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The Leadership Double-Bind

By: Rick Piraino



Leaders can get caught in a double bind: Do I achieve the goal at the expense of the relationship or do I preserve the relationship at the expense of the goal? Tough choice isn't it? A double bind is a choice between two undesirable actions. Either choice precludes the possibility of success.


We need to achieve goals at work. Goals are best met when relationships are strong; when people are trusting, motivated and know their leaders respect them. Yet, we can't just focus on positive relationships. We work together to meet organizational expectations – not build a social club.


The inherent failure of the double-bind is obvious. Yet people are often promoted to leadership positions before they have the skills to resolve it. Without specific skills, we use what we have – our personalities and experience.


On the leadership personality continuum, there are those who are over-balanced on the accountability side and those who are more focused on relationships or what we refer to as inspiration. At the extremes, the former can be "Too Hard" and the latter can be "Too Soft" in their approach. It's not that one is better than the other. We'll soon see how they wind up in the same place.


Too Hard leaders don't value relationships as much as they do getting the job done. At the extreme, they feel their employees are adults who get a paycheck and that’s reward enough. Relationships should have nothing to do with it. We're here to do a job, not be friends. These leaders tend to be more critical and may use anger and aggressive language to achieve goals. They may burn bridges with their workers on the way to accomplishing goals.


Employees who feel mistreated don't maintain high levels of performance. The present goal may get accomplished but future ones will suffer as employee good will is lost. Unless the leader is there to crack the whip, performance will drop off. While the cats away, the goal is lost. As William Glasser said, "The only influence we have over others when not in their presence is the “us” they carry inside their heads."


To preserve positive relationships, Too Soft managers may avoid addressing performance issues. Fearing an unsuccessful conversation and conflict, issues get ignored and therefore, continue. This avoidance can result in failures coming home to roost on the leader. Given these pressures, Too Soft leaders may get frustrated and eventually get to the point where they no longer care about the person. They may then head to HR demanding termination without a paper trail or any real attempt to remedy the situation. In this way, managers who value positive relationships in the workplace may wind up hurting them.


No matter Too Hard or Too Soft, we can wind up in the same place - sacrificing both the relationship and the goal.


Too Hard managers need a way to achieve goals without hurting the quality of their relationships. Too Soft managers need a way to preserve relationships while keeping standards and goal achievement high.


Successful leaders balance accountability and inspiration. Keeping outcomes in mind while building quality relationships helps us on both fronts.




If you are on the Too Hard side, stretch yourself to connect with your people without sacrificing performance standards.

  • Get to know them. Ask about their kids or hobbies.
  • Be respectful – model the behavior you want or would want for someone in your family in their workplace.
  • Ask for their ideas before giving your own.
  • Give positive recognition – share what you value about what they do or who they are.

If you are Too Soft, take better care of your goals without sacrificing what you value in the relationships.

  • Think of one person you know who needs feedback about his performance which you've avoided giving.
  • State the facts of their behavior and ask questions to understand its context.
  • Listen for root cause and establish an agreement that will correct the problem.
  • Then follow up to ensure the change happens.

The only way out of this double-bind is to balance both of its aspects. Your personality in this case may not be your friend. It wants the familiar, the strong suit you play so well. It may be time to invest in the orphaned part of your nature. Develop it and find the balance that will make you more of the leader both you and your people hoped you would be.


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