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.
Effective leaders understand that during crunch times, it’s difficult to achieve excellence without placing significant demands on personnel. Yet any success that comes at the cost of employees’ mental or physical health is a Pyrrhic victory.
So how can leaders successfully manage through “crunch” while keeping their teams from burning out?
To find out, we studied senior U.S. Army officers who served in extremely stressful and pressure-filled environments. Our research identified the ability to balance this tension between getting the job done and managing the impacts on people as its own leadership competency — one with special relevance to high-performing organizations.
Nowhere is this tension more evident than in the military, where crunch times 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 one hand, a commander who never takes risks will never achieve victory. On the other hand, a commander who is reckless with the lives under his or her command will lead a unit with diminished effectiveness, decreased morale and discipline, and a higher risk of outright disobedience.
In our research, we interviewed and surveyed senior U.S. military officers about effective leadership. We spoke to colonels and lieutenant colonels in the U.S. Army, who averaged more than 20 years of leadership experience. Most of the participants served as battalion commanders in combat deployments or international deployments in support of combat operations.
Our study identified three interconnected behaviors that characterize effective leaders in the Army. The first, which we called be approachable and open, represents the “people” side of leadership. The second behavior, know how processes and operations work, represents the “mission” side of leadership. Finally, the third behavior, which is called balance risks to the mission and to the people represents the integration of the first two behaviors.
According to participants in our research, leaders who are approachable and open:
Officers in our study reported that leaders who know how processes and operations work:
The leaders most admired by our study participants exemplified the third behavior: They balanced risks to the mission and to the people. They managed this in two ways.
First, they built loyalty and trust before and after crunch periods, meaning they have an account balance of trust that they can withdraw from during crunch. Our research respondents consistently reported that leaders who made a strong initial investment in people were able to manage risk more effectively when it became necessary. Leaders who take care of people create a high level of commitment, loyalty, and ownership, which in turn makes accomplishing the mission more of a priority for everybody. As one officer observed, “You see the bumper sticker on a lot of walls in the Army: Mission first, people always. The better leaders, it’s people first, and they’ll take care of the mission.”
Second, these leaders conducted activities to maintain morale and confidence during crunch. They ensured that lines of communication were open so that team members could signal problems. They clearly connected particularly challenging mission requirements with mission success. They set clear goals, and they help subordinates understand the bigger picture when a mission involves a significant potential sacrifice, creating shared understanding. And they showed a willingness to put the team before their personal interest, demonstrating that they shared the burden with the team and that they understood the implications of their decisions.
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 crunch, you should invest in building loyalty and trust with your team, demonstrating your professional competence, and creating meaning. During crunch, you are making tradeoffs and pushing your team to its limit.
In preparing for and recovering from crunch:
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 is highly damaging to the organization, resulting in demoralized, burned out staff, or 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, and to ensuring that that victory is not too costly.
This content was originally published here.