Counter-pressure is all about making sure competing interests are sufficiently represented. This lets great work happen.
Let me break that down by giving you an example.
A friend has been subject to excruciatingly long, pointless work meetings. Going by the counter-pressure principle, I believe the problem stems from the boss being in charge of both running and presenting at meetings.
As a result, no one tells her that she’s run over time or that the agenda item was something that could’ve been relayed via text in 5 minutes. That is, there’s no pressure to be efficient with her time.
How increasing pressure solves the problem.
The boss could install a strict 15 min rule on all agenda items. And a strict 1 hour rule for all meetings. In this case, the counter-pressure takes the form of the rule.
However, I’m not sure the rule provides sufficient pressure if the boss has enough power to simply circumvent the rule.
So maybe employees need to give the rule more power.
For example, when she applies the rule, they can follow up by saying that she should treat everybody to lunch every time she goes past 1 hour.
They might also offer to help by giving her a 2 minute warning the way people do for big conferences and speeches.
This adds social pressure and process, respectively, to the original rule.
At some point, applying sufficient counter-pressure allows the balance to be reinstated. And meetings will become more manageable.
As you can see, this isn’t a matter of simply adding more rules. Re-framing the problem-solving as ways to increase pressure opens up a much wider range of possible solutions.
Obviously, people hate having that pressure. They find themselves limited by or clashing with the counter-pressure. And consistently try to find ways to remove, relent to or avoid it.
This brings me to my next point…
Counter-pressure is the ideal state.
My mother provides counter-pressure in the form of regulatory compliance at work. She’s a compliance officer in a bank.
Now that my mum is working from home (like everyone else these days), I get to hear some of her work conversations. Broadly, they involve the business side trying to get her approval to do deals as quickly and for as little money as possible. Sometimes she says yes, other times she yells at them for trying to get away with shit. In return, they yell at her for being too strict and not helping the bank make money.
This doesn’t mean she works at a dodgy bank. This is simply how it should look when everyone is providing sufficient counter-pressure and representing their respective interests.
A bank’s job is to make money for itself, its clients, and to do all that while not breaking the law. When any of those constraints go out of whack, something bad happens. Like in 1997 and 2008.
It’s hard for a single stakeholder to represent all these competing interests. By divvying up the necessary responsibilities, a bank is able to go right up to the boundary but still stay within it.
Hence, pressure is necessary for balance, and we should accept its constant presence.
Embracing the discomfort of counter-pressure.
I believe one of the hallmarks of maturity and being a good leader is accepting that counter-pressure is an important part of successfully running anything. Let me take that a step further – A great leader actively seeks to install counter-pressure and happily gives up control to do so.
There’s this founder I know and really respect who’s awesome at this.
One key way he’s done this is by cultivating tension in his executive suite. He’s highly principled and a great people person, the CFO is extremely practical and the CTO is a visionary. They argue and disagree all the time. But the nice thing is that they each embrace the dissent and know when to let each other win (and by how much). The company would not have a great culture if not for the founder, nothing would get done if not for the CFO, and they would slowly make themselves obsolete if not for the CTO. It’s the combination of these pressures that makes the company successful.
In contrast, I think we all know poor leaders who guard their territory like pit bulls and constantly try to gather power to themselves. The weaker the leader, the more power they seek.
Leaders aren’t the only ones guilty of this. Employees do this too.
Most employees are employed to represent a specific interest. If you’re a developer, you’re there representing the tech. If you’re a writer, you want the best copy possible. And so forth.
This is why arguing with people from other departments and thinking they don’t care about your interests is exactly as it should be. They are literally hired to balance out your interests by caring about their interests.
But this is also why the employees that stand out are the ones who embrace the counter-pressure by taking time to learn about the competing interests, why they’re important, and how to work within the constraints.
What are some ways you can seek to add or accept counter-pressure at work?
Seen from the lens of counter-pressure, it hopefully becomes easier to solve problems. Or, in some cases, accept that the pressure you feel isn’t actually symptomatic of a problem, but rather a sign that things are as they should be.
Can you think of areas where you’re regularly clashing with another team?
Or where too many competing responsibilities are held in one person’s hands?
Would love to hear how you’ve embraced or installed counter-pressures at work, or if this post has inspired you to do so.
🍊Fresh From the Interwebz
I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube recently, and decided to lean into it for this round of links. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!
3 minutes of nostalgic joy. Worth watching or even just playing in the background. Link to YouTube →
Yes, this is as cute as it sounds. And yes, he’s actually pretty good! Link to YouTube →
Really enjoyed this short video by Great Big Story about legendary voice actress, Tara Strong. She’s voiced characters in Rugrats, the Powerpuff Girls, Fairly Odd Parents, and more. Worth watching if you watched any of these cartoons growing up! Link to YouTube →
A wonderfully produced, uplifting short documentary. I easily sat through all 11 minutes of this. And felt inspired to try something similar (and then proceeded to do zilch about it). Link to YouTube →
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