If you’re leading a team or company, occasionally you will find yourself in a position where you need to “step on the brakes”.
Stepping on the brakes occurs when the team has made progress in a certain direction and you need to stop them from continuing. It may be asking them not to launch a certain feature, hire a certain person, make a particular change, etc.
There are a few things worth understanding about stepping on the brakes.
First, it is well within your right as a leader to step on the brakes when necessary. If you think the team is headed in the wrong direction, moving too fast to be safe, or about to do something really bad for the company or team, it’s not just your right, but your obligation, to step on the brakes.
That said, the second thing to understand is that stepping on the brakes is a very expensive managerial operation. The team gets whiplash. People get discouraged by being overruled, and unhappy that they spent time and effort on something that is halted by a top-down decision. The team will worry that they are not trusted anymore. They might question why management let them get this far to begin with.
Thirdly, stepping on the brakes instantly puts you in the driver’s seat. No matter what you have done to empower your team and give them ownership, the second you step on the brakes, whoever had their foot on the pedal and steering wheel is going to let go. So unless you make it very clear what’s next, you are assumed to be in charge, and if you’re not, then no one is.
Lastly, if you find that this is occurring regularly, it’s probably a sign that something broader is wrong. An occasional brake-step is usually fine. If you’re at a small company that’s trying to move quickly, there will be some element of chaos that results in some sort of gaps. At larger companies, it’s less the speed and more the complexity that opens up the door for these situations. So in some sense, having this occur every now and then is par for the course.
That said, if leaders are needing to intervene in this way frequently, it’s a sign that there is lack of alignment, lack of trust, or lack of process (possibly all three).
So what can you do, if as a leader, you find yourself in a situation where you need to step on the brakes?
First, make sure that’s the right course of action. There are alternative, less costly managerial interventions:
- For many situations, it’s good to start with inquiry: ask the team why they are headed in that direction, surface the risk you are concerned about, and see what they think. Maybe they have a good reason for what they are doing, and maybe they have mitigated whatever risk you are concerned about.
- Alternatively, you can just surface your concern, and let your team decide what they should do.
- Finally, assuming there won’t be some large, irreversible damage, you can let the team proceed. Maybe the cost of the intervention is worse than the cost of proceeding and letting your team make a mistake and learn. Or, maybe, just maybe, they are right and you are wrong (presumably, you are hiring people who are more likely to be right about the work they are doing than you are).
If you think a strong intervention is necessary, realize that the earlier you do it, the better. The further the team gets, the closer they get to their destination, the more costly the intervention.
Next, once you decide that you are stepping on the brakes, make it very clear that that is happening. If you are past the inquiry or warning stage, don’t leave any room for doubt. Explain what is happening and explain why. “I’ve heard the reasoning for wanting to launch this feature, but I’m worried that if we proceed as is, we might expose ourselves to high regulatory risk. I know this is discouraging, but I’m asking you not to launch this”.
The next thing to do is be clear about next steps. Should the team come back with an alternative proposal? Will you think about what’s next? Be very clear about “who will do what by when”.
Finally, be humble and apologetic. It’s natural for a leader to blame the team (often silently) when they go off in some unexpected direction, but usually, whatever caused this to happen is more of a leadership issue than anything else. “I can imagine this decision might be very discouraging, so once we’ve figured out the fix for this issue, I commit to taking a step back to think about how we can prevent these situations in the future”.
Bonus step: have 1:1s with the people who you think might be most affected by your intervention, and listen to what they have to say. They will feel heard and respected, and you will probably learn how to prevent these sorts of situations in the future.
What if you’re on the receiving end?
In other words, what if you’re the person who feels like they just had the brakes stepped on them? A few pieces of advice:
- Ask what happened. Talk to your leader, and ask them what just happened. Where did the misalignment come from? What are they concerned about?
- Ask what happens next. Are they asking you to come back with a proposal for what happens next? Are they going to come up with a proposal? Who will do what by when?
- Ask how to minimize these events in the future. Depending on where the gap came from, how can you address it?