Imagine you’re driving down the road in the passing lane, already exceeding the speed limit, when you see somebody following very close. The tailgater’s message is clear: “I need to get somewhere and I need to get there quicker than you are going”. Some people in this situation might “brake check” the tailgater – they slam on their breaks to send their own message. The brake checker’s message is equally strong: “Watch out! If you follow too close, you may cause an accident and it will be clearly your fault.”
Does this sound familiar to disagreements at the office? Two people are working on a project and it appears both are trying to get to the same destination. Yet one person demands greater risks for quicker results. This happens a lot, especially in organizations where near-term results and quarterly goals are prioritized over sustainability. As a result, employees are often competing for who can get the job done quicker and not necessarily who gets there with the best balance of risk and reward. Both the Brake Checker and the Tailgater have better options to serve their company.
The Brake Checker
The brake checker usually is the one that starts off in front. They have everyone aligned, driving in the same direction. Yet it becomes apparent the objective is not pursued quickly enough for someone in the organization. As a result, at least one individual, looking for quicker results, pushes for greater risks and speed. There are a couple of options the current leader has:
Brake Check: The leader could do the risky tactic and slam on the brakes. In other words, they could threaten everyone, insisting that anything they try to move quicker could cause horrible results. Yet, in doing so the leader puts their own credibility at risk for not considering alternatives. The key is not to allow confrontation to exceed collaboration.
Slow Down: Instead of slamming on the brakes, the current leader could caution the contesting follower by carefully explaining the situation and risks to the organization. Instead of utilizing alarmism, a temporary slow down to carefully examine risks in all options ensures everyone understands the risks in speeding up the team.
Pull Over: Finally, if the leader has explained the risks they face, explained why she is not comfortable speeding up and still the tailgaters come with support from behind (and above), there is the option of pulling over to let the tailgater lead. As a servant to the organization, you must make sure you’ve made your concerns clear and detailed the risks the organization faces. Yet if the organization understands the risks and you are not comfortable accepting that level of risk, then the best way to serve, may be turn over the keys to the car.
The tailgater is interested in going the same direction but is willing to take greater risks to get there faster. They may feel there is a better way , believe the current leader is not taking enough risks or may be for pursuing their personal ego strokes. The tailgater may seek fame and want to be recognized for speeding up success at any cost. Regardless of their reason, the tailgater creates risk for both individuals and the organization as a whole, in order to achieve their results. There are also better options for the tailgater.
Flash Headlights: The tailgater could flash their headlights from a safe distance. By sending the message to the current leader and those around them, without threatening, the follower and team can collaborate on alternative options for quicker results. This would also call attention to the concerns from leadership, alert everyone that the current follower feels greater risks are acceptable and yet not endanger everyone around them.
Pass on Right: There may be other options to help the team get to their destination more quickly. When the opportunity presents itself, the follower could pass on the right. In business, the follower may be able to lead a critical piece of the project that does not threaten the organization’s overall success. In so doing, the follower could be charged with carrying a specific load where greater risk is acceptable.
So the next time you’re driving on the road or leading a project and you feel the current leader is not taking enough risks or moving too slowly, remember you have many options to support faster progress. Similarly, if you’re dealing with critics and followers that demand greater risks in the name of speed, understand their reasoning and respond appropriately. Whichever role you play in the traffic friction, remember there are many options you have to best serve the organization with the optimal balance of risk and reward.