On Leaving Things Out

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.”

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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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12 Comments

  • Was the VP real­ly afraid to approach and men­tor Ted? Or was this a test for Dan to see what he would do in the situation?

    From the last para­graph, I some­how see that the VP is test­ing Dan to see what he would do with Ted. I have been in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion and asked my boss if he want­ed me to talk to the per­son. I might have asked the VP the same question. 

    How­ev­er, the VP has some­one else in mind to move up to the posi­tion in ques­tion, which makes me think regard­less of what Ted does to improve, the VP will not pro­mote Ted. 

    Great arti­cle and very thought-pro­vok­ing indeed. Thank you

  • Dan … your piece here has much to con­sid­er and is very much a real­i­ty in some form or anoth­er in our lives. Thanks for shar­ing your insights.

  • @David Thanks for stop­ping by! And thank you for your ques­tion and pos­si­ble hypoth­e­sis. My impres­sion was that there was no par­tic­u­lar “test” for me involved here (although I’ve cer­tain­ly been in that sit­u­a­tion, like most con­sul­tants). I would say this was real­ly a chance con­ver­sa­tion, a “ran­dom act of con­sult­ing,” so to speak. The VP was not hop­ing I would be the mes­sen­ger, and had he asked I cer­tain­ly would have declined. Clear­ly this was not my work — it was his. 

    You are very right that there was no pos­si­bil­i­ty Ted would be pro­mot­ed, even if he improved. The rela­tion­ship seemed old and fixed for a vari­ety of rea­sons. The cen­tral issue for the VP was whether or not to be open with Ted as to why he would not suc­ceed to the high­er role — to have that truth­ful dialogue. 

    I would not say the VP was “afraid to approach and men­tor.” It seemed to be more a mat­ter of want­i­ng to avoid dis­com­fort and pre­vent the “messi­ness” and incon­ve­nience of all that — while also feel­ing the inar­tic­u­late tug of a more eth­i­cal or empath­ic view­point some­place in the back­ground of his own deci­sion-mak­ing. I would­n’t say the VP was a nat­u­ral­ly self­ish or insen­si­tive guy — although I’ve also seen that one, as the post implies. In this case, I believe he was just hav­ing an argu­ment with him­self about what to do. My role seemed to be more of a friend, in a sense, hold­ing him account­able for doing what he already knew at some lev­el he would need to do — which was talk about the sit­u­a­tion with Ted.

  • @Dean Thanks, Dean. I appre­ci­ate your kind words!

  • I like that you point out that it’s impor­tant peo­ple find ways of com­mu­ni­cat­ing direct­ly about their views of oth­er’s in pref­er­ence to find­ing indi­rect ways of deal­ing with issues (such as hir­ing con­sul­tants to han­dle the reor­gan­i­sa­tion to avoid hav­ing a dis­cus­sion with a par­tic­u­lar person).

    In read­ing through this post again, look­ing at how you com­mu­ni­cat­ed with the VP and in the post, I think you might have been incon­sis­tent with your own views on effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion. I want­ed to high­light what I see and hear what you think, in the inter­est of me try­ing to learn more about the chal­lenges of advo­cat­ing and act­ing con­sis­tent­ly with open and hon­est communication.

    In the text of the post you describe your view of the VP’s action plan of reor­gan­is­ing around Ted and then get­ting a firm to facil­i­tate it as poten­tial­ly “cow­ard­ly and self­ish and dis­mis­sive of anoth­er human being”. How­ev­er I don’t see you shar­ing this view direct­ly with the VP.
    You describe what you said to the VP “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?”

    In your text you say “what was unspo­ken in my ques­tions, of course, was the VP’s role in Ted’s illu­sions”. It seems to me that you were aware that your ques­tion con­tained an unspo­ken neg­a­tive eval­u­a­tion of the VP’s behav­iour (“you, VP, are try­ing to escape your role and are not tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for open com­mu­ni­ca­tion and get­ting feed­back from Ted”) and I make the infer­ence you were advo­cat­ing the VP take action (“you have to deal with it and you should talk to Ted about it”).

    The VP’s reply “You think I should talk to him, don’t you?” I infer that he realised that your ques­tions were not gen­uine inquiries but were indi­rect­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ing your neg­a­tive eval­u­a­tion of his approach, and propos­ing your own approach.

    It seems to me that you had views on the VP’s pro­posed actions that you did­n’t share open­ly, or ask for feed­back on. To me this seems incon­sis­tent with your own view on the val­ue of open, truth­ful dia­logue that does­n’t leave crit­i­cal infor­ma­tion out. How do you see this? If you see it sim­i­lar­ly, then I’m curi­ous: what, if any­thing, lead you not to share your neg­a­tive eval­u­a­tions and pro­pos­al for action more direct­ly with the VP?

    You end describ­ing that the VP’s non-ver­bal behav­iour of turn­ing his chair around and then smil­ing. You make an attri­bu­tion about what the VP was think­ing: “I could tell he was think­ing about what I asked him”. 

