of stress caused when you are stuck in the manager’s dilemma. For one, stress increases when you have too much work, too little time, and too few resources to do it. A temporary imbalance of these factors triggers normal stress in the average person. If you are in an industry that has peak periods where your workload fluctuates significantly, then you may even be able to predict spikes in your level of stress.

The point is that these stressful periods are manageable, and they don’t have to leave any residual effect. If you have healthy routines to cope with the normal pressures of work, then you can pass through typical stress periods and emerge more or less unscathed. In some cases, it may be this particular form of stress that keeps you engaged in what you are doing and gives you the energy to achieve more.

However, when stress goes from the good kind (i.e., a jolt of urgency to make it happen when the pressure is on) to the bad kind (i.e., compounding stress without a means to successfully cope with it), it can zap your precious margin lead you deeper into the dilemma.

Your margin is what’s left over after you expend your existing power to address your load. When you have a surplus, you not only meet your current demands but you can use your additional margin to increase your load in the form of new goals and so on. When you operate from a negative margin, your existing load is already too much to carry, and any new or unexpected challenges are likely to fail due to a lack of available capacity to meet the spike in demand.

What Howard McClusky, the well-regarded psychologist who originally developed this theory of margin, discovered was that he could tell which individuals would finish the class, attain the degree, or succeed in their new project by assessing their margin of power. The key to avoiding false starts and failures was to carefully assess your available margin and to take on new efforts only after you intentionally increased your power factors to create the necessary surplus.

Herein lies the critical issue for today’s managers: How many of us really have a choice with what we are asked to take on? The loads we carry are full of stuff mandated to us and we do not have the luxury of carefully considering our available margin before taking on new responsibilities!

This mismatch is one of the best ways to understand exactly what the manager’s dilemma is. When nine out of ten of the managers that I work with say they do not have enough time, energy, resources, and focus available—and that their loads continuously increase in the form of greater demands—you have what I call the Zero Margin Effect.

This effect triggers the intractable situation of the manager’s dilemma and its cascade of unwanted trade-offs. In this space there is always an unmet priority and an unresolved issue. The odds of successfully meeting all of these demands are reduced to zero and the math does not lie.

The good news is that the underlying factors that create and sustain the manager’s dilemma can be intelligently addressed in a way that actually boosts your capacity to lead effectively – even through the chaos and strain of the busiest schedule. To start overcoming yours, read these posts about common side-effects of the manager’s dilemma.


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