Between a rock and a hard place

Leanne Gordon
4 min readNov 20, 2018

I love this saying. In the world of work, I find, it is so applicable. Every person who has ever worked within the four walls of a business has, at some stage, found themselves between a rock and a hard place.

What does it look like? How does it feel? And most importantly, what do you do about it when you find yourself here?

Good questions and let’s see if we can unpack this a bit.

If you work within a business, chances are you will have someone that you report to in the structure. More often these days, you will have multiple people that you report to. Firstly, there’s your line manager, your first port of call. You may also have a functional manager, the person in your specialisation that you report to for technical policies, procedures and development. Maybe there’s a project manager for the one (or many) projects that you find yourself involved in. You may have a customer facing role and need to serve the needs of the customer. The same applies if you have internal customers to serve. Finally, if you have people reporting to you, your team members are people you need to serve [or in effect, report to].

Even if you don’t have people you report to in the exact way it is described above, I am sure you will find this familiar. Perhaps, you have less formal links to serve various different people.

The net effect is the same in that you are being pulled in every different direction. Any decision you make needs to be considered in light of the many different stakeholders in that decision. Another apt saying is that “you can’t please everyone”. Never a truer word has been spoken. Often, though, we are trying to do just that. That’s when we find ourselves between that rock and that hard place. And it is damn uncomfortable. You often feel that there is no way out.

I recently saw this in action. A team I was working with were trying admirably to un-wedge themselves from between that proverbial rock and hard place.

As a new team, they identified the required actions for success — building a new set of processes to deliver new products, applying greater structure and rigour. What they didn’t anticipate was the tension this created with the prevailing culture and leadership direction. The strategy and culture focused heavily on serving the customer, building strong relationships and being adaptive and flexible. The organisation’s leadership team became concerned that the increased structure and rigour would work against the flexibility of the team to serve the customers (both internal and external). At the same time, customers were concerned that new products would be set in stone and unable to meet changing customer needs. The team members themselves became overwhelmed, confused and began second guessing themselves and the team’s decisions. Cracks began to show within the new team as different members reacted differently to the pressure and each saw different solutions for their problems.

I’m pleased to say, so far, this fledgling team has worked through these issues and have removed themselves from that uncomfortable spot between the rock and hard place. They have managed to build a rigorous process that includes enough feedback loops and flexible boundaries to deliver new products in a way that is adaptive to customer needs. The members of the team have emerged from this place unscathed and stronger as a team.

It is clear that communication and a supportive culture have been the two key elements in this initial success.

The leadership team led the way, by:

  • Understanding the challenges facing the new team — building rigorous processes without losing flexibility is not easy;
  • Believing in the team’s ability to work through these challenges;
  • Communicating directly with customers — focusing on the larger, strategic goals and providing reassurance that the end solution will be in the customers’ best interests;
  • Leveraging the customer relationships they had built, the trust they had earned and displaying openness and honesty.

The team, itself, managed to work through the challenges by:

  • Staying focused on their end goal;
  • Maintaining open communication, and involving the whole team in decision making;
  • Using an experimental, trial and error, approach to creating the new processes;
  • Keeping customer needs front of mind — still delivering new products for customers even while the processes were being developed and improved.

Will this team find themselves back between that rock and hard place again? More than likely. The competing needs of the business are still there. However, they have shown themselves, the leadership team and, most importantly, their customers that they can un-wedge themselves when they do.

Can you think of a time you were stuck between these competing demands — the rock on one side and the hard place on the other? How did you un-wedge yourself and what might you do differently next time it happens?

I’d love to hear your “rock and hard place” stories below.



Leanne Gordon

Thinker ▪️ Writer ▪️ Speaker 🇦🇺 Founder - Recent altMBA alumnus #makingworkplaceshuman #changeseekers #futureofwork