Episode 6 – The Man in the Middle: A Solution Focused Feuilleton

Steve: “OK, that’s clear. I can understand. I know that you have been doing the most difficult jobs within the department for years now. In the past few months, you have worked very hard to introduce the new employees to their jobs as smoothly and quickly as possible. Everyone admits that the past few months haven’t been easy, especially not for you, Peter. Now, you know as well as I do that there are things that you, and I, can’t change. All those changes within Solteam belong to the world of limitations. We can only accept them and learn to deal with them in the best possible way. I have noticed that you handled all the changes in as positive a way as possible. How did you manage to cope with that?”

After complimenting him, Steve subtly teaches Peter about the difference between problems and limitations He then uses a kind of “coping” question. By asking Peter how he handled his problems in the past, Steve implies that Peter has been successful in handling them. In itself, this question hides a compliment. This solution- building question gives Peter the opportunity to think, despite all the difficulties, about his strengths and resources.

Steve trying to to establish a cooperative relationship with Peter

Peter: “What a strange question. I was just doing my job, what else? I have never been the type that gives up. I have always kept my promises towards my employers. When I take on a job, I go for it. Up until now, I have never met a challenge that I couldn’t handle. Mind you, I am no superman. I’ve had my share of difficulties but somehow I always coped.”

Steve is trying to “join” with Peter in order to establish a cooperative relationship with him. Peter reacts favorably to Steve’s authentic and respectful approach.

Steve: “Excellent. That’s the go-getter I know. So, I’ll repeat my question: What do we have to discuss today so that our meeting will be useful to you?”

Peter: “If we were able to work together constructively like it used to be, everybody would make efforts to contribute to the greater cause of the company instead of just minding their own career. I would like to get the mandate to manage the dismantling of the old production line in my own manner. I am not a child who needs supervision. I want management to let me do my job without having to inform them about every little turn I take. I never had to do that in the past and things went fine then. But I don’t think they’ll go for that. John doesn’t trust me, and the management doesn’t support me. Since the merger everything has changed because a lot of new employees came along. I do want to give them proper training but I’m afraid they’re only interested in advancing their own careers. So, I could use your advice about what I need to do to get my team cooperating again.”

The relationship between Steve and Peter now develops into a searching relationship: Peter asks for help. He is asking for a mandate to handle the project in his way and, at the same time, he wants to rebuild the cooperative mood in the team. Although these answers are perfectly legitimate, they do not express his goals in a workable format. As we will soon see, Steve can help Peter transform his goals by asking the right questions. As their working relationship is just moving into the searching mode, Steve decides to take a little step back.

Steve: “Excellent, Peter. That’s a good start. Here we are, at your office on a Friday morning, we have only been talking for about half an hour about how we can solve your case, and you have already come up with very valuable ideas.”

Steve now uses the technique of yes-setting to increase the likelihood that Peter will continue to approach the situation positively. Steve chooses to follow the solution-focused adage: “If in a hurry, go slow!” He decides to use a scaling question.

Steve: “Peter, before we go deeper into this, can I ask you a question? If we take a scale from zero to ten, where zero stands for the moment last week when you felt that it would be better to resign and ten stands for your belief that things might not be perfect but they are good enough for you to continue working, where are you now?”

Peter: “At a two.”

Steve: “Good. What does the two mean? What has changed in the past week to get you from a zero to a two?”

Peter: “The fact that you are talking to me about how we can solve this. Even though I still don’t see what good could come out of this mess. Well, maybe also the fact that John mailed me that the management wants me to do the dismantling. Oh, and the fact that John sent me a memo to wish me ‘the best’ of luck — and especially that I haven’t heard from him or seen him since.”

Remembering James William’s famous quote: “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook,” Steve does not react to Peter’s slightly cynical remark. He accepts all Peter’s answers even though some weren’t useful. He keeps the questioning going.

Steve: “Perfect. What would be the next small step forward?”

Peter: “I don’t know. But I do know that you ask me a lot of questions.”

Steve: “Yes, I do, and do you know why? Because the right questions bring out the solutions!”

Peter: “That’s funny. I never thought of it like that, but I must admit you have a point. There is one more thing needed, however.”

Steve: “And that is?”

Peter: “You need to be able to listen to the answers.”

With a seemingly casual remark, Steve teaches Peter the art of solution- building questions. Peter reacts favorably by going along with it. This strengthens the working relationship and introduces the solution-focused approach without their even having to talk about it.

Steve: “You are getting there, Peter, congratulations. So, you’re saying that the fact that John has at least left you alone, that the management has entrusted the dismantling to you, and that the two of us are now working on a constructive solution is worth a two. Excellent! 

