As I enter my 31st (!) year as a business leader, there are just a handful of leadership lessons come back to the forefront for me, time after time (after time). This one always bubbles back up to the top of the list. Leaders HAVE to stay out of the Comfortable Middle, and practice Full Spectrum Management, to have any real chance to reach for greatness. Here is my original (and slightly updated & annotated) post on this topic, that originally appeared in 2007:
I was noodling over the weekend about a management tendency that I have observed many times over my career – the tendency to manage from what I call the “Comfortable Middle” of the “Management Spectrum“.
I wanted to create something visually to illustrate this, so I pulled up my Microsoft Paint program (I didn’t go Apple until 2010) and off I went. Admittedly I’m no artist, but sometimes it really helps me to “draw” what I’m seeing in my head. That vision is what you see above.
What do I mean by the “Management Spectrum“? Quite simply, it’s the full range of reward/penalty actions that a manager needs to exhibit to be the most effective manager.
On the left side of the spectrum is what I call “Touchy Feelyness“. I use that term because someone once accused me of “being too touchy feely“, when in actual fact (in my view) I was doing what I thought was right when it came to doling out praise, encouragement, and ultimately compensation – providing a LOT of it to the people who really were outperforming their peers and over-delivering on all their promises.
On the other side is “Full Accountability“. That’s the ability of a manager to see and acknowledge that someone is under performing their responsibilities, and taking appropriate and decisive action to either change that behavior or let that person go altogether.
That brings us to the “Comfortable Middle” – I find that a lot of managers (myself included sometimes) like to stay in a range of the spectrum where nobody gets overpraised or overcompensated, or conversely, “written up” (a disciplinary action) or let go. (I might add in hindsight that it is so terribly easy to drift back to this middle without even realizing it).
We think it’s comfortable because this part of the spectrum doesn’t generate any waves, or create many disruptions – nobody gets jealous or envious because some individuals are singled out with extravagant praise or a fantastic raise or bonus, and nobody works with much anxiety because its rare when somebody gets coached or let go, or doesn’t get a raise.
But the reality is, this “calmness” is only an illusion. What really happens when we live only in the Comfortable Middle is a bunch of resentment – resentment by those who excel for a lack of real and tangible recognition, and resentment by those who do their job well every day for those who don’t, and yet remain with the company and get the same raises they do.
The best objective indicator of how much a company lives in the comfortable middle is to look at the range of the annual raises – from my experience I know I need to get out of the middle when all the raises are bunched together, without much deviation from the highest to the lowest.
If someone lives in that middle for too long, then the problem multiplies, and your better performers start leaving, and your overall productivity stagnates.
I know how easy it is to stay away from the two ends of the spectrum, but we must really practice “Full Spectrum” management to truly be effective. Which means a manager must have the ability to be both “touchy feely” and “tough“.
Sounds Jeckyl and Hyde, but it’s really not.
It’s just being fair. And brave.
That little drawing is going to help me remember this every day, and I hope it can help you too.
(This lesson also appears in my free e-book, “Leadership From a Glass Half-Full: 5 Lessons You Need To Learn Before You Jump Into The Pool“)