Crunch times — the long, stressful hours of work that are often required in the final weeks before a new product launch — can have an inordinate impact on the success of businesses and they’re powerful shapers of organizational culture. Effective leaders understand that during these times, it’s difficult to achieve excellence without placing significant demands on personnel. Yet any success that comes at the cost of employees’ mental or physical health is a Pyrrhic victory. In studying senior U.S. Army officers, who served in extremely stressful and pressure-filled environments, researchers identified the ability to balance this tension between getting the job done and managing the impacts on people as its own leadership competency — one with special relevance to high-performing organizations.
To achieve — and sustain — success, many companies place extraordinary demands on their teams. World-renowned investment banks, law firms, and consulting firms are notorious for subjecting employees to grueling workdays. Software developers use the word “crunch” to describe the long, stressful hours of work that are often required in the final weeks before a new product launch.
Effective leaders understand that during crunch times, it’s difficult to achieve excellence without placing significant demands on personnel. Yet any success that comes at the cost of employees’ mental or physical health is a Pyrrhic victory.
So how can leaders successfully manage through “crunch” while keeping their teams from burning out?
To find out, we studied senior U.S. Army officers who served in extremely stressful and pressure-filled environments. Our research identified the ability to balance this tension between getting the job done and managing the impacts on people as its own leadership competency — one with special relevance to high-performing organizations.
Balancing Risks to People and Mission
Nowhere is this tension more evident than in the military, where crunch times can be a matter of life and death. In striving to attain a battlefield objective, leaders often must risk the lives of the men and women serving under their command. On one hand, a commander who never takes risks will never achieve victory. On the other hand, a commander who is reckless with the lives under his or her command will lead a unit with diminished effectiveness, decreased morale and discipline, and a higher risk of outright disobedience.
In our research, we interviewed and surveyed senior U.S. military officers about effective leadership. We spoke to colonels and lieutenant colonels in the U.S. Army, who averaged more than 20 years of leadership experience. Most of the participants served as battalion commanders in combat deployments or international deployments in support of combat operations.
Our study identified three interconnected behaviors that characterize effective leaders in the Army. The first, which we called be approachable and open, represents the “people” side of leadership. The second behavior, know how processes and operations work, represents the “mission” side of leadership. Finally, the third behavior, which is called balance risks to the mission and to the people represents the integration of the first two behaviors.
According to participants in our research, leaders who are approachable and open:
- Provide opportunities for people to speak with them, making themselves accessible and minimizing barriers between the leader and the team.
- Let the team know (through words and actions) that their voices matter.
- Practice effective listening.
- Incentivize and reward candor. They don’t “shoot the messenger.”
- Demonstrate open-mindedness and a willingness to discuss different viewpoints.
- Show that they care not only about team members’ work, but also about their health and wellbeing.
Officers in our study reported that leaders who know how processes and operations work:
- Understand the operations that are essential to mission success.
- Are technically competent to a high standard. (Nobody knows everything, but they know what they should know.)
- Recognize what they don’t know and actively seek out information to fill those gaps.
- Get out to see what’s happening on the “factory floor” — meaning they know how work gets done, and the interdependencies involved.
- Understand the costs and consequences of operational decisions.
- Know not only their business, but also see the connections between their area or domain and other areas of the organization.
The leaders most admired by our study participants exemplified the third behavior: They balanced risks to the mission and to the people. They managed this in two ways.
First, they built loyalty and trust before and after crunch periods, meaning they have an account balance of trust that they can withdraw from during crunch. Our research respondents consistently reported that leaders who made a strong initial investment in people were able to manage risk more effectively when it became necessary. Leaders who take care of people create a high level of commitment, loyalty, and ownership, which in turn makes accomplishing the mission more of a priority for everybody. As one officer observed, “You see the bumper sticker on a lot of walls in the Army: Mission first, people always. The better leaders, it’s people first, and they’ll take care of the mission.”
Second, these leaders conducted activities to maintain morale and confidence during crunch. They ensured that lines of communication were open so that team members could signal problems. They clearly connected particularly challenging mission requirements with mission success. They set clear goals, and they help subordinates understand the bigger picture when a mission involves a significant potential sacrifice, creating shared understanding. And they showed a willingness to put the team before their personal interest, demonstrating that they shared the burden with the team and that they understood the implications of their decisions.
How to Demonstrate Balanced Leadership in a Crunch Time
How can leaders implement this balanced leadership approach in their organizations? First, think about where you are relative to a crunch period. Before and after crunch, you should invest in building loyalty and trust with your team, demonstrating your professional competence, and creating meaning. During crunch, you are making tradeoffs and pushing your team to its limit.
In preparing for and recovering from crunch:
- Make yourself accessible to the team. Listen to your people. Treat them as partners not employees, letting they know they have a voice. Be willing to discuss different points of view and learn from their experiences and knowledge of the organization.
- Master how your organization’s processes work. Invest time in getting to know your people, what they do, and their current challenges. These learning opportunities will help you connect and engage with the team, showing that you care for their work and are open to hearing their problems and issues.
- Be obsessed with your team’s professional development. Regularly evaluate whether they’re ready for their current challenges and the ones that will shortly come.
- Make mental health a priority. Make it clear that seeking mental health support is not a sign of weakness.
- Set aggressive but achievable goals. Think about something exciting but reachable based on the team’s level of performance and maturity. Evaluate the risks before assigning a goal. Learn from your team’s failures, and provide feedback to address their development gaps.
- Recognize the costs of your decisions. Sometimes leaders don’t know what they’re asking of their teams during crunch. To the extent possible, share the burden and partake in the team’s sacrifice.
- Keep open lines of communication. Crunch often affects a leader’s availability. Ensure that team members have a way to share key information with you, such as when they are being pushed too hard or things are not working as they should.
- Don’t put your personal interests over the team’s. Toxic leaders are servile to their superiors and tyrants to their subordinates.
Crunch episodes often have an inordinate impact on the success of businesses — and they’re powerful shapers of organizational culture. Performance during these times — whether good or bad — often dwarfs the effects of other, “steady-state” operational periods. Poor leadership during crunch is highly damaging to the organization, resulting in demoralized, burned out staff, or a failure to meet your goals, or sometimes both. Our research suggests that a leader’s ability to balance risks to mission and to people is key to organizational success during crunch, and to ensuring that that victory is not too costly.