(to be continued)

Back to episode overview

‘The Man in the middle’ is an excerpt from the book ‘The Solution Tango’ (and ‘Solution Focused Coaching’ e-book) by Louis Cauffman. This book presents a new approach to conquering the numerous challenges, problems, and failures that managers encounter at work, many of which are people-related. An important lesson identified in the book is that a manager must act as both the leader who provides direction for a team or company and as the coach who enables others to make the most of their skills, enabling the individual and the organization to succeed. A seven-step framework to enhance problem-solving capabilities, examples and tips, and a survival kit for sinking managers will help managers improve their people skills and learn how to approach everyday issues from a positive perspective.

Episode 5 – The Man in the Middle: A Solution Focused Feuilleton

The intervention

The CEO decided to ask Steve for help. Steve is vice president of the sales department. He is known for his tenacious diplomatic skills that provided him with the nickname “the gentle Pitbull.” Steve goes back a long time with Peter — so it will be no problem to get his help accepted by Peter. Jeff asks Steve to coach Peter and John in order to:

  • Put Peter back on the right track.
  • Get the dismantling project on track.
  • Improve the cooperation between John and Peter.
  • Make sure that their team keeps its sharp edge.

Steve sends the following email:

Highest priority Strictly confidential

From: Steve@solteam.com

To: Peter@solteam.com; John@solteam.com cc: Jeff@solteam.com

Re: dismantling project

Peter, John,

Jeff told me about the high-pressure situation surrounding the dismantling project. Jeff expressed his conviction that the two of you are the experts to handle this difficult project IF you cooperate. He asked me to help you steer away from counterproductivity. Jeff gave me the mandate to try and help you out. If this will not work, he will take it to the board.

I hope you both agree with this offer.

I will talk to you individually first and then I offer to coach Peter on the dismantling project.

I expect your go or no-go within 48 hours.

Strict confidentiality and discretion is vital. We will solve this problem before Solteam. suffers from it.

Hope to hear from you soon.

All emails on this topic must be copied to all parties concerned (no bcc’s please). I will do the same.

Best regards, Steve, VP Sales.

John was the first to react. He emailed Steve that it was OK for him. John sees the fact that “Peter needs a coach” as proof of the fact that he himself is “right.” He then sent Peter a short memo in which he again — but now with an undertone of sarcasm — wishes Peter “the best of luck.”

Peter took the full 48 hours to react. Then he called Steve’s secretary to make an appointment.

Steve emails everybody involved to confirm that they are in the game. He will first talk to Peter.

Meeting 1

Steve contacts Peter to make an appointment. Their first meeting is held in Peter’s office. Peter has, of course, prepared for this meeting very well. He is determined to explain the “truth” about how the company’s way of working has changed and especially about John. Peter rattles on about this for ten minutes.

Peter allowing Steve to let off steam.

Steve makes sure that Peter feels at ease by allowing him to let off steam. Steve simply listens because he knows from experience that arguing is counterproductive at this stage: people tend to cling even more tightly to their beliefs when they feel challenged. While Peter vents, Steve concentrates on little exceptions in Peter’s story about the quarrel. When he feels that Peter’s arguments are losing momentum, Steve seizes the opportunity to ask the goal-setting question that will help to point Peter’s nose in a more constructive direction.

Steve: “OK, Peter, you’ve made your point. What do you think we should discuss during this meeting so that it will be useful?” Goal setting question

Peter: “I don’t know. That is something the management has to decide. Or John, for all I care. I am doing my job and that should be enough. If they aren’t satisfied with my work, they shouldn’t pay me. I don’t know what they think is wrong with me. Haven’t I proved in the past that I can handle my job? I don’t understand why they don’t trust me with the new project. I want to complete it successfully, but they are working against me. Anyway, I don’t know what I should do differently. They should tell me if they know.”

Peter isn’t answering the question. Steve accepts this, knowing that the goal-setting question will soon steer Peter toward solutions. Steve isn’t interested in delving into the underlying causes of the problem nor will he allow himself to be seduced into the battle of who was right or wrong. He doesn’t react to Peter’s strange deduction that top management is opposing him. Thinking of the flowchart, Steve judges that Peter is currently in the position of passer-by This means that Steve’s only job for the moment is to establish a positive relationship with Peter that will allow him to work on eliciting an alternative goal.

Steve: “OK, that’s clear. I can understand. I know that you have been doing the most difficult jobs within the department for years now. In the past few months, you have worked very hard to introduce the new employees to their jobs as smoothly and quickly as possible. 

(to be continued)

Already read the upcoming episode 6
Back to episode overview

‘The Man in the middle’ is an excerpt from the book ‘The Solution Tango’ (and ‘Solution Focused Coaching’ e-book) by Louis Cauffman. This book presents a new approach to conquering the numerous challenges, problems, and failures that managers encounter at work, many of which are people-related. An important lesson identified in the book is that a manager must act as both the leader who provides direction for a team or company and as the coach who enables others to make the most of their skills, enabling the individual and the organization to succeed. A seven-step framework to enhance problem-solving capabilities, examples and tips, and a survival kit for sinking managers will help managers improve their people skills and learn how to approach everyday issues from a positive perspective.

