The Little Trade-Offs

What seems small to you, as a leader, is not small to your team.

I was running a leadership training a few months ago, when a CEO said this to me…

“I think I know why it’s so easy to become a bad manager, even when we don’t mean to be: It’s because of the little trade-offs.”

I nodded and smiled. I knew exactly what he meant by “the little trade-offs.” I’d made so many myself as a leader, across my own career.

The little trade-offs are the moments when we succumb to what feels most pressing in front of us, at the expense of what our company needs down the road to be successful. We swap “The Thing That Will Help The Team in the Long-Run” for “The Thing That Needs To Be Done Right Now.”

As a leader, we make a dozen of these little trade-offs every week (if not every day!) We negotiate in our heads: “I need to finish this critical project, so I’ll postpone my one-on-one meeting with this employee. We can talk next quarter.” Or, “I need to be heads down on selling to this new client, so I don’t have time to explain the recent company changes. We can announce them later.

“Next quarter.” “Later.”

In the moment, the little trade-off seems like the right one make. Executing on “The Thing That Needs To Be Done Right Now” feels like the top priority. It’s what will pay the most dividends. And when it’s such a little trade-off, how much does it really matter?

Well, here’s the rub: Little trade-offs are not so little. You might make just one or two, in the beginning. But when you’re stressed, busy, and operating on tight timelines, the frequency of those little trade-offs inevitably increases. The little trade-offs you make as a leader become big trade-offs over time.

Consider these seemingly “little” trade-offs:

  • You choose to respond to an investor’s message within 24 hours — but don’t respond to a team members’ email or message for days (or weeks) on end.
  • You choose to be out on the road marketing the company’s new vision to potential customers — but don’t take the time to communicate the vision to the rest of the company.
  • You choose to actively ask a client for feedback and how your product can improve — but are always late to deliver an employee surveys or hold one-on-ones to solicit feedback on how the company can improve.

These little trade-offs say: “I value investors over my team. I value my potential customers over my team. I value my current customers over my team.” These are not little trade-offs. They’re big.

Over time, the little trade-offs reveal your true preferences as a leader and the basic underlying assumptions you hold. It becomes clear who and what really has a hold on you, and where your interest lies. For your team, the little trade-offs you make speaks volumes to them, more than any stirring inspirational speech or pay increase you give. It’s the little trade-offs that they’ll most remember.

No wonder it’s so easy to become a bad manager. Our little trade-offs pile up. Rather than being the exception, they become the rule.

How many more little trade-offs are you willing to make?


Claire is the CEO of Know Your Team – software that helps you become a better manager. Her company was spun-out of Basecamp back in 2014. If you were interested, you can read more of Claire’s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog.

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