By Michael Mellen
When my daughter was 18 months old, she got hold of a spoonful of hot salsa and ate it. I watched as she scrunched up her face, turned a bit red, closed her eyes, paused for a moment, and then determinedly said, “More.” She’s been eating the most flavorful and spicy salsas and sauces she can find ever since. She received a box of 40 different hot sauces for her 11th birthday. Each of us has a different tolerance or preference for spice, and the foods we choose or the foods we cook for others reflect those preferences. We seek that perfect space between flavorless and scalding.
Leaders hold the responsibility for helping their teams stay in that space between flavorless and scalding as well. Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky explain in Harvard Business Review, “Keeping an organization in a productive zone of disequilibrium is a delicate task; in the practice of leadership, you must keep your hand on the thermostat. If the heat is consistently too low, people won’t feel the need to ask uncomfortable questions or make difficult decisions. If it’s consistently too high, the organization risks a meltdown: People are likely to panic and hunker down.” This zone of disequilibrium creates space for creativity, productivity, and intentional evolution. It has the potential, in our constantly shifting environment, to engage team members throughout the organization – rather than solely the senior leadership – in problem solving and vision.
This space can be uncomfortable, even disconcerting, but it’s also a space of energy, excitement, creativity, and growth. The constent balancing asks leaders to help manage the in-between.
Challenge your team. Push them to solve wonky issues or take on new responsibilities. Help to identify prickly issues. Task them with answering key visionary questions. Provide a challenging deadline.
And help your team to manage their discomfort, energy, and creativity. Turn down the heat when needed. Attend to their needs of head and heart. Have their back. Provide parameters or guidelines. Inject fun.
Last night my daughter tried hot sauce on a brownie. While the combo wasn’t a success, she tried hot sauce on ice cream next. Clearly, that magical perfect space between flavorless and scalding remains elusive, and, still, leaders are called to help teams keep the heat up without burning.