Episode 4 – The Man in the Middle: A Solution Focused Feuilleton

Their mutual anger and distrust caused major problems. John and Peter had been slated to work together on the new project of dismantling the production line, but it looked like the project would run into serious problems if Peter and John couldn’t reconcile. Employees began gossiping about the “bad chemistry” between their two managers.

John and Peter had been slated to work together.

The fight kept Peter awake at night. He came to work tired and quick- tempered. For the first time in many years he complained to his wife about work. Peter told her: “Now I understand what the saying ‘lonely at the top’ means. It’s no longer safe to talk to anybody about anything. I wonder if I should look around for a job somewhere else.”

When the budgets for the dismantling project had to be presented to the top management, Peter refused to support John’s budget proposal. In the middle of John’s presentation Peter remarked bluntly: “This proposal is rubbish. I will not work in such an unprofessional way, and I will not take any responsibility for the safety of my people who have to dismantle the production line.” John couldn’t control himself any longer. In the middle of the meeting he called Peter “an incompetent, sneaky old pig.”

The CEO was not amused. He adjourned the meeting and summoned both men to his office. A massive brawl broke out there. Jeff had to refrain himself from firing both of them on the spot. He realized the enormous strains that both managers were under. Jeff wanted to fire neither John nor Peter — they were both highly esteemed managers with proven track records. After explaining that Solteam. wasn’t a play- ground where little boys could fight over a ball, the CEO told them that he refused to stoop to such childish matters. They had to clear it up themselves.

The CEO had no choice but to inform his board of directors who immediately invited John for a meeting. They explained to him that they saw Peter as the only manager within Solteam. capable of heading up this project. Peter had built the factory that had to be dismantled: “He knows the ins and outs of the place. For safety reasons, we are convinced that Peter is the only one who should take care of the dismantling project.” John grumbled a bit (he even considered giving the management the ultimatum “Fire Peter or I will leave”), but, wisely, he kept quiet and decided to leave Peter alone. He even mailed Peter to explain the management’s point of view and wished Peter — not without double meaning — “Good luck.”

In the course of the following weeks John and Peter kept avoiding each other. However, it was clear that Peter had lost his old zest. He repeatedly expressed his doubts to his closest employees, had regular outbursts, and was late delivering project proposals. At home he also became more and more grumpy, slept very poorly, and lost some weight. He skipped his bridge evenings to work late at the office.

One day Peter was standing next to the coffee machine when the CEO walked in. Always keen on personal contact with his personnel, Jeff asked Peter how things were going. Peter blushed, started to sweat and stutter, and went to his office without the coffee. The CEO followed him and prompted him about what was going on. Peter poured his heart out: “I can’t do it anymore. Everyone is working against me. I don’t believe that the new project will succeed. I am working my butt off without any results. Maybe I should resign.” The CEO was shocked. He wasn’t used to hearing Peter talk like that. And it certainly wasn’t the kind of language used in the macho world of Solteam.

Jeff went back to his office to think about the situation. He immediately ruled out drastic changes: no one would get fired, promoted, or demoted. He still believed John and Peter were the right people in the right places for the company. But what should he do? 

(to be continued)

Read episode 5
Back to episode overview

‘The Man in the middle’ is an excerpt from the book ‘The Solution Tango’ (and ‘Solution Focused Coaching’ e-book) by Louis Cauffman. This book presents a new approach to conquering the numerous challenges, problems, and failures that managers encounter at work, many of which are people-related. An important lesson identified in the book is that a manager must act as both the leader who provides direction for a team or company and as the coach who enables others to make the most of their skills, enabling the individual and the organization to succeed. A seven-step framework to enhance problem-solving capabilities, examples and tips, and a survival kit for sinking managers will help managers improve their people skills and learn how to approach everyday issues from a positive perspective.

Episode 3 – The Man in the Middle: A Solution Focused Feuilleton

About six months after the merger, top management announced a major change in strategy. A substantial part of Solteam ‘s traditional products would be discontinued and replaced by new products. This required building a new factory. This strategy change caused much tumult within the company: the large investments needed for this new factory were a heavy burden on the short-term financial forecast, the unions were worried about employment, and many of the old employees were afraid that they would be “removed” along with the old plant.

For the operations department, this strategic turn meant a great deal of extra work. After all, it wasn’t just the building of the new plant that needed to be managed — the old factory had to be dismantled, too. From a safety and environmental perspective, the dismantling of the old factory was a substantial and risk-bearing project. Top management asked Peter to head this dismantling project. John would have the overall supervision.

John supervising the dismantling project.

The conflict

The first open conflict erupted when John summoned Peter to his office. John boldly announced that he wasn’t confident that Peter could carry out the project that the management had just appointed him to. John explicitly expressed his belief that Peter was too easy on his employees and especially on the external contractors. Peter was shocked when John haughtily remarked: “You have to understand, Peter, that at this point in my career I can’t afford to have you mess things up while you are under my supervision.”

