Some years ago as my Friday ended, I walked into a VP’s office intending to simply wish him a good weekend. After a few pleasantries, we fell into a more serious conversation about one of his direct reports, who I’ll call Ted. Ted had was perhaps the most technically knowledgeable about certain aspects of the division. After all he’d been with the firm for twenty years or so.
The executive angled for advice and I obliged.
“I don’t really know what to do,” he admitted. “Ted has been here forever and I know he’s waiting for me to retire so he can move into my job. But the truth is he’ll never succeed me. He’s a nice guy, works hard and has my back, but he just doesn’t have the political acumen needed for the role. He’s too soft as a manager, too — I do a fair amount of behind the scenes work with some of his staff, listening to their concerns about his leadership. Oh, their complaints are nothing really serious. I guess, mostly I’m just concerned that he’s living with an illusion. If I tell him where he actually stands, he’ll either leave — which would be a problem since he knows so much, or he’ll stay and be unhappy and uncooperative and that could be a disaster. What do you think I should do?”
“It’s a thorny problem, for sure,” I confirmed. “What do you want to do?”
“Well, I need to bring up another of my Directors. I’ve got someone else in mind who I know could do it. He’ll be a much better fit for my job than Ted — when the time comes. I’m thinking of reorganizing, and I happen to know a good firm that facilitates this sort of thing quite well.”
My heart sank. I’d heard it and seen it so many times before: reorganize to actively avoid the painful transition from co-dependently maintaining others’ illusions to a more truth-based way of leading and managing. This all too popular solution avoids any meaningful, respectful form of coaching. That’s the nice way to say it. The less nice way is to talk about how cowardly and selfish it is and how dismissive of another human being. Oh, I know, this undoubtedly will sound rose-colored to some, but I have this belief, you see, that people ought not to abuse their power by avoiding that power’s core responsibility. They ought not turn management into a game by leaving out critical information.
This is not an uncommon sport. During my career I’ve met many executives who use the shell game of reorganization to avoid a truthful dialogue or confrontation. Avoid the whole process of facing human beings who might get angry or upset. It’s a more brutal form of that same old strategy — send so-and-so to training or coaching instead of actually talking to the person about what he or she is doing that gets in the way. The reorganization route is pathetically transparent, of course, especially when it’s done in the individual’s absence, such as when the person is on vacation.
Now, I know this isn’t an easy problem. I also know that some of it is inadvertent, meaning a leader actually believes this is a better way. But I cannot help but feel it is also a sign of insecurity and insensitivity and in turn creates these in others, too.
As it turned out, I fully agreed with the VP’s assessment of Ted as lacking both political acumen and a certain clarity in his supervisory style. I’d known and worked with him, and what his boss said was pretty much what everyone said behind his back, and it was what I, too, had observed, although I had never been in a position to coach Ted regarding his career. I had even wondered where he might have learned some of his bad habits.
“You can reorganize,” I said to the VP, “but here’s my observation: Ted will get it. He’s not stupid. He’ll know exactly what you are doing with the changes and how the cards are falling. It won’t make it easier for him. Instead it will confirm his fears and while he may never talk to you directly about the situation, it will likely affect him and his performance, and maybe his self-esteem, making it less easy for him adjust and building resentments that could last for years. My point is, you’ll have to deal with it one way or another. I don’t think you can escape your role. So the question is how do you want to deal with Ted? What do you think is the right thing to do?”
What was unspoken in my questions, of course, was the VP’s role in Ted’s illusions — and his own. Certainly Ted had a responsibility for open communication and getting feedback, but the VP did, too, as much or more than Ted did, and I think that’s what was really bothering the VP. He understood that this situation had been created little by little, fed by both parties until it became part of the system, part of the invisible rules of the relationship in which they were now both trapped.
In reply to my question the VP gave me a caustic look that quickly softened into a certain self-amused, even ironic expression. “You think I should talk to him, don’t you?” he replied. “That will be very hard for me — for both of us.”
And then we just sat for a moment silently. It was Friday, the end of the week. The VP turned his chair away from me to look out over the city as the sun settled behind a row of distant mountains and their shadows. He turned away, but I could tell he was thinking about what I had asked him, and he was almost smiling.
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