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Leadership Tips – Keeping Angst at Bay with Pragmatism

For years I’ve been keeping personal angst at bay in the workplace by fostering a sense of pragmatism about my situation and the direction the company is going. As someone who has made a career out of being ‘the first follower’ rather than being the one calling all the shots I have worked for some great people and some that I found seriously lacking.

Today, I fundamentally believe that my happiness at work lies solely in my own camp. When the going gets tough we have three choices, attempt to change the situation, accept the situation, or leave the situation. If the first one fails, accept or leave.

I’ve been around bit and have made a habit of observing people and personal interactions. I’ve had many direct reports and colleagues over the years and have often observed that many people get overly wound up by decisions the company makes. Often, the cause for stress is not that the decision is necessarily bad but that it differs from what the person thinks should be happening. This causes not only stress to the person but can be disruptive and do more damage to the company’s performance than what the person was trying to avoid in the first place. Dissent and misalignment, especially in the senior levels of a company can be disastrous.

In my early years of senior management I used to suffer from a fair amount on angst until I realised one fundamental truth about working for someone else.

You must have an alignment of strategy with the person ultimately making the decisions.

If you don’t have alignment with the strategy of the company, especially in senior management, you will constantly be butting heads with your boss and this is as good as hitting your head against a brick wall. Company strategies are often developed over a long period of time by people who have fundamental beliefs and value systems about where they want the company to go and how they want to get there. Unless you’ve been specifically invited to disrupt the fundamental direction of the company then you’re kidding yourself if you think this is going to change.

Seek alignment but don’t break yourself against the wall

As I said before, if you find yourself realising that your views about what’s best for the company and your bosses views about what’s best for the company are poles apart then you have three choices.

1 – Try to change your boss’ mind (this works about 1% of the time)

2 – Wholeheartedly accept the direction of the company and start driving the vision

3 – Start seeking a company where you are aligned with the company’s strategy

If you do decide that you need to move on, don’t be bitter about it. This has got nothing to do with your skills, ability or you as a person. Your vision is just not aligned with your current employer. So move on, find the perfect company for you and commit your time and effort into something you can really believe in. I can assure you, this is what’s best for both you, your former boss and your former company.

It’s the same thing when a business changes hands or leadership. You may have had great alignment with the previous leadership but the new direction of the company makes your teeth grind. Again, the best way to deal with this is to be pragmatic. Did you plan in advance for what you would do if this happened?

Have an exit strategy

Everyone should develop a robust exit strategy, even if they love their job. In a fire, you know what you would do. You plan your route out of the building and where you will assemble. In the same way, you need a strategy for transformational change in your workplace. Angst comes from feeling caught out or not in control of a situation you don’t like. By being pragmatic and planning for the worst, you will feel under control and secure. You don’t need to get upset by the situation, you just need to put your plan into place whether it takes weeks or years. Jim Collins talk about this concept of productive paranoia in his book Great by Choice. Failing to have a plan will leave you lost and rudderless if your situation changes, leading you to make impulsive or badly thought out snap decisions. I can speak from experience. It’s better to be prepared for the worst than try to deal with it on the fly.

Find alignment and walk away if it’s not there

When you look for a new company what are you looking for? How much time do you spend checking if the company’s values, beliefs and strategies as well as those of the CEO are aligned with your own? To me, this is even more important than the role itself. The perfect role in a company with the wrong alignment is a one way ticket to angst and ultimately failure.

A cultural interview is the best way to assess this. You should be interviewing your new boss just as much as they are interviewing you. What makes the company tick, what are the fundamental driving philosophies, what do they think about areas that are uncompromising for you? There is no downside to choosing not to take a job offer if you feel that the cultural alignment is not one hundred percent right. It’s hard to turn down what seems like the perfect job but if there are red flags waving, just walk away. Even if you are currently in a job that you need to move on from due to alignment issues you don’t want to jump from the frying pan into the fire.

And again, don’t beat your head against the brick wall

You’d be amazed at how many people continue to rail against what they believe is bad management strategy when it is obvious the issue is with alignment. Business owners and CEOs get to choose the strategy, that’s their job. Yes, they should listen to our expert, experienced opinions, but the decision lies with them. Again, that’s their job. If you want to be the one setting the strategy and calling the shots then seek a career as a CEO or business owner. As a senior manager, my job is to implement the strategy, to the best of my ability, not to push back and try to change the strategy. At least not after the first discussion anyway.

Accept or leave. It’s your choice.

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