John had never before criticized Peter’s way of working, or his results, this harshly. Peter reacted with anger. He said that it was John who had ruined the atmosphere, that it was John’s fault that some projects were delayed, and that he was sick and tired of the way in which John played the different project groups off against each other. He angrily slammed the door and went directly to Jeff, the CEO of Solteam., to complain. Jeff soothed Peter by promising that he would talk to John, but he never did.

In the weeks following the incident Peter avoided John at all costs. He was so angry that he started to talk to his senior project managers about the conflict. Tension between John and Peter mounted steadily. During the kick-off meeting for the dismantling project the bomb really exploded: John repeated his doubts about Peter’s capabilities for the project in front of the entire team. Peter started cursing him. After a few minutes they were yelling at each other and the meeting had to be disbanded.

This caused major problems. John and Peter had been slated to work together on the new project of dismantling the production line, but it looked like the project would run into serious problems if Peter and John couldn’t reconcile. Employees began gossiping about the “bad chemistry” between their two managers.

(to be continued)

Read episode 4
Back to episode overview

‘The Man in the middle’ is an excerpt from the book ‘The Solution Tango’ (and ‘Solution Focused Coaching’ e-book) by Louis Cauffman. This book presents a new approach to conquering the numerous challenges, problems, and failures that managers encounter at work, many of which are people-related. An important lesson identified in the book is that a manager must act as both the leader who provides direction for a team or company and as the coach who enables others to make the most of their skills, enabling the individual and the organization to succeed. A seven-step framework to enhance problem-solving capabilities, examples and tips, and a survival kit for sinking managers will help managers improve their people skills and learn how to approach everyday issues from a positive perspective.

Episode 2 – The Man in the Middle: A Solution Focused Feuilleton

With the new merger things have changed, job certainty has gone and so has the sense of teamwork.

Peter is confident in himself and his expertise. He never loses sleep over the fact that he, too, might have to leave with a golden handshake. During the merger process, Peter did his best to serve the new company. He worked hard to facilitate the amalgamation of the different “styles” of both companies.

From the beginning of the merger, Peter had to accept that someone from the other company would run the department. John, a thirty-seven- year-old engineer, became vice-president of operations — a fact that didn’t bother Peter that much.

Peter is confident in himself and his expertise.

Initially Peter got along well with John, but that soon changed. John is a man of the new company style. He has a bossy attitude and he doesn’t socialize. His contacts are strictly businesslike, and he demands written reports on all possible issues. What annoys Peter most was that John didn’t mind bypassing colleagues if it was convenient for him. John’s style is to voice his opinion without worrying about what others think.

Two cliques soon form within the department. One consists of the employees who follow John’s methods. Using the same bossy attitude, they push very hard to get their own way: team spirit is not their highest priority. When they are successful, John praises them and their success reflects well on him. The other clique consists of the old company’s remaining employees, who keep to the “old style” of consulting and cooperating with each other.

Peter finds it hard to cope with the fact that things aren’t going as well as they did “in the good old days.” He has tried talking to John about this several times, but in vain. John plainly said that the good old days might have been golden, but they now belong to the past: “If you can’t adapt, Peter, you might have to think about finding another job. We don’t have room for dinosaurs.”

Peter has experienced one frustration after another. His secretary of many years took an extended sick leave and was not replaced. Peter was told to supervise a tiny project for several weeks. Peter sent a memo to John stating: “In my humble opinion, I believe I’m overqualified and way too expensive for this small project.” John didn’t even respond.

Over the course of the last few years, Peter had organized monthly meetings for every member of his department. These meetings were commonly known as “milestone meetings.” The goal of these meetings was to provide an opportunity to all of his project teams to report on their work. Successes and mess-ups were openly discussed. Peter and everybody working in his team were convinced that these meetings were very useful for keeping an overall view on what was happening. When John took on his function as VP operations, he immediately abolished these meetings. He told Peter: “Your milestone meetings are an instrument of the past. They take up too much time, are too expensive, and I know that we can do without them.” He replaced them with what he called a “real project-oriented approach.” Each project team just had to consult internally and report to their project manager with written reports. Peter was on the copy list but John claimed the final decision: “I prefer to tell you upfront that when I think it is necessary, I reserve the right to talk to the project managers directly, even if this means bypassing you.” Peter was obviously not very happy with John’s sudden decision to cancel these “milestone meetings.” One can easily imagine the atmosphere in the department.

John worked very hard to keep an overview of all the projects. He liked to call himself “the spider in the web.” Everyone, even Peter, had to admit that he succeeded in keeping everything under control. John therefore was held in high regard by the top management, a fact he flaunted to all his colleagues and especially to Peter.

About six months after the merger, top management announced a major change in strategy. A substantial part of Solteam ’s traditional products would be discontinued and replaced by new products. This required building a new factory. 

