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By Flavio Serapiao, Andrew Hill & Boris Groysberg
To achieve—and sustain—success, many companies place extraordinary demands on their teams. World-renowned investment banks, law firms and consulting firms are notorious for subjecting employees to grueling workdays. Software developers use the word “crunch” to describe the long, stressful hours of work that are often required in the final weeks before a new product launch.
But any success that comes at the cost of employees’ mental or physical health is a Pyrrhic victory. How can leaders successfully manage through crunchtime while keeping their teams from burning out?
To find out, we studied senior US Army officers who served in extremely stressful and pressure-filled environments. Our research highlighted the importance of cultivating the skill of balancing the tension between getting the job done and managing the effects on people as a leadership competency—one with special relevance to high-performing organizations.
In the military, crunchtime can be a matter of life and death. In striving to attain a battlefield objective, leaders often must risk the lives of the men and women serving under their command. On the one hand, a commander who never takes risks will never achieve victory. On the other, a commander who is reckless will lead a unit with diminished effectiveness, decreased morale and weaker discipline.
Our study identified three interconnected behaviors that characterize effective leaders in the Army. The first, which we called “being approachable and open,” represents the human side of leadership. The second behavior, “knowing how processes and operations work,” represents the mission-driven side of leadership. The third behavior, which is called “balancing risks to the mission and to the people,” represents the integration of the first two.
Leaders who are approachable and open:
- Provide opportunities for people to speak up, making themselves accessible and minimizing barriers between the leader and the team;
- Let team members know that their voices matter;
- Practice effective listening;
- Incentivize and reward candor;
- Demonstrate open-mindedness and a willingness to discuss different viewpoints;
- Show that they care not only about team members’ work, but also about people’s health and well-being.
Leaders who know how processes and operations work:
- Understand the operations that are essential to mission success;
- Are technically competent to a high standard;
- Recognize what they don’t know and actively seek out information to fill those gaps;
- Get out to see what’s happening on the “factory floor”—meaning that they know how work gets done, and the interdependencies involved;
- Understand the costs and consequences of operational decisions;
- See the connections between their domain and other areas of the organization
Leaders able to balance risks to the mission and to its people managed this in two ways.
First, they built loyalty and trust before and after crunch periods, developing an account balance of trust that they can withdraw from during crunch time. Leaders who took care of people created a high level of commitment, loyalty and ownership, which in turn made accomplishing the mission a higher priority for everybody.
Second, the most successful leaders conducted activities to maintain morale and confidence during crunch time. They ensured that lines of communication were open so team members could signal problems. They clearly connected challenging requirements with mission success. They set clear goals and helped subordinates understand the bigger picture when a mission involved a significant potential sacrifice. And they showed a willingness to put the team before their own personal interests.
How to demonstrate balanced leadership during crunch time
How can leaders implement this balanced leadership approach in their organizations? First, think about where you are relative to a crunch period. Before and after a crunch, you should invest in building loyalty and trust with your team, demonstrating your professional competence and creating meaning.
In preparing for and recovering from crunch time:
- Make yourself accessible to the team: Listen to your people. Treat them as partners, letting they know they have a voice. Be willing to discuss different points of view and learn from their experiences and knowledge of the organization.
- Master how your organization’s processes work: Invest time in getting to know your people, what they do and their current challenges. These learning opportunities will help you connect and engage with the team, showing that you care about their work and are open to hearing their problems and issues.
- Be obsessed with your team’s professional development: Regularly evaluate your team members’ readiness for their current challenges and the ones that will shortly come.
- Make mental health a priority: Make it clear that seeking mental health support is not a sign of weakness.
During crunch time:
- Set aggressive but achievable goals: Think about something exciting but reachable based on the team’s level of performance and maturity. Evaluate the risks before assigning a goal. Learn from your team’s failures, and provide feedback to address their development gaps.
- Recognize the costs of your decisions: Sometimes leaders don’t know what they’re asking of their teams during crunch time. To the extent possible, share the burden and partake in the team’s sacrifice.
- Keep open lines of communication: Crunch periods often affect a leader’s availability. Ensure that team members have a way to share key information with you, such as when they are being pushed too hard or things are not working as they should.
- Don’t put your personal interests over the team: Toxic leaders are servile to their superiors and tyrants to their subordinates.
Crunch episodes often have an inordinate impact on the success of businesses—and they’re powerful shapers of organizational culture. Performance during these times—whether good or bad—often dwarfs the effects of other, “steady-state” operational periods. Poor leadership during crunch time is highly damaging to the organization, resulting in demoralized, burned out staff, a failure to meet your goals, or sometimes both. Our research suggests that a leader’s ability to balance risks to mission and to people is key to organizational success during crunch periods, and to ensuring that that victory is not too costly.
Flavio Serapiao is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. Andrew Hill is co-founder of BurnBright. Boris Groysberg is the Richard P. Chapman professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.