Tolerating and The Path of Least Resistance

Have you ever wondered what’s at the end of the path of least resistance?

I was recently with a global leadership team that had agreed to find ways to improve the results they were getting. From their team assessment, three things stood out about this group: there was deep commitment to success, there was low confidence among members about their ability for constructive interaction, and signs of burnout were present.  I had a hunch.

So I asked the group, ‘What is this team tolerating?’

There was a long collective sigh, some nervous laughter, and finally someone blurted out on behalf of the group, ‘we don’t have enough time to cover it.’  And with that, we began to get to the heart of the matter.

It turns out that tolerating was the team’s default strategy for productivity. ‘Don’t rock the boat’ was a deeply embedded expectation in the leadership culture, and given the new market circumstances of exploding competition and shareholder activism, the strategy of excessive tolerating was reaching the end of its usefulness.

This combination of commitment, near burnout, and limited conflict skills is not uncommon. Unfortunately, neither is the default strategy of ‘going along to get along.’ As these leaders unpacked it, the team acknowledged that tolerating the various behaviors, tensions, and inconsistencies was an efficient way to get through the day, week, or quarter. They were simply following the path of least resistance.

With more exploration, they decided that efficiency was just the surface explanation. Underneath it, was a core benefit: it kept them out of the messy weeds of having to really understand or reconcile differences. It had worked well until it reached a tipping point and started to drain everyone’s energy. At this point, it was requiring more effort to get less done!

Because they weren’t resolving tensions underneath the differences, the dynamic had become the obstacle to making progress. And, it was creating the exact opposite effect they wanted – inefficiency. The ‘going along’ routine was blocking any semblance of accelerated forward movement.

When you’re good with a hammer, everything becomes a nail.

In many ways, tolerating is a fantastic approach. And, it is a major milestone in a leader’s development – it takes personal maturity and social refinement. But it can become something that gets unconsciously overused. When this happens, tolerating does keep you on the path of least resistance, but at the end of that path, it takes more effort to get the same results – and improvements or growth become pipedreams.

What was encouraging about this leadership team was that even though members were nearly burned out and had admittedly low ability to make conflict productive, people still cared deeply about generating results together.

When this is mix is present, there is a radically new possibility. With focused time building collective muscle in constructive interaction, members will have more choice about how to respond to tension-filled situations. Ultimately, the team will be able to confidently choose the approach it takes: tolerate to avoid getting stuck in inconsequential tangles, or alternatively, dive into differences to drive alignment and growth.

Extraordinary leadership teams can do both. They recognize that they are the path makers, and it’s their job to venture into the path of innovation and growth every chance they get.


What is your team tolerating, and how much of the team’s creative energy does it take?

What team strengths are present that would support new capability in reconciling differences and creating alignment?




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