(to be continued)

Read episode 3
Back to episode overview

‘The Man in the middle’ is an excerpt from the book ‘The Solution Tango’ (and ‘Solution Focused Coaching’ e-book) by Louis Cauffman. This book presents a new approach to conquering the numerous challenges, problems, and failures that managers encounter at work, many of which are people-related. An important lesson identified in the book is that a manager must act as both the leader who provides direction for a team or company and as the coach who enables others to make the most of their skills, enabling the individual and the organization to succeed. A seven-step framework to enhance problem-solving capabilities, examples and tips, and a survival kit for sinking managers will help managers improve their people skills and learn how to approach everyday issues from a positive perspective.

Episode 1 – The Man in the Middle: A Solution Focused Feuilleton

Introduction

In fourteen exciting episodes, we present a true case study: real people, real business, real problems and exciting interventions. Most likely you will recognize situations that you have also experienced in your own company.

We have chosen to let the story prevail over the explanation of solution-focused thinking and working. We intersperse the story with technical paragraphs (in italic) that explain the solution focused interventions. For in-depth learning, you can click on the links in the text that will lead you to the theoretical explanations of the solution focused key notions.

This story comes straight from life and illustrates all the conversational techniques covered in the previous chapters. Most likely you will recognize situations that you have also experienced in your own company.

The story is about an average manager — not a famous individual or a famous company, not a superman educated in an exclusive business school. It is about somebody like you and me. You will meet his boss, his CEO and a solution focused coach. It is a case about a complex corporate project. It is an exciting case because at every turn it can end catastrophically for those involved, their careers and for the further development of the company.

While reading, you will have your own ideas on how you would have handled the problems that come up. As the events unfold, you will notice many points in the story where it could have gone wrong.

As the story unravels, you will be surprised and amazed by the power of words.

There we go. Have fun!

Louis

Episode 1: 

Background

Peter is a fifty-one-year-old petrochemical engineer. Having had a successful career in various other companies, Peter was hired by Solteam. and has been working with them for fifteen years. He is now vice-president of operations and he has the final word on a large number of projects. Peter’s team consists of about fifty employees. The projects he manages are highly technical and often require additional help from external subcontractors. As a results-driven manager, like most managers, two major concerns are always on his mind: being on time and within budget. Although he likes working with people, Peter has little interest in the organizational and relational side of working on a project.

Peter, a fifty-one-year-old petrochemical engineer.

As an engineer, he sees the dynamics of human relations as a necessary evil. In fact, he calls it “too much politics and window dressing.” He does, however, enjoy the general spirit of cooperation within his team and department.

Top management has expectations of Peter that are slightly higher than his own. “Stretching it to the limit’ is the style of the house. Peter in turn demands the same effort and results from his employees and from the external contractors. Typically, his project budgets are very finely cut and the time limits are always a bit too tight. The external contractors, who naturally also work for other companies, always try to stretch the limits of the contracts. After all, that is how the game is played.

Peter’s team is not immune to the internal power struggles that often develop in such high-pressure environments. Up until now Peter has always been able to control these power struggles. As a veteran, Peter knows the rules of the game within Solteam. he has used those rules himself to move up to his current position.

For Peter, his home is a place free of tension and that is just how he wants it to be. He is happily married with two adolescent sons and a beautiful house in a residential neighborhood not far from the factory. He lives a healthy life, jogging and playing bridge with his wife and friends on Thursday nights. Except for the normal stresses that everyone encounters in a top management position, Peter has been enjoying a relatively peaceful life, until …

Prelude

Last year, Solteam. merged with another company. Many of Peter’s direct employees left, some voluntarily and some not. Peter’s team underwent a major change — a significant part of his team is new. The style of the old company had been one of constant consultation and teamwork, of loyalty among employees and a sense of being at the service of the company. But with the new merger things have changed, job certainty has gone and so has the sense of teamwork. 

(to be continued)

Back to episode overview
Read episode 2

‘The Man in the middle’ is an excerpt from the book ‘The Solution Tango’ (and ‘Solution Focused Coaching’ e-book) by Louis Cauffman. This book presents a new approach to conquering the numerous challenges, problems, and failures that managers encounter at work, many of which are people-related. An important lesson identified in the book is that a manager must act as both the leader who provides direction for a team or company and as the coach who enables others to make the most of their skills, enabling the individual and the organization to succeed. A seven-step framework to enhance problem-solving capabilities, examples and tips, and a survival kit for sinking managers will help managers improve their people skills and learn how to approach everyday issues from a positive perspective.

Question number 7: Who do I coach first?

Who do I coach best as manager: the stars or the underperformers?

Now this is a tricky question. First, you need the courage to admit that your team is not perfect while at the same time you need some wisdom so as not to blame yourself for your non-perfect team. Then you have to fight the misapprehension that everybody in business must be a star. This is simply not true: all corporations all over the world are filled with a mix of stars, average people, and slow movers.

