The False Dilemma of High Standards or High Morale

Nov 12, 2018

The False Dilemma of High Standards or High Morale

In my coaching work, I have heard variants on this headline question numerous times before, and today I offer an answer pulling not just from my time as chief of staff, but from my time in the US Marines. In the Marines, I learned a leadership principle that has evolved over nearly 250 years and is very applicable to every business and nonprofit I’ve worked in. It is not dramatic or sexy but might provide some insight for you if you wonder how hard to push your team: “Employ your command in accordance with your capabilities.”

What it means, in essence, is there’s a fine line between high standards and setting your team up to fail with impossible standards or tasks they haven’t been trained for. As leader, you have to know your team’s capabilities – the tasks they’re trained for and competent in, the range of feasible turnaround times, a sense of the obstacles they’ll face (internal processes that cause friction or competing commitments as some examples) – and their limitations. Only then can you understand what “normal” or “baseline” looks like for them, in the current context. From there, you can offer stretch assignments that test those capabilities and limitations, which can illuminate where you need to make changes, fill gaps, or supplement your force with outside help. If you’re seeing unusual levels of demoralization and burnout, you could be pushing too hard or missing pieces of the equation I just mentioned in the daily course of business. Maybe there’s something you’re not seeing or accounting for.

Try measuring your capabilities with available tools like the APQC Process Classification Frameworks (PCF) and see where your strengths and limitations are versus your perceptions of them. In business, as in the military, there can come a time when you’re so far from an ideal world that everyone is required to jump in and do things outside their training, or doing those things longer than they ideally should. That can get a team through a crisis but is not usually sustainable for the long-term.

Only you know what the answer looks like for your team, in your context, but being intentional about applying this principle can help. If this is a challenging area for you, I can help. Email or call today to ask me how.

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