Calling audibles: Why some managers act too quickly and why it’s a problem
Acting quickly might look good from the outside. It’s a hallmark of decisiveness and control, and when things feel uncertain, acting makes you feel better. But being quick to act means not thinking through your options rationally or thoughtfully. Calling audibles is a short-term solution, but it’s not the path toward a healthy business.
We’ve all known someone who “over-reacts” to things. Maybe that someone is us, and we know it. As soon as things seem a little off, or a problem arises, “over-reactors” respond in a way that’s disproportionate to what’s happening. Small problems yield dramatic responses.
This blog post isn’t about people who over-react. It’s about people who quickly react – arguably too quickly. The outcome of their quick reactions may seem disproportionate to their problem, but it’s not because they misgauge the problem (which over-reactors might do). It’s because they move so quickly that they don’t really understand the nature of the problem in the first place and, more importantly, what the right response should be.
In my last post, I talked about managers who do very little when problems arise because they are biased by overconfidence and optimism, and because their tendency toward confirmation bias reinforces their inaccurate belief that, despite the shit-storm that surrounds them, “everything is going to be ok!”
This week, I want to talk about a different kind of manager – one who doesn’t necessarily lack confidence or optimism, but who is compelled to act immediately at the first sign of trouble. They abandon the plan and call audibles as soon as they’re met with negative feedback (by way of poorly-performing KPI’s, an unhappy client, or their manager’s dissatisfaction). Their adjustments are reactions – not well thought-out, not strategic, not clearly what’s best to solve the problem or to manage their team. They “shoot from the hip” and pivot constantly.
Even though their intent is to make things better, they may end up making things worse. I’ve seen it happen.
There are a couple of reasons why these types of managers do what they do. First, action makes you feel good when things seem out of control. When things go wrong, there’s a sense of uncertainty, and some people are less comfortable with uncertainty than others. They act in order to feel better – which means that rather than managing a project or team, they’re managing their emotions. It’s human to do: none of us hate feeling crappy. But the better someone is at sitting with the crappy feelings that accompany what’s unexpected and uncertain, the more time they can give themselves to think through a plan that’s best.
Second, quick action can signal to others that you’re motivated to solve a problem. Emotional management isn’t the mechanism here: reputation management is. Some managers have their own managers who believe that quick action is a sign of good management. If something goes wrong, and your manager’s first question is “Well, what are you doing about it?” then you may feel compelled to act too quickly when things go wrong to avoid being perceived as ineffective. Or, your team may look up to you when trouble strikes and expect you to fix it quickly, otherwise they may assume you just don’t care. Company-wide culture may even encourage quick action. If you’re in charge of building your company’s culture, you may want to encourage thoughtful action instead, otherwise employees might do the first thing that comes to mind, whether or not it’s the best thing.
Unfortunately, there’s not enough appreciation in business culture these days to slow down when things don’t go well. Slowing down requires having to sit with icky feelings. It also requires an environment that doesn’t equate action with effectiveness.
It’s no wonder why holding back from quick fixes is tough to do.
But if you’re a manager, you have to do it. Maybe not always, but at least it’s worth asking whether each challenge requires it.
It’s also worth pointing out that managers prone to quick action might also be managers who believe everything will be ok. I knew a manager like that once: at the first sign of trouble, they’d change plans abruptly, and as soon as they did, they’d feel better and decide that everything was going to be ok.
Things aren’t ok when you feel they are. They’re ok when aspects of your business work better –when morale and productivity are high among your team, when customers are happy, when operations work smoothly, when revenue is healthy, etc. The hallmarks of success aren’t in the short-term KPI’s but in the longer-term goals. Getting shaken by a bad review or a poor data point is ok. But if you’re motivated to move too quickly because of it, well… that’s not necessarily ok.
If your business isn’t doing as well as you expect, action bias might be the culprit. There are ways to improve that are rooted in solid decision-making. Reach out to learn more about how the quick actions of internal management can be felt by your customers, and how it can hurt your business.
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