Dividing your staff into three categories and then putting a label on each of them is dangerous. Labels tend to become reality and reduce people to the label they have on their foreheads: this may lead to “corporate racism.” Labels describe the intrinsic (lack of) qualities of people. But, they also say something about the one who applies the label. If your company only uses three different labels, then the company itself is rather simplistic in the way it treats its staff.

It is even more complex when you realize that someone can be a slow mover in one area of work while he is average in another. The lowest performing engineer may be good in administrative procedures while your
best salesman is a below-average administrator. To add another level of complexity, you could argue that companies have a responsibility to helping their staff to become better in what they do. This implies that the company (read: you the managers) has the responsibility of managing all staff towards better performance. Limiting labels are no help here.

What does help is to define the requirements you make of your staff in terms that are as detailed and concrete as possible. One can only be called slow if measured against a specific norm. A Ferrari is a fast car when compared to most cars, yet slow when compared to a plane. However, you can go shopping in town with a Ferrari and not with a plane.

Now, this being said, with all levels of complexity added, it still remains true that some are more equal than others. Even if you have distributed tasks optimally, described them well and allocated the resources accordingly, you will still have some staff members who are faster and more efficient than others. In an ideal world, everybody is perfect or at least more then good enough. But perfection is a myth, and managers have to deal with imperfection. The question of who to coach first remains.

So, let’s be practical while keeping the above-mentioned complexity in mind.

As a manager you coach individual employees, and you also coach teams that are made up of a bunch of individuals. In order for a team to be more than the sum of its individuals, they need to act like a cycling team that is competing in a time trial. The team that wins is the team that has the highest average speed combined with a fast leadsman. If the star of the team rides so fast that his slowest team mate comes in too late, they (all) lose.

So, you coach the leadsman to go as fast as is useful for the team, you coach the average cyclists to speed them up a little, and you coach the slowest to go as fast as he can in order to come in on time.

However, there are more people involved. Every cycling team has specialists in it who do not ride a bike. They prepare the bikes, arrange hotel rooms, and coach the sportsmen. During a race, they sit in a trailer, stand on sidewalks, or ride in the car that follows the team. Their sweat only comes from the stress of their commitment!

Make sure to spend time with these experts and show them how important they are, even if they will never cross the finishing line personally.

For the best results, you must coach all of them: the stars, the average,
and the slowest. Who you spend the most effort on depends on the situation. When you need a breakthrough in your team, you coach the person with the highest potential for pushing the limits. However, make sure that you help that person to stay in contact with the rest of the team: they need information about what he/she is doing concerning that breakthrough, so that they can do the groundwork when it’s their turn to work on the results of the breakthrough.

Take the example of a high-potential sales engineer working for a major business-to-business provider of logistic applications. His company really needs that new account that he has been working on for months. Winning this account will have enormous consequences for his team: they will need to develop, test and implement a giant new piece of software according to the specifications of the new client. His manager has supported and coached him when times got rough. At the same time, his manager made sure that the sales engineer constantly reported the progress on this account. The goal of this was two-fold: reporting his progress gave him additional support and ideas from his team members. At the same time, it prepared the team for what they would need to do after the sale was closed. Imagine what would happen if the sales engineer closed that deal with all the help from his manager but without any communication with the team.

Laws of statistics tell us that the most frequent subspecies of humankind is the average man or woman. Coaching them is great since they are average: they do not need too much, nor too little attention. They only need the correct attention. They have areas where they perform better and issues on which they are not so good. Good managers coach the average person on his well-functioning characteristics and support him to do more of what he is already doing well. The less well-functioning aspects of the average person are probably not so bad as to cause serious concern. Good managers coach the average person so that his less well-functioning aspects put no constraints on his contribution to the team or company. They don’t lose time or energy in trying to change the average person into a non-average person: this is idle and preposterous (although politically correct in certain business cultures). The only thing you need to avoid is setting the average as the norm: that will not help you win any business prizes!

Then come the slow movers. You pay attention to the slowest in your team for two main reasons. The first reason is that there always is and always will be someone who is the slowest. When you show your interest in the weakest team member as a manager, this instills a respectful atmosphere for the whole team. Showing interest is, of course, not the same as protecting them, let alone allowing them to lower the team’s performance. Secondly, you want to see if there is a way to speed them up a little so that they contribute to raising the average speed of the team as a whole.

There is of course a limit to the effort you devote to the slowest team members. This limit comes in sight when in spite of your coaching (or even coaxing) efforts, the slowest constantly stays too far behind in all aspects of his work. Then they offer neither added value nor useful contributions. If this is the case, they move into the category of chronic underperformers: they stay too slow on all aspects of their work and there is no betterment in sight. To question where their underperformance comes from, from lack of capability or from lack of motivation is actually irrelevant. The fact is that chronic underperformers have a braking effect on team performance. It is up to you as a team manager, if you want your team to ride a time trial with the brakes on. The intervention with these team mates is either to find them a new spot in the organization where they can perform better or to ship them out respectfully. When they are not able to shape up and you have to ship them out, it comes to firing them. Have a look at the paragraphs on how to fire someone (page 219 of the Solution Tango) for the best way to do this. If you have no time to coach all of them at the same time, you’d better
make time to give everybody a little of your attention and make sure to show respect to all the members of the team (which maybe is the most basic form of coaching).

