Stealing Struggle? Allowing Adversity to Act As a Management Tool

man with head in hands at laptop looking stressed

by Matt Dierdorff

I have a theory that many managers suffer from some variation of kleptomania. We can’t walk away. We can’t sit back. Instead, our sticky fingers trump self-control and we swipe incessantly each time the opportunity for struggle is encountered by our team. As a matter of fairness, this started very early for many of us. We experienced this phenomenon in the living room and the classroom and we have carried it into the boardroom.


We treat adversity as a problem to be solved rather than a class to be taken. For many of us, our parents stepped in and saved us in the midst of struggle. Shielding us from the more profound consequences of life is understandable, but too often they stepped quickly in to mediate a friendship gone awry or to advocate in front of a teacher, or worse a professor.

A few years ago I was able to spend Frontier Day with my fourth grade son. The students in his family had packed their wagon (radio flyers identical to those used in the late 19th century… ) including lunch and appropriate supplies. They were to journey together as part of a grade-wide wagon train, moving from the safety of the playground through a large span of undeveloped land, to a previously-settled area set to welcome them. The teacher’s instructions to the parents were emphatic: “Let the students do it.” They were trying to communicate to the parents in the room the importance of learning through process. I am not sure how many parents had put on their listening ears that day, because they did everything except “let the students do it.”

They were so destination focused their impatience caused them to nudge their child out of the way so they could repack the imbalanced wagon or even lift the wagon alongside another adult to move meandering pioneers more quickly toward “the end”.

These were no doubt well-meaning parents (as most managers are also well-intentioned) but that day they took something precious from their children. When their fourth graders weren’t looking they stole struggle from them, all the while thinking they were gifting them with something else. “Why allow Bobby to wrestle with a strategy for getting through the mud when Mom can easily offer a hand?”, “Isn’t it kinder to help them get there quicker and get on with lunch?” Maybe it is better, for that one short moment. There is definitely relief and lunch does taste better eaten sooner rather than later. But, the frontier family who arrives with muddy shoes and tales of peril endured are the luckier lot. They were allowed to experience adversity and given permission and encouragement to find their way through it. They embraced innovation, collaboration and leadership. They did it themselves. And next time they will do it even better.

Are you guilty of swiping struggle from your team-members? Have they come to expect you to resolve every crisis, nudging them out of the way to repack the wagon or hoisting it above the fray? Isn’t it your hope that your organization will grow to be larger than you? I’ve no doubt you desire to be surrounded by pioneer-people who not only get to where they’ve planned to arrive, but who become more confident, creative and collaborative along the way. Maybe instead of offering the solution each time a challenge is encountered, you find ways to facilitate, saying “I think you are asking some great questions.” and “I can see how this process is uncovering some of the aspects of what you really do well.” The gift which team-members require is not resolution, it’s presence. Are you there alongside them asking artful questions and inviting their best contribution or have we become so focused on “getting it done” that we forfeit the opportunity to become something better along the way?

About the author

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