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On my daily walks, I have been wandering through a subdivision of new residences, some occupied while others are under construction. As people elsewhere join me in the sidewalk dance to avoid each other, it immediately strikes me how physical distancing is ignored on the construction site.

That includes the supervisors, who will walk alongside a workman or chat with them face-to-face without masks. After watching a supervisor carefully guiding a worker on the placement of siding close to a window ledge, I thought of the loose-tight management style: Sometimes tough and exacting, as with that siding, at other times relaxed and easygoing, as with that physical distancing.

They’re outdoors. Kingston has not had much of a COVID-19 outbreak. It’s difficult for managers to hound their teams all day on an issue such as distance. I’d be inclined to be resolute, but it may be that a supervisor on a construction site has to be different from one in a restaurant or a senior’s home.

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Loose-tight may become a watchword as this pandemic continues into the next phase. We need to be alert to tensions between being friendly with colleagues and fully safety-conscious, and between the bottom line and public safety. Employees may have children at home who need their attention during the day, slowing the return to a normal work life. In all recessions, there is tension between company profits and the number of people that can be employed, or how much is expected of them.

We talk of managers managing people or projects, but arguably in the end they manage tensions. Before the pandemic, professors Jennifer Jordan and Michael Wade of the IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland, along with research fellow Elizabeth Teracino, looked at seven tensions as we move away from the traditional command-and-control style:

  • The Expert vs. the Learner: Managers are promoted after developing competence but now must accept that their specialized expertise is limited – if not obsolete – in some new areas, and they must be open to learning from others. “If this tension is not managed wisely, leaders run the risk of making bad or inappropriate decisions,” the academics write in Harvard Business Review.
  • The Constant vs. The Adapter: Conviction and commitment has traditionally been prized. But in dynamic environments decisions often need to be reversed or tweaked. Sticking to your guns can be a weakness. Lean too far in one direction and you might appear rigid or alternatively wishy-washy.
  • The Tactician vs. The Visionary: Leaders trained to develop operational plans with specifics now are being encouraged to set out a clear vision, but not necessarily have an accompanying road map to get there. Again, you need the proper mix of both elements of the tension.
  • The Teller vs. The Listener: Leaders used to tell others what to do. Now they are expected to listen carefully to others before deciding. Mishandle this tension and you can lose out on valuable information from others – or the chance to take advantage of your own knowledge.
  • The Power Holder vs. The Power Sharer: Leaders are expected to empower others to reach goals rather than issuing edicts from on high. But be careful: You can undermine your own authority by sharing power too broadly, the academics warn.
  • The Intuitionist vs. The Analyst: You’re now expected to rely more on data than your gut. But remember that your inner compass might hold valuable insights from the past.
  • The Perfectionist vs. The Accelerator: You also need to balance the traditional notion of creating a perfect finished product with the more modern approach of doing things quickly and failing fast if that is destined.

In a recent webinar, Ivey Business School professor Martha Maznevski suggested we need to be part Hercules and part Buddha to succeed in the fast-changing, postpandemic environment.

The Labours of Hercules emphasized the virtues of strength, power, control, single-mindedness, rational thought, and accomplishing goals. “Hercules gets the best out of people when the situation is clear and structured. But Hercules finds it hard to make choices in ambiguity, or to get people excited to take initiative themselves,” she notes.

And so you need the teachings of Buddha: Knowledge and wisdom, mindfulness, questioning, acceptance of the world and rising above it, patience, and trust. But lean too far in that direction and you might struggle giving people clear direction, and it could be hard to get people to do things urgently.

Handling these various tensions requires a paradox mindset, according to INSEAD professor Ella Miron-Spektor and University of Delaware professor Wendy Smith. Instead of choosing an either-or approach – the natural instinct when we experience uncertainty and anxiety – you need to accept and learn to live with competing demands. “People need to feel comfort with discomfort,” they write, offering yet another set of tensions for the modern manager to weigh.

Cannonballs

  • Consultant Scott Eblin says that the “reinvention” phase of dealing with the pandemic is ending and we are entering the “emergence” phase, with “the new normal” lying ahead. He likens it to consultant William Bridges’s famed change model: The ending, the neutral zone, and the beginning, with this middle stage critical to starting the change. He urges you to focus now on “what ifs?” in order to reimagine the future.
  • In that vein, consultant Josh Linkner suggests using this time to reimagine how you can delight customers in unexpected ways.
  • Voluntary buyouts are the most costly HR strategic blinder, argues HR consultant John Sullivan and colleague Michael Cox. It isn’t good business practice to let someone else decide which employees leave.

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