Don't Get Caught Between the Dog and the Lamp Post

business leadership

It was traditional at the end of each course at the Harvard Business School that the professor would send us off with his own bit of wit and wisdom. One professor, whose name I apologetically don't remember, wisely suggested, "don't get caught between the dog and the lamp post." 

Recently, I found myself encountering repeated situations where Executives in my Vistage Key Group were suffering in seemingly unresolvable dilemmas. They were being held accountable for outcomes or promises they couldn't produce or keep. They either didn't have the necessary resources, permissions, or control over deliverables from other parts of the organization where they had little or no influence or control.

Each of the situations appeared different enough that the members did not map over previous case discussions to their own situation. After a series of clarifying questions from fellow group members, however, it became clear that they were indeed “between the dog and the lamp post.” 

In one case the member was expected to promise independent contractors timely payment as an inducement to do work for the company while the accounting department chose to drag payments to address serious cash shortages. When this member appealed to the boss, they were told to tell the contractor, the good old "check's in the mail" type of promise and urge them to keep on working.

In another case, an employee was given assignments by one of the company’s owners that the other owner would block by telling employees not to cooperate and/or to refuse resources. Both owners wanted to control the project, neither would back down, and they could not seem to have a productive dialogue to resolve responsibility for the work. The employee took the assignment from the majority owner in the good faith that he would be supported and that the owner clearly "was the boss." While there are many more details that further muddy the water around this issue, the bottom line turned out to be that the employee was caught between the dog and the lamp post and to make matters worse, the roles of dog and lamp post seemed to oscillate as the story unfolded.

The Lesson

The lesson we are working hard on learning here is not to accept responsibility or promise an outcome unless you have the necessary resources and support to deliver on your promise. Being heroic or a martyr will only get you crucified in the end, will allow others to be delusional about getting the desired outcomes until after the deadline has passed and you have failed, or until you collapse or explode in frustration.

Develop a checklist or process for yourself that allows you to be rigorous about the resources and time you need, the support you need from others, and any authorizations that must come from others before you say yes. Face any limiting beliefs you have about being able to be direct and sensitive about the subject, and communicate until you are clear that you can perform. 

If you find that you are repeatedly bullied into committing or just given the assignment by fiat, it might be time for a career decision.

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