Sink or Swim or Something in Between?

Sink or swim or something in between?

We’re going to give her this job and she’ll either sink or swim.

We’re going to toss him into the deep end and see if he can make it.

There is a school of thought among managers that we can’t coddle people forever. That our team members need to learn hard lessons. To help them develop faster, we need to throw them into deep water and see what they’re made of.

The “sink or swim” mentality is pervasive. After all, that’s how most of us developed, isn’t it? We got placed into difficult situations and were forced to fail, adapt and fail some more. And eventually those difficult experiences formed a toughened exterior, and we were ready to take on whatever might come our way.

As I’m writing this, I can feel myself mentally nodding and agreeing and remembering. That’s exactly how I developed in the early stages of my career. I had epic fails, occasional wins, and more fails. I had managers who either believed I could meet these difficult challenges or they didn’t care whether I did or not. Sink or swim.

But here’s the thing, I’m not sure it’s the optimal management approach. I am certain it’s not MY management approach. Today we’re going to look at an argument against the sink or swim dichotomy. I’ll outline some practices I’ve adopted I think create better results and drive higher engagement from team members.

Before I argue against the sink or swim philosophy of management, let me make clear I do not advocate the opposite approach either. There are some managers who, for various reasons, are completely unwilling to give their employees a shot at anything. They protect them and shelter them and effectively block them from growth. I would never support this. We need to help our people develop – that’s the duty of a manager. We need to push them. The question is, how best to do that? Is the sink or swim approach optimal or is there some other, better way?

My experience tells me, there is no substitute for winning. Winning begets more winning. Winning creates momentum, and momentum can take you places you didn’t think possible. My fundamental philosophy as a manager is to create as many winning situations as possible for my team and the members of it. I look for potential wins, I focus my energy on winning opportunities, I celebrate and reward and recognize wins as much as I possibly can. A culture of winning is hard to beat.

The counter argument to this is if you never place team members in situations that will test them – where they will likely fail – they’ll never be able to win at the highest levels of the game. That if you create artificial winning scenarios for people, they’ll eventually have to learn the hard lessons anyway, and by that time it will be too late. I see merit in this argument too.

The right question, in my opinion, is how do we strike a balance between building a culture (and habit) of winning while also challenging our people enough so they keep developing and can ultimately reach the highest levels of performance?

Here are 3 tactics I use to strike that magic balance between winning and development.

1. Fail in practice, win in the game

In martial arts there is a saying – train hard, fight easy. I think there is a lot of wisdom here that can be applied to the workplace. The essential point is you should challenge and test yourself relentlessly within the relatively safe confines of training, so when you’re on the big stage you can be confident and shine. You lose a hundred times in practice so you can win when it really counts.

As much as I can, I try to create this environment at work. I try to build a safe training space where team members can be challenged and fail without suffering the repercussions of failing on the big stage. This way they can develop and grow and adapt AND create a habit of winning.

A good example of this is when team members have big presentations like an executive briefing or a customer presentation or some other high-pressure event. In these situations, I get deeply invested in helping prepare my team members. Probably more than just about any manager I know. I review presentations and talk strategy and ask hard questions and give extremely critical feedback. I push and push and push during the preparation phase. I create a safe space to fail so they will be ready to win when its show time.

At first, it can seem like micromanagement. Like I’m getting all up in their business or like I don’t trust them to deliver. But over time, as team members win and get recognized and rewarded, and as they build stronger and stronger reputations, they come to embrace the process, they seek out opportunities to learn hard lessons in private so they can win big in public.

My advice to managers is to create safe learning environments for your team members. Create opportunities for them to learn tough lessons and get difficult feedback in an environment that doesn’t carry the same consequence as failing in public. I have found this approach helps build deeper levels of trust between you and your team members as they come to realize your harsh criticism and feedback is designed to help them succeed under the bright lights.

2. Tough love in private, praise in public

I have found the best way to build trust with team members is to praise them in public while being tough on them in private. At first this may seem like a truism but I don’t think it’s as self-evident as you might think. Some managers are hard on their people 24-7 – in private and public. They push and they push some more. Other managers are way too soft on their people. They praise and praise and praise and don’t have the stomach to provide honest, critical feedback to their teams. Neither of these approaches work.

I want to be able to be hard on my team members so they can push themselves to new levels. I want to be able to be very direct and honest with my feedback. I want to be able to continuously raise the standard of excellence. But if you’re constantly criticizing your team, they’ll eventually give up on you, and then everyone loses.

My experience tells me there is a balance to be struck between praising and pushing. I want team members to know I will support and praise them in public when they’ve won. I want them to know I’m their biggest fan and that I’m personally invested in their success. But in exchange for that, when the lights go down and we’re back in a safe space, I will be quite hard on them. I will push them. That’s the bargain.

3. Find the win in failing

Win or learn. Another great philosophy that applies well to leading a team. No matter how much you support your team members in the preparation for big moments, they will fail from time to time. It’s a reality of life and work. The question is, how do we maintain a winning culture in moments of failure?

Great managers help their team members be as prepared as possible for big moments. Great managers are also supportive when that preparation isn’t met with a win. Sometimes we lose. Winners lose all the time. Our job as managers is to give our people the highest probability of winning and then help them find a win even in defeat. The worst managers bail on their people when they fail. They avoid talking about it. They lay blame. They shirk responsibility. Never do this.

The bargain you strike with your team members is to do everything possible to put them in a position to win and then accept whatever result happens. Your team members need to believe you won’t give up on them when they’ve prepared well but still fail.  

My advice to managers is to talk openly about failure. Don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. Don’t hide from it. If a member of your team gives maximum effort and still fails, help them find a win in the lessons learned. That way you can continue building a culture of winning even in defeat.

The sink or swim mentality has some merit to it, but I don’t think it’s always applied correctly in the workplace. Too many managers place their team members in unwinnable situations under the auspices of sink or swim. I reality, they’re just creating a losing culture. My experience tells me we can push and test our people AND create a culture of winning. I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments section.

Get the Weekly Reid

Join the 40,000+ who have signed up for free weekly career tips and tools