    I could also imag­ine anoth­er expla­na­tion for the VP’s non-ver­bal behav­iour. If I were in the VP’s posi­tion I could imag­ine think­ing: “Dan is telling me to be open and direct with Ted with my neg­a­tive eval­u­a­tions of Ted’s abil­i­ties. Yet, Dan him­self neg­a­tive­ly eval­u­ates my reor­gan­is­ing approach (he thinks I am try­ing to escape my role and is not the right thing to do), but he is not say­ing so open­ly or direct­ly! He’s doing to me what he accus­es me of doing to Ted. He’s advis­ing me to act in a way but isn’t act­ing con­sis­tent­ly with that approach himself.” 

    How do you see what I’ve described and the mean­ing I make of it?
    As I said at the start, I share your view about the impor­tance of hav­ing truth­ful, hon­est com­mu­ni­ca­tion. I raise these con­cerns about the pos­si­ble incon­sis­ten­cy between your advice and your actions because I think that incon­sis­ten­cy reduces the val­ue of the advice. I think your post high­lights the dif­fi­cul­ty in pro­duc­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion that is con­sis­tent with these val­ues — a top­ic that I would val­ue con­tin­u­ing to discuss.

  • A friend and men­tor referred me to this excel­lent piece. It is often true that exec­u­tives seek­ing “advice” are just avoid­ing a con­fronting con­ver­sa­tion. I remind that of some wis­dom embed­ded in the devel­op­ment of our language.

    Con” is Latin for “with.” Con-front is to face some­thing togeth­er, to move for­ward in uni­son. Sounds like every man­ager’s job. Does­n’t that make con­fronta­tion more appealing?

    Ver­sare” meant to turn or change, espe­cial­ly to open or close a door. In ear­ly Eng­lish a con-ver­sa­tion mean talk­ing with anoth­er per­son to make a change, to open some doors and close oth­ers. Also a big part of managing.

    Still, not every­one knows or remem­bers how to have this con­fronting con­ver­sa­tions. Here is my step-by-step guide, for free: tiny.cc/toughtalk

  • @Benjamin Hi Ben­jamin — Thank you for your very thought­ful com­ment and the ques­tions you raise. They are impor­tant ones to consider. 

    Clear­ly I made a choice in this sit­u­a­tion not to lay out all my judg­ments with the VP, although I did hold them, includ­ing my belief that it would be bet­ter to talk with Ted direct­ly. So it’s fair to ask whether I was­n’t being hyp­o­crit­i­cal in the way I deliv­ered my advice. Being more direct might even have been a mod­el for him to use in com­mu­ni­cat­ing with Ted, and we could have dis­cussed that, too. 

    So why not? I chose to occu­py non-direc­tive rather than direc­tive coach­ing space because I saw him strug­gling to make a deci­sion, one that he already held an answer to inter­nal­ly. And even though I do believe he picked up what my per­spec­tive was, I was explic­it­ly also say­ing he was respon­si­ble for mak­ing that deci­sion on the basis of what he gen­uine­ly want­ed and what he felt was gen­uine­ly right — so was he actu­al­ly clear on those things? I intend­ed through my ques­tions to help him get at that “inar­tic­u­late tug of a more eth­i­cal or empath­ic view­point” that I men­tioned in reply to David’s com­ment above, and to take per­son­al own­er­ship. The fact that I left the con­ver­sa­tion open aimed to encour­age him to go deep­er for him­self, and I did sense he got that point. 

    There is def­i­nite­ly, how­ev­er, some risk in this non-direc­tive approach. The per­son can revert to some self-jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for an eas­i­er course, per­haps by con­tin­u­ing to ask oth­ers the same ques­tion until the he/she finds the right rein­force­ment for a path he/she no longer has to own. The per­son could even turn on me as being incon­sis­tent, as you men­tioned. Hav­ing some his­to­ry and a lev­el of respect and trust with this par­tic­u­lar VP reduced some, but not all, of that risk. In pre­vi­ous con­ver­sa­tions with him, for exam­ple, I’d been quite open with him about my per­cep­tion of his ongo­ing strug­gle with his con­science vs. his capac­i­ty to pull off expe­di­ent and some­times very clever polit­i­cal solutions.

    Does a prin­ci­pled, authen­tic approach always exact­ly mod­el the kind of solu­tion it offers anoth­er? Great ques­tion! I’d say it’s an imper­fect and high­ly sit­u­a­tion­al bal­anc­ing act — a bal­ance between ser­vice to oth­ers, trust, self-worth and doing the right thing.

    I rarely receive such care­ful­ly drawn com­ments, Ben­jamin. I very much appre­ci­ate this reflec­tion and I, too, would be open to fur­ther dialogue!

    Best to you and thanks
    Dan

  • @Tony Hel­lo, Tony. Thank you very much for stop­ping by. I loved your dis­cus­sion of the ety­mol­o­gy of the word “con­ver­sa­tion” — very cool! And thanks, too, for post­ing the link to your advice about how to tack­le tough exchanges. It’s always great to see such mod­els ones that can help us oper­a­tional­ize our desire to build truth and trust in rela­tion­ships. Many best wish­es to you and thanks again for tak­ing the time to comment!

