Monday, April 18, 2016

Terms of Engagement

So often in our increasingly inclusive business community, our goals are focused on achieving harmonious and empowered consensus. You want a staff of decision-makers, of professionals capable of finding their own ways of fulfilling your strategy, of service folk ready to react immediately at the site of the customer's difficulty. You're convinced that any structure that requires them to "check with the boss" before acting is one that will fail you far more often than serve you. As a result, as leaders, we spend a lot of time and energy focused on communicating our strategic intent and freeing the people who work for us from the shackles of bureaucracy and procedure.

Except sometimes you have to dictate the terms of engagement. Sometimes, in addition to setting out the strategic objective, you also have make some tactical decisions and tell others that they can only work within the boundaries of those decisions. When you do, it may feel like a betrayal, both to yourself and to the people you have been trying to empower. But, sometimes, it is necessary.


The easiest explanation is often the budget. A certain amount of money is available to pay a certain number of people to do a certain number of tasks. Engaging people in determining what their assigned tasks will be and giving them latitude in how they approach those tasks can make for a happy and empowered staff. But when there are tasks that no one wants to do or, more problematically, that everyone wants to do, you have to make the call. You can't spend the organization's resources and have certain required tasks not get done, or let others flounder because of confusion and disagreements about who's in charge.

But in these situations the challenge for the thoughtful leader often goes much deeper than just the budget. When teams don't organically assemble you have to step in and dictate who will work with who and for what purpose. You have to define the terms of engagement. These discussions will be among the most challenging you have, because when there is disagreement or uncertainty, people will often hear confusion in what you take to be simple clarity. Often, they're not wrong, and neither are you. If teams could naturally assemble, like they appear to do in a beehive, then your intervention wouldn't be necessary in the first place. When you feel the need to step in, therefore, it will naturally be one of those situations in which clarity is already absent.

I've had three experiences like this in the past few weeks, and in each I wish there had been another course of action I could've taken. But there wasn't. I had to step in and make a decision that felt more autocratic than strategic. And I know that the decisions I made were only right in the sense that they settled the matter, and not necessarily to everyone's satisfaction. Things will be this way, not that. You will do this, not that. Success means this, not that.

It's hard. But there are times when not doing it is even worse.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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