Massachusetts is making Obama and his policy makers reevaluate the political landscape. They are going to have to make adjustments and make them soon. Of course, this is a challenge for any leader because adjustments aren’t easy and they can cause overreactions.
It seems obvious—if you have data that indicate an initiative is failing, you should be able to make adjustments. Yet sometimes inertia sets in after an evaluation has been made. You put the initiative in place, it’s moving, sure it needs adjusting and tweaking, but is it worth the effort? You already have some embedded transaction costs. You are already comfortable with the process. You wonder how much risk you’re willing to take, how much adjustment you’re willing to make.
You see overreactive leaders in nearly every organization. They are the ones who take every piece of information, every strand of data, and take action based on that information. These leaders seem to be unable to prioritize or filter the fundamentally important information they receive from the anecdotal, anomalous information that is pervasive in organizations. You’ve seen or heard it before. Someone will come into the office and declare, “We’ve been getting a lot of complaints (read: two) about our new software upgrade.” The overreactive leader may take that information, call up the lead programmer on the project, and demand that a new version be created immediately.
Overreacting is a strategy that leaders choose to assure that they won’t be perceived as “falling asleep at the wheel.” They may believe that any action is progress and that even if they make a wrong move, they can quickly correct it by remaining active. They will denounce critics with comments like, “Well, at least I did something!” Or, “The competitive environment is changing quickly. If we don’t do something, we’re going to fall behind.”
What overreactive leaders fail to realize is that with each shift, they are sapping the momentum they’ve built from past action. Think of it like rolling a ball bearing down an incline. If you let the ball bearing roll untouched, momentum builds. But what happens if after the first couple of seconds, you redirect the ball bearing with your finger? Then what happens when you redirect it another second later? Then another? The ball may come to a virtual stop or, worse, it will keep moving but in a jerky motion, never really building up any critical mass. This is a metaphor for how team members experience initiatives run by overreactive managers.
People who work on projects led by overreactive leaders are likely to burn out or become frustrated by the frenetic action and stunted progress of the initiative. Too much time is spent asking—and answering—the question, “Where are we going next?” In this situation, it is difficult for the leader to make sure the work gets done and that things keep moving. Over time, people are more likely not to do work, fully expecting that priorities and objectives will change shortly. When behavior reaches this point, an initiative has lost, and is unlikely to regain, momentum. You can run around frantically saying the sky is falling once in a while, but if you do it every other day, you’ll kill momentum.
When trying to make adjustments, you must avoid casting blame and attributing causality. Your goal is to make adjustments while keeping people on your side.