To conclude:
• Perfection is an illusion.
• A perfect team consists of stars, average, and slow team members.
• Stars need coaching to help prevent overperformance, and thus losing as a team.
• Slow staff are an unavoidable statistical part of the population.
• A little extra coaching for the slow raises the average speed.
• The average performer is the most frequent, but cannot be allowed to become the norm.
• When it comes to chronic underperformers you have to make a choice for the good of the company.
• Success is all in the mix of differences.

Question number 6: How do I manage my employees?

A little note on the concept of resistance

Resistance is a peculiar form of cooperation.
How often do you hear: “I would like to … but no one will support me” or “If it were up to me, that would have been finished a long time ago but the others don’t want to …” or “The top/middle/lower management isn’t prepared to accept my proposals, so there is nothing I can do” or “They are against me” or “There are too many opposing forces” or “If that wasn’t the case, I would …”.

When they don’t achieve their goals, some people even use the concept of resistance as an explanation: something or someone else is the cause of their failure. Furthermore, it is not their failure, they are not to blame. It is someone else’s fault. “Well, it wasn’t possible anyway. The odds were stacked against us.”

We often have to work with people who don’t ask for our help, don’t allow us to help them, or sometimes openly oppose our offer of help. All the above-mentioned attitudes and behavior styles are called resistance to change, in the classical problem-oriented approach. Resistance is seen as a negative characteristic of a person — as if people prefer not to change or refuse to acknowledge the possibility of change.

When we meet resistance, we are tempted to keep repeating our viewpoint in other words. If we don’t watch ourselves, we get excited and annoyed. We might even become angry. But reacting with anger won’t help us to reach a solution — in fact, it will probably make things worse.

To summarize, in the classical problem-oriented management style, resistance is seen as “a thing, a virus” that exists in the world. In the solution-focused view, resistance is merely a concept in the mind of the one who defines certain behavior as resistance: it has no “objective truth” whatsoever.

Steve de Shazer showed that resistance in the classical interpretation is just a concept, not more, not less, and in addition to that a rather useless concept. The solution-focused model takes an entirely different stance on this topic. It defines resistance as “every interaction that initially doesn’t seem useful for achieving the goals, but that nevertheless offers information.” The word “seem” is crucial in this definition because it indicates that one can do something else with this information rather than just discarding it as negative.

If resistance is no longer seen as opposition, then we do not have to oppose it. Instead, if resistance is seen as information about a peculiar form of cooperation, it becomes a useful concept. Resistance is no longer a dragon to be slain. Resistance is a signpost guiding our behavior.

When you offer your best advice to someone who doesn’t ask you for advice, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that that person doesn’t listen, let alone follow your advice. Is that a resistant person? Or is his behavior of not accepting your advice his way of informing you about your less than appropriate action?

Seeing resistance as useful information isn’t easy. Learning this novel and innovative view of the concept of resistance will make you into a master of cooperation!

Beware of corporate sabotage

Some forms of resistance can’t be seen, let alone tolerated as information: insubordination, sabotage, deliberate and excessive criticism, (sexual and other) harassment, theft and other criminal actions, etc. Such acts of “corporate terrorism” are unacceptable, and swift action must be taken. Treating people in a respectful way does not mean that everything is allowed.

In cases of corporate sabotage, you will take off your manager-coach hat and put on the hat of the manager-leader who is also responsible for keeping good order. Of course, you will first make dead sure that you are not making a wrong judgment about the behavior of the employee concerned. You will probably consult with others about the issue. But once you are one hundred percent sure that their behavior is deliberately geared to doing harm to their fellow employees and/or the company, you will take action to remove these people from the payroll. The best removals are swift removals. And it is always good to inform the remaining employees about the facts behind this removal so that nobody is left in the dark. This sets a good example for everybody and, at the same time, it allows you to show your respect to the employees who are loyal to the company.

Question number 5: Coach hat — manager hat

What if wearing different hats as manager and coach gives you a headache?

If this happens, it is very unfortunate because wearing more than one hat comes with your double role as manager-leader and managercoach. When it is not clear to both yourself and your employees that every manager has (at least) two different roles, confusion is likely to occur. With confusion comes tension and with that tension comes your headache.

It helps if you are not wearing both hats at the same time. Just make sure that your employees understand that in your position you have several hats, and when you are wearing the leader’s hat, you keep the coach’s hat in your hand and vice versa. That way nobody gets confused.

