I’m not sure if it’s the Norwegian or Midwestern aspect of my heritage (or maybe the double whammy of the combination), but I was raised to believe that anyone could take anything for a little while. You put your head down, grit your teeth, do what you can and rest assured that this too shall pass. Or in more fanciful parlance, embrace the maxim of the Stoics “Sustine et abstine” or “Bear and forbear.”
In retrospect, this philosophy has served me fairly well over the long run, saving me some angst and drama both at home and in the office. Because to a certain extent, it’s true – babies eventually sleep through the night, a bad boss does get moved along and eventually even brutal Minnesota winters that make you want to flee to some remote island forever, end up coming around, turning into unbelievably gorgeous summers and you decide maybe it’s worth staying put for now.
But for most of us in leadership roles, it feels counterintuitive. Anyone who’s faced off with a tantrum-prone toddler or been confronted by an errant teen defiantly sashaying in well past curfew innately understands the difficulty of bearing and forbearing. A confusing fusion of resentment, rage and through-the-roof blood pressure combines, threatening to combust. But an ignition never really ends well. That kind of fire damage is hard to repair. Rationally, we know the high road is always the better route, but in the heat of the moment, righteousness feels pretty anemic – uncomfortably passive. Most of us are “doers” and “fixers” by nature. And action – doing something rash or otherwise – feels better than doing nothing.
But often it’s in the doing nothing that the enlightenment comes. Knee jerks just lead to bruised ankles and dinged-up relationships. But pausing and resting on your laurels (at least for a moment) can lead to a higher order outcome that you didn’t conceive possible.
This is especially true when managing people. Because human behavior is far from a predictable science, handling it well requires a fine-tuned antennae and a healthy dose of emotional intelligence. And even then we often get it wrong. Here’s an example…
When my oldest son Chase was learning to ride his bike, he was one of the last in the neighborhood with training wheels. He loved tearing off down the driveway with the other boys until he caught onto the fact that he was the only one conveying with extra apparatus (SO UNCOOL). Prideful and fearful in equal measure, longing to be one of the boys but terrified by the prospect of falling down, he stopped riding his bike. His dad and I swooped in (fixers!). I remember his dad taking off the wheels and both of us attempting to get him confidently riding on his own. How hard could it be? The entire human universe rides bikes.
But Chase was (still is) stubborn and proud and keenly frustrated when things don’t work out the way he wants. And that frustration was working against him. So many agonizing hours were spent pedaling, toppling, re-righting and ultimately stomping off into the house (all three of us). It was hard to watch him struggle, and hard knowing he didn’t want our help to master this skill. And even knowing that everyone gets the hang of it eventually, the process is no less painful.
Bear and forbear. We took a break from the bike.
Then one Sunday, the day before the Monday Funday bike ride that one of the neighborhood moms organized, I looked out the window and saw Chase tentatively and strategically setting up his bike adjacent to a recently raked up pile of leaves. He positioned himself so that within three pumps of the pedal if anything went awry, he would land softly into Mother Nature’s safety net. Round and round, up and down until finally, he made the entire circumference of the driveway without falling off. Not knowing anyone was watching, a smile spread unconsciously and unrestrained across his face. He then strode in through the front door saying, “I can ride my bike now.”
The most difficult part of leadership is knowing when to take action, and recognizing when to “take a break from the bike” and wait it out. It’s tricky to know when not to intervene and “fix it.” Knowing when to send them back.
I used to work with two managers who were constantly at odds with one another – bickering over budgets, vying for rewards, complaining to me about the other’s sins and shortcomings. I spent a lot of time listening and attempting to solve their differences – both one on one and through three-way discussions. It wasn’t working. More bickering, more complaining, more time wasted without a positive outcome. Until one day I instilled a policy of “Go Back.” It may have been reptilian brain from my mother’s policy of “Work it out,” which she enforced when I got enmeshed in an inter-sibling squabble. It meant she wasn’t going to get involved until we’d attempted to solve it ourselves – reminiscent of that Parent Trap camp scene where they put the two girls in the Isolation Cabin – together.
For me as a kid, it did not typically go well and usually ended with me getting slugged and giving in, but that’s not really the point here. But as a manager, I figured I’d try it anyway. I set an expectation that until one or the other had a direct conversation, they couldn’t come to me. Oh, and that interaction couldn’t take place via email, the coward’s playground, in my opinion. It had to be a good old-fashioned in-person, face-to-face discussion. Because that’s where real conflict resolution takes place. In person, you can’t hide behind carefully crafted, passive aggressive language. You are forced to deal with what’s at hand, real time. And you are afforded the benefit of body language and real emotion, which usually leads to the fine art of diplomacy, which almost always leads to a mutually acceptable compromise. Eventually the tattle-taling waned between the managers and peace prevailed. Mostly. After all, we’re dealing with the gloriously complex, imperfect nature of human nature.
People unavoidably want to avoid conflict. Especially in my part of the country. But confrontation doesn’t have to be negative. When you can come together, assuming the other has best intentions, you can get to a higher plane of discussion and understanding. Unless of course you’re tangling with that tantrum-master of a toddler at the checkout. Then it’s usually best to just sling them under your arm and walk out before anyone gets hurt. But there’s no real analog for that in the workplace. So sending them back can be your best strategy to avoid blowups in the moment, and get to a more peaceful place down the road.
As leaders we need to sometimes take a step back. Learn to bear and forbear. Meddle less. Pass the conflict resolution baton to the actual conflictees. Send them back. And let them figure out how to build a soft landing spot so they emerge unscathed. They’ll be stronger for it.