Like most managers, I have had poor experiences with previous bosses that guide me away from being overly aggressive with my teams. I strive to be supportive, understanding and collaborative. There is a risk to this approach that your team may not perform at its highest level. You can manage that through clear communication and accountability.
There is another risk that comes to the fore when your manager is more aggressive in their style than you are in your style. The risk escalates if your manager is not mindful or is an insecure leader. He may see the only way forward as pushing people hard to make them perform. For him, the carrot is a waste of time when the stick is so much more useful.
The worst case scenario for you is to have your style vetoed and for your team to deliver at your manager’s more aggressive level. This outcome has two problematic effects. First, it may weaken you in the eyes of your manager. It may seem to him that you are too soft or that your team is leading you instead of the other way around.
Second, it impacts trust. You may lose faith in your and your team’s ability to accurately assess what’s possible in a given situation. This break in trust, internal and external, may affect how you lead moving forward.
Here are some things you can do to prevent this from happening to you or minimize its impact if it does.
Measure your commitments. You probably do this already but just in case. When your manager suggests an aggressive goal that your management experience finds questionable, you can reply with “Ok. That’s sounds aggressive, but it may be doable. I’ll work on it and get back to you.” As a sales guy, I call this sandbagging. I also call it a valid method of managing expectations. It opens the door to revisit the discussion after you have some real world data available.
Own or lease the aggressive goal. If you own the goal, you go to your team and say, “This is what we need to do for the organization. It’s aggressive, but I think it’s doable. Let’s talk about a plan.” If you lease the goal, you go to them and say, “This is what the organization is asking us to deliver. I agree it’s aggressive. I did my best to push back on it. I’ll keep fighting for you, of course, but let’s talk about how to make it happen.”
When you own the goal, you’re saying that you’re all in, and they should be too. When you lease the goal, you’re acknowledging that it may be unrealistic, but you’re going to be in the thick of things with the team.
Get very real with your team. In a previous role, I have gone to my team and said, “Look, this is a crazy aggressive goal. I agree. However, if management pulls me off this project and put someone else in my place who is little more than a task master and you do make it happen, that’s not good for any of us. So, let’s talk seriously about how we can stretch with everything we’ve got to make this happen.” This approach can be highly effective with teams that have connected with you. They want you to be successful and don’t want to let you down. This tactic may be risky if you are new to the team or have not yet developed a bond.
Depending on your organization, the team may rightly worry about being “punished” for success with an even greater goal next time around. I would invite them to stay in the moment and cross one bridge at a time. Between you and me, if they do rise to the occasion and conquer a goal greater than they thought possible, that next larger goal may be conquerable too.
Communicate effectively and work impeccably. During your regular meetings with your manager, keep him in the loop on how things are progressing toward the goal. If he’s being proven right, don’t hide that. If his goal is being missed, let him know what you’re doing, above and beyond the call of duty, to close the gap. Be honest about projections and come to the meeting with ideas on how to solve the problem. You want to be the manager that did everything to make it work.
As I’ve said before, management is politics. And politics is optics. As long as your direct reports see you fighting for them, your manager sees you fighting for the organization, and everyone sees you as committed, measured and dependable, you are on the right track to being the effective manager everyone wants on their side.