Once you have said and done what needs to be said and done as manager-leader, your employees know the direction and the boundaries of what you expect from them. For example, you give them budget constraints, sales targets, allocate resources to their teams, etc. When that is clear, you can take the manager-leader’s hat in your hand and put on the manager-coach’s hat. Now they know that you will be supporting and encouraging them to do what is useful to meet their goals and the goals of the company. When the confusion is gone, your headache is likely to disappear along with it.

Of course, doing your best to make things clear doesn’t solve this problem
forever. Since both your roles are intimately connected, they cannot always be separated so neatly, even though you try. The two roles are different sides of your managerial coin, so there will always be a little overlap where both roles are at play. You may sometimes hear your employees saying: “I thought you were coaching me, and now you tell me that I was wrong in doing X.” Or, in contrast: “I thought you had given me an order and now you tell me that I have to come up with my own proposals for action.”

This overlap is unavoidable for different reasons. The first is that people
always make interpretations about what they hear: “I thought this is what you meant …”. These interpretations might or might not have anything to do with the hat that you had been intending to wear in a given situation. So, even if you had intended to wear the coach’s hat, people might perceive you as leading and vice versa. Secondly, some employees will use these interpretations to serve their own purposes, and this can be a challenge for your leadership. For example, while you are coaching your sales team to help them reach their targets, they might interpret your helping attitude as opening the door for a bigger budget. Thirdly, both you and your employees work in an ever-changing context. This forces you to shift your role and position constantly.

Let’s look at an example. As a sales manager you probably do some field coaching. You sit in on meetings with clients. The clients see you as the leader, and now that they have the opportunity to talk with the top guy, they may ask you to make decisions. These decisions may run counter to what your salesman has promised them. You neither want to cut his decision short nor do you want to say to the client: “Hey, sorry, but I am only coaching my staff for the moment.” So you adapt on the spot. You consult with your salesman as if you were on the same hierarchical level, and you jointly take or postpone decisions. After this meeting, you shift back towards the coaching position and discuss the lesson learned by both of you.

To summarize:
• Wearing two hats is unavoidable.
• Make it clear when you are wearing which hat.
• Accept a limited amount of overlap.
• Talk constructively about these gray areas so that your employees knows where they are.

Question number 4: The perfect manager – superfluous?

What is left for you as a manager when your employees can help themselves?

In your career as a manager you may well have dealt with a boss that suffered from the horror vacui: the feeling of anxiety that befalls someone when he or she thinks that they do not have much to contribute, or when they are not in control. People suffering from horror vacui have a counterproductive tendency to make themselves feel important by keeping themselves busy with all kinds of stuff that isn’t that important. To fill the vacuum, they invent new things that they think will make them indispensable.
To cut this illusion short: throughout the world, the cemeteries are full of indispensable persons…
It’s normal practice to see yourself as indispensable and fully in charge, working long hours and interfering with almost everything your staff is working on. Isn’t that the self-image of the modern manager? Isn’t that what we all craved for when we first wanted to become a manager? Isn’t that the big illusion the corporate world wants us to believe and adhere to? It often sounds that way. However, reality teaches us a different, although less traditional, lesson: being on top of everybody and everything at all times is not only impossible, it’s counterproductive. In addition, our staff are intelligent people who come up with interesting ideas themselves without always needing their managers. Our staff — like you — like to do things independently and crave acknowledgement for their efforts. So, if we make the mistake of thinking that as managers we are the center of the universe, while we are confronted with an entirely different reality, then it’s pretty normal that we have to fight feelings of being superfluous once in a while.
Now relax, actually, there is nothing wrong with feeling a little superfluous!
If nothing else, it keeps your feet on the ground. Let’s look at this topic from a more constructive and solution-focused point of view. If management is the art of getting things done through people and you notice that your employees take care of themselves, then the simple conclusion is that you are a very effective manager. Instead of feeling superfluous, you should give both yourself and your employees a big compliment. However, there is still a lot left for you to do and maybe the following tasks are the core of your job as manager.

One, if what they do is working, your job is to help them do more of the same that works, by encouraging them. Two, while your staff are doing a good job, you have time to look over the horizon of the future and make plans for the longer term. In short, your staff is acting and you can be proactive. Here is a non-exhaustive list of what you can do when your staff are operating well on their own:

• Help your employees to grow by coaching them (not because they’re deficient but to ensure that things stay the way they are).
• Facilitate meetings.
• Manage by wandering about.
• Socialize and take care of the good working relationships throughout your team and company.
• Be the interface with other departments.
• Provide your staff with resources where needed.
• Listen.
• Encourage people.
• Give compliments on what your staff do well.
• Smooth out potential conflicts.
• Speak up for your team towards the outer world. (Be the “foreign minister.”)
• Think about long-term strategy.

To conclude: it’s a great honor and pleasure to be the manager of a team that is able to do its work independently of you. It enables you to oncentrate
on your core task: helping them to do more of what works.

Translate »

Login to your Account