Pressure compresses. Support expands. It should be easy to understand. Yet leaders confuse the two. Why?

Often someone putting pressure on someone else thinks they are being supportive. But the person being pressured always knows the difference. While both describe effort or force, pressure is generally force applied against an opposing force, compressing. Conversely, support is generally force applied to help another effort or force, expanding.

Assume Jack and Jill’s groups are each lagging behind on one of their goals. Scenario 1: Jack’s boss asks what Jack and his team are going to do to make up the difference. Scenario 2: Jill’s boss asks what he, the boss, and Jill’s peers can do to help Jill and her team make up the difference.

Scenario 1 meets a couple of Webster’s definitions of pressure, adding to Jack’s burden and distress, applying force to something in direct contact to compress, applying force against an opposing force.

Scenario 2 meets a couple of Webster’s definitions of support: promoting Jill’s cause, assisting and helping, keeping from losing courage.

Hard to believe any leader would consciously want to add to the distress of someone on their team, constrain or compress them, or push them away. You would think leaders would want to promote their team members’ causes, assist and help them, and keep them from losing courage. Yet, not all do.

The difference may be the perceived value of tough love which Webster defines as “love or affectionate concern expressed in a stern or unsentimental manner (as through discipline) especially to promote responsible behavior.”

In scenario 1 above, Jack’s boss believes Jack has everything he needs to make up his shortfall. Jack’s boss believes all that’s missing is for Jack to act responsibly. Hence the pressure of tough love with an individual responsibility focus.

In scenario 2, Jill’s boss believes Jill and her team have deployed their current best thinking and are already doing everything they can or almost everything they can to make up the shortfall. Hence the support of offering help with a broader team working together bias.

Milestone update meetings

You’ve seen this play out in milestone update meetings. You’ve been in meetings in which the leader goes around the table grilling each of their team members one-on-one about why they are lagging behind their milestones. Each person sits in dread of their turn in the barrel and then relaxes when the boss turns their attention to the next victim.

Meetings like that are all about pressure. They are really a series of separate individual tough love meetings in which the boss is driving accountability as a way to get the individuals in the room to act responsibility.

A better milestone update process

I’ve written about this before and continue to believe there’s a better way to run milestone meetings that change them from pressure to support. Follow these steps:

Prior to meeting:

Each team member updates a shared milestone management tracking sheet. Each should code their status as green/on-track, yellow/at risk, red/will miss.

Most teams start with everything green and then flip things to red when they miss milestones so they can minimize the time when their boss is pressuring them to act responsibly.

A particularly strong sign of a well working interdependent team is its members’ willingness to flag things as “at risk” early enough to support and help each other deliver those. Let’s jump straight to that stage of team development.

At meeting:

This process is about anticipating milestones at risk, and then adjusting as a team to deliver the most critical ones, letting others slip as appropriate

1st part of meeting:

Each team member gives three-minute update during the first part of the meeting

– most important wins

– most important learnings

– areas they need help on

Pause to prioritize:

Leader orders topics for discussion in priority order at break point

2nd part of meeting:

Group discusses those topics in that order during second part of meeting, spending as much time as necessary on each one, supporting each other by figuring out how to help each other deliver together.

Remaining topics deferred to next meeting or separate meeting

This approach has several advantages in that it focuses the conversation on the most important problems for the team to solve as a mutually supportive team instead of dealing with each individual’s pet issues on a first-come, first-served basis or, worse, watching the boss pressure each individual in turn.

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