Don’t give me bad news

Nancy Kline in her superb book Time to Think describes a conversation with a senior civil servant whose department was going through wave after wave of changes to the way work was done and how things were structured. When asked how his managers were coping  with all of this, he responded, ‘I have no idea.  I don’t ask them.’  When asked ‘Why?’, he said, ‘They might tell me. We couldn’t have that.’  As Nancy goes on to explain, what he was really saying was thathe couldn’t handle that”.

How common is it for managers to shy away from facing up to the reality of what is going on around them, particularly when it might involve a face-to-face conversation with someone?  Very common, in my experience.   Confronting bad news, delivering home truths, providing feedback on performance, addressing inappropriate behaviour, or challenging resistance to change.  All of these scenarios present managers with situations which they either feel ill-equipped to handle effectively, or they ignore.

When managers fail to recognise an under-performing member of their team, there can be any number of underlying thinking errors or limiting beliefs at play.

For example:

  • They don’t want to admit they have someone under-performing as it may reflect badly on them
  • They don’t want to face the issue directly (it’s not in their nature), and they’re worried about handling any conflict that facing up to it might cause
  • The work is getting done to an ‘adequate enough’ level. Even though the individual is not adding as much as they potentially could, everyone’s reasonably happy – so why rock the boat?  (I dealt with this specific case in more detail in a previous post called Are you prepared to upset the Apple Cart?)
  • The individual is reasonably effective in some areas, so why not overlook or downplay issues in other areas where things could be better?
  • It is just a fact of life that some individuals are weak in certain skills or habits. We can’t change that.
  • The manager has been ‘friends’ with the individual and they’ve worked together a long time. They find it hard to confront them with hard messages.
  • The individual is a “nice” person, and it would hurt them to come down too hard on them
  • The individual is “slick” in that they always have a reason/response to issues raised with them, it’s just not worth the hassle of bringing up problems. After all, we’ve always managed to work round them in the past

Holding back, and not acting with complete honesty or sincerity does not create or encourage learning and improvement?  It does not prepare people for the future and help them adapt to change.

Fundamentally the approach to overcoming this type of ‘limiting thinking’ is simple….. Continue reading

Slow Down, you Move too Fast

“Slow Down, you Move too Fast”… so go the wise words of Simon & Garfunkel’s “59th Street Bridge Song” ……

Many people are inclined to jump to action rather quickly.  After all, isn’t this what people feel they are being paid for? To make decisions, to be decisive, to act !

Acting, in my experience, is rarely the biggest problem we face within our boardrooms, executive groups and operational teams. Our businesses and organisations are replete with people who plan, manage tasks, monitor activities, schedule, organise and control. I don’t sense that we need to build more skill in these areas.

The bigger challenges that face our business leaders are in the quality of conversations they undertake, their depth of problem analyses, and their ability to reach universal agreements on what actually needs to be done to bring about the major changes that will transform our businesses and organisations to turnaround their fortunes.

People tend to “over-analyse” the detail (or the parts we are most comfortable with) and avoid  tackling the real, hard, knotty issues. As teams, our conversations, seldom focus in on the major issues that would bring about significant and transformational change.

We tend not to bring sufficient attention to the most significant issues. After all, it is easier to focus on the trivia, or those issues that are most comfortable to discuss.  Bringing attention to significant issues is, after all, risky. We risk upsetting people, we risk our reputation, we risk being alienated if no-one else supports us, and we risk upsetting the status quo.

As a result, true agreement is rarely reached to the extent that it is clarified, confirmed and restated to everyone’s level of unambiguous satisfaction. How many meetings have you come away from where people start initiatives to resolve what they believe is the ‘agreed’ issue, but which is, in reality, subject to their own individual perspective?  This typically results in duplication of effort, conflicting initiatives, confusion and frustration.

Our organisations are action-generating machines,creating an illusion of efficiency, and productivity. Down the line, the most significant issues, which, if addressed and tackled, would result in radical change and improvement, remain untouched, lurking in the shadows in corners of meeting rooms around the globe (the proverbial elephant in the room?).

Here is a simple step by step guide – “The 4 As” –  to help leaders navigate Continue reading

What gets in your way and blows the conversation?

Because we are human we have a number of fairly predictable reactions and behaviours in given situations.

All people, regardless of culture, gender, experience, job or position in the hierarchy, operate according to the same set of principles when under even fairly mild levels of stress. [For a more detailed treatment of this area I refer you to Chris Argyris’ work on double-loop learning ] 

  1.  We seek to maximise comfort and minimise negative emotions that means both our own and also the other person with whom we may be interacting at the time. 
  2. We will, at the same time as aiming to maintain a position of comfort, still aim to maximise our chances of winning and avoid losingin other words, we typically want to get our point across, and let others see where the problem lies or solution should come from
  3. And third, we seek to maintain controlwe typically try to put out a feeling of rationality and self-control (even when it is lacking) and aim to maintain control of where the discussion or outcome is going so that we can ‘steer’ others to the outcome we want

All of this adds up to a heady mix of potential problems in our everyday dealings with people – especially when stakes are raised, when emotions rise and when threats start to emerge.  The ways in which these principles and values emerge in our behaviour can differ from person to person – sometimes overtly and sometimes beneath a veneer of control, respectability and respect.  The underlying purpose of these strategies is to avoid vulnerability, avoid risk, and avoid appearing incompetent.

But, before you go away with an overly pessimistic view of the human race, don’t worry. First of all, this is natural, and is, to a large extent, a strategy that has helped us survive as a species through our evolution.  These strategies were necessary in the primeval world our ancestors navigated, but they are deeply defensive strategies, and rooted in a desire for self-preservation.  When they show up in our everyday lives, in meetings, in performance reviews and in relationships, they undermine our effectiveness and get in the way of building productive relationships, they are “anti-learning”, and damage the chances of constructive outcomes.

The good news is that we know about these de-railers and how and when they show up, and we can do something about it.

Fundamentally the approach to overcoming these is simple….. Continue reading