Don’t leave employees to make impossible choices

What happens when business is either so bad or so good that it overwhelms your systems? It can force employees to choose from among three negative paths for survival: cheat, fail, or die trying. This can happen for any number of reasons, but the pandemic has amplified it and created a breeding ground for crisis.

Management must realize when team members are being forced into these decisions and they must have systems in place to stop it. The very survival of a business depends on it. Maybe the current crisis isn’t the elephant in the room, but every company will encounter The Impossible Choice in one form or another at some point.

There are two ways to handle The Impossible Choice: prevention and cure. We’ll go over some steps you can take for both. It takes an unbelievably small amount of cure to prevent The Impossible Choice from becoming a mammoth problem.


Listen first. Managers need to be trained to ask the right questions and actually hear the answers. Group meetings and feedback are vital, but don’t neglect the individual. It can be easier for some people to speak up when there isn’t a crowd. 

Leverage performance management. Have a process in place that makes it clear what employees should be working on, that builds trust between managers and workers, that facilitates ongoing communication, and tracks all of that.

Assess the risk. Do you have a strong leadership team in place that can detect problems before they get out of hand and pivot in a way that won’t overburden employees? If employees are already overwhelmed, then realign before it's too late. That may include examining the organization’s structure and resource allocation. 


Listen! Yes, it applies to both prevention and the cure. Once The Impossible Choice has been made, communication is vital. Why was that choice made? What did it solve in the short term? What did it hurt in the long run? How will we change to make things better in the future? 

Managers need to keep coaching. Performance management can provide stability and build trust in times of uncertainty. If you don’t have a process that does that, get one. 

Take it a bite at a time. You can’t eat an elephant in one sitting, and you can’t solve an impossible problem overnight. Break the problem down into actionable steps. That will make it easier to handle and more likely to be resolved. 

Gary Markle, chief catalyst of Catalytic Coaching Inc, is a speaker, consultant, author, and a business partner of Energage, a Philadelphia-based employee survey firm. Energage is The Washington Post’s survey partner for Top Workplaces.

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