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)

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‘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
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‘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.

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