Between a Rock and A Hard Place
Marisa Guerin, PhD - November 11, 2020
(Note: Despite the timing of this blog in the very unsettled US transition period between election and inauguration, this post is not especially about politics. It's intended as encouragement to the leaders of organizations and groups for the times when a way forward is hard to see.)
Sometimes, people in leadership roles find themselves in a tough spot – continuing on their path seems problematic, and turning back seems impossible. Every option feels like trouble. They feel stuck. What can they say or do? An American phrase for this dilemma is being caught “between a rock and a hard place.” With typically dramatic flair, the version I learned from my Spanish mother is “entre la espada y la pared," which means "between the sword and the wall.” Either way, it's not where you want to be.
Obviously, sometimes the dilemma is external and concrete and you must do the best you can.
But there are occasions in organizational leadership, especially if the dicey issue involves taking a risk or trying something new and uncertain, when the stuck feeling is based on fears and assumptions. This type of paralysis can sometimes be dissolved by speaking the truth with transparency and some degree of vulnerability. The ability to make that choice involves courage and trust, not skills training. The combination of honesty and reality can be very freeing.
I saw an example of this dynamic once during a consulting engagement in the US Midwest. The client was a religious congregation and its lay associates, gathered for an all-day consultative meeting; they had retained me to facilitate the session. One of the main topics on their agenda was a report from their Generalate in Europe on the status of plans which were expected to have significant impact on the North American province. Their ministries, their finances, and the shape of their future could be affected by these planned changes. The 100+ attendees were intensely interested in hearing what was coming their way. They were upset and on edge, sensing an un-said and un-sayable underlying message: "The North American province is dying, and the rest of the world needs its resources."
Carl, the person who was going to address the topic, had the unenviable job of representing the thinking of the international team to the assembled members and associates of the North American group. The group knew Carl already and so did I, since he had been elected to the general council from the North American province a few years prior.
The evening before the assembly, I caucused with the meeting leaders and with Carl to prepare for the next day, including the two-hour time segment reserved for the international topic. As Carl commented on what he was going to do in his time frame, I became a bit alarmed – he announced that he would be presenting the information that was contained in a PowerPoint deck that he showed us. The deck of slides was enormous! If he indeed were to present this material, he would definitely run out the clock on the two hours, with no time left for discussion or consultation.
I asked Carl what he thought about this time crunch, and he shrugged impatiently -- his response was that the information on the slides was essential and he would have to cover it. I got the definite impression that he was clinging to the PowerPoint much the way a man at sea clings to a life raft. I could see that Carl was nervous about his presentation, anticipating pushback, and furthermore, that Carl believed his most important function was to inform and persuade his audience. After briefly encouraging him to shorten the presentation to free up some time for discussion, I let the matter go.
The next morning, prior to the session, I asked again if Carl had found a way to adjust the timing for the presentation and the discussion. He repeated, with a little edge to his voice, that the full presentation had to have priority. My heart sank as I envisioned the tension that would build up if there were no real opportunity for the group to engage. But there wasn't more I could do at that point. I could see that Carl found himself hamstrung, caught between a rock (his understanding of the expectations of his leadership colleagues in Europe) and a hard place (the resistance he anticipated from the North American province).
So we started into the two-hour block, scheduled to take a stretch break half-way through. As the presentation unfolded, I monitored the faces, body language, and mood in the room. Sure enough, it was not good – I could sense increasing tension, anxiety, a roomful of unasked questions and feelings that were being evoked by the plan that Carl was describing. He stayed focused on his presentation, determinedly plowing through the slides, averting his eyes from the slow-motion wreck of the meeting. This was not going to end well.
When it came time for the stretch break, my own stress and anxiety mirrored the group's. I huddled off-side with Carl and with the meeting leader from the North American team for a check-in. It felt like my last chance to help him break the logjam, so I went for broke: “Carl, I sense that the group is very anxious ; it would help a lot if you could reassure them that this course of action will work out.” At that point, unable to contain his stress and exasperation any more, Carl burst out and said with considerable emotion, “But I’m NOT sure this plan is going to work!”
Bingo! It was such a revealing moment -- Carl wanted to be persuasive, but he wasn’t himself persuaded. His tight adherence to the presentation was defending him against his own doubts.
I immediately said to him, “Believe it or not, that’s extremely helpful, Carl – if you can say that to the group, they will register your honesty and they will feel that you understand them, too. Ask them for their questions and their ideas – you don’t have to be 100% sure of the plan in order to offer it as a good-faith option.” In that vulnerable moment, Carl recognized that he had another option -- he realized that it didn't have to be all or nothing, that he and the group could talk about the plan and work with their reactions to it.
When we returned to the session, Carl was great. He said to the group that while he had more information on the slides, he could make sure that the presentation material was sent to them, and then he summarized the main message. He told them that because he and the team in Europe were uncertain of how this plan would work, they would value the group’s questions and their input. The rest of the session was rich and productive, highly engaged. Carl remained centered in his responsibility as an elected leader, and he also had all the skills necessary to handle the group discussion. As I watched him in action, I could see the leader that they had originally elected coming back into the room -- approachable, pastoral, thoughtful. He was restored to his potency, no longer stuck between feeling like a dictator and feeling like a victim.
It's useful to note that Carl's ineffective presentation would not have been solved by training, which is so often the band-aid of choice for faltering performance; his deficiencies that morning were caused by his anxiety about what he thought he was there to do. He had come into the meeting thinking that his role as the representative of his team in Europe was to “sell” the plan they were working on, which in his heart he knew was an almost impossible task. Once he re-conceived his purpose as updating the audience and then requesting the consultation of this group of stakeholders, he was able to manage the dialogue quite effectively.
I have seen many other leaders help their groups deal with "hard spots" by their well-chosen and pivotal words. It happens when they judge that the necessary thing is to be forthright, and to trust that their team or their members or their audience can rise to the occasion of a difficult reality. You have probably seen this also, and perhaps have done it yourself.
There is a subtle distinction to observe here: being candid doesn’t mean abdicating the responsibility to stay in the leader spot. If Carl, as the leader, had expressed his doubts and then emotionally vacated his role, acting as worried and demoralized as everyone else, the group would very likely lose their own capacity to think together. Without Carl to anchor their deliberation in his willingness to accept the responsibilities of leadership, anxiety would have been amplified, not managed constructively.
The lesson for us when we bump up against life’s unending supply of difficult moments is to think about the options. What would happen if we honestly, responsibly, named our painful reality, even just inwardly to ourselves? My guess is that candor sheds light – on the vulnerability, yes, but also on the complexity and the possibilities. If the leader can bear the uncertainty, the team can grapple with the message; sometimes the dilemma is dissolved and a path forward appears.
In a world full of dilemmas, I encourage us to stay grounded in what is true and what is real, with courage and patience. The critical shift is in the mind and heart of the person who has a leader role for the community, the neighborhood, the organization, city, or polity.
Sometimes, the rock and the sword are all in our minds.