  • Dan, love­ly arti­cle, I have enjoyed it and the com­ments from oth­ers immense­ly. As usu­al when I read your stuff, I have many things fir­ing off for me. I just want­ed to share one. I was remind­ed, when you wrote about the VP’s pos­si­ble avoid­ance of a direct and hon­est con­ver­sa­tion, of some­thing a teacher of mine once said to me. It was in the course of direct­ing a piece of work in action and I was receiv­ing in vivo super­vi­sion. He said, “Look, if you relate to this per­son as if they are some­how disabled…as if you have to make it bet­ter for them…as if they do not have the capa­bil­i­ties to do what they need to do.…then you are not being of much use to them. Your job is to warm them up to what they already know how to do, NOT to relate to them as if they need some help.” In imag­in­ing the VP shy­ing away from a poten­tial­ly dif­fi­cult or uncom­fort­able con­ver­sa­tion, I also see myself car­ry­ing on an imag­ined con­ver­sa­tion in my head and reject­ing it because I unfair­ly make the assess­ment that the oth­er per­son is some­how not capa­ble of hear­ing it. It does me and the oth­er per­son an injus­tice and is actu­al­ly more relat­ed to my own fears than the oth­er per­son­’s “dis­abil­i­ty”. This scene you describe reminds me that a lot of my work is about warm­ing peo­ple up to the truth that they already know and con­nect­ing them to the abil­i­ties that they already have. What mas­ters of self-decep­tion we humans are!

    Warm­ly,
    John

  • Thanks, John. I am very much with you on this — that we can dis­able oth­ers from their capac­i­ty to hear the truth and respond effec­tive­ly, and that this can be a very self-pro­tec­tive move. Kind of the flip side of blam­ing some­one else for the prob­lem by telling your­self “they can’t take it.” 

    It’s an easy thing to slide into for all of us and high­lights our need to be espe­cial­ly vig­i­lant to our own escape routes, ego inter­ests and defen­sive­ness. Espe­cial­ly when we are just sure we are right. 

    On the oth­er side, I believe it is also crit­i­cal to offer some nec­es­sary self-sooth­ing and self-compassion.

    Per­haps that is one of the best ways to help: to make sure the bal­ance is in place. To hold ten­sion with me as well as with you, and to also be a kind of sanc­tu­ary for us both.

  • Dan,

    Let me jump into this rich conversation. 

    Analy­sis aside, this piece high­lights the real­i­ties we all face — even those “skilled” at com­mu­ni­ca­tion and com­mit­ted to con­ver­sa­tion. These lay­ered untruths are com­mon in every work set­ting I have ever been part of — as a con­sul­tant or employ­ee. I rarely meet peo­ple with­in entrenched sys­tems who are able and will­ing to clear­ly and open­ly com­mu­ni­cate — it’s risky, and the thing we call polit­i­cal acu­men are the pow­er arrange­ments we rein­force or chal­lenge every day through our communication. 

    It takes real skill and aware­ness to do this. It takes hon­est self-assess­ment and emo­tion­al self-knowl­edge and com­fort. Insights from neu­ro­science add anoth­er lay­er — if social brains are always assess­ing threat or reward in every inter­ac­tion — how do we approach com­mu­ni­ca­tion to be truth­ful and com­fort­ing at the same time? 

    It also takes courage.…Courage for employ­ees and con­sul­tants invest­ed in their jobs and future prospects. I’ve been in your sit­u­a­tion and would love to say I’ve been 100% unam­bigu­ous 100% of the time…but I have not. 

    Although we may aspire to courage, trans­paren­cy and full dis­clo­sure, we’re works in progress. 

    Thanks for anoth­er very hon­est article.
    Louise

  • Louise~ What you write is so true. It takes skill, aware­ness, courage and recog­ni­tion of the real­i­ties — and it is still hard. As a prod­uct of these fac­tors, we con­sul­tants do make a choice about how we can per­son­al­ly pro­ceed and do our best to be of help, imper­fect as that help might be. Each of the com­ments to this post offers anoth­er lens and anoth­er approach. I love that! We each have our way of con­tribut­ing and can learn from each other. 

    In this sit­u­a­tion, I chose to side with ambi­gu­i­ty and use it to encour­age the lead­er’s own­er­ship of what I believed he knew was a bet­ter but tougher path. I sim­ply “moved a pawn” in the chess game that might tem­porar­i­ly put his king at risk. Per­haps it was too sub­tle a play — and I real­ly don’t like play­ing any­way. It’s a crap­py way to consult. 

    So, too much was left out by the leader and by me — that is the point of this post, after all. And yet I also have to say, and this too reflects why I wrote this piece, there’s always that thing about the tone and pres­ence of an exchange such as the one we had, and there’s some­thing about the moment, and how very small turns of the dial can unex­pect­ed­ly open a new fre­quen­cy. Some­times less is indeed more. Some­times silence itself is the mir­ror and the actu­al change agent at work.

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