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

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

Explore the underlying causes first

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

For example:

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

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

How to overcome limiting thinking

Fundamentally the approach to overcoming this type of “limiting thinking” is simple:

  1. Put issues on the table in an open and honest way. Make sure the “problem” is the issue and not the people talking about it. Be alert to points where people (including you) slip into “personal” judgements or comments.
  2. Be clear about what it is that concerns you about the situation. Make it clear that it is the behaviour that is a concern (not the actual person), and follow that up with rationale – i.e. give a reason why it is a concern. It is not enough to simply say “your behaviour stinks”… need to say what it is that is of concern. For example, it could be a concern about “checking your smartphone during meetings”. You could raise it in this way. “I am worried that it sends out a signal that you are not interested, and that you are disrespectful to the others in attendance. That reflects badly on us as a team, as well as on you as an individual.”
  3. Always invite the other person to tell you what they think about what you have just said and encourage a conversation that flows in a similar way. In other words do not make this a one-way conversation. You may actually learn something new about the situation by opening it up and listening to the other person’s perspective.

The bottom line is: Treat people as adults

People like to be treated as adults and do not like managers holding back from them. They often know that something needs to be raised, but continue to play out a charade of “ignorance” as long as the manager is prepared to do so.

This post has been reproduced with the kind permission of Louis Collins, Gyro Consulting.

Louis is a Leadership Coach with over 20 years’ experience in leadership roles in both the private and public sectors. His assignments have provided him with exposure to sectors as wide ranging as telecoms, energy, finance, charities and the prison service.

He combines his extensive industry experience with his knowledge of psychology and his ongoing development as a coach to great effect, helping his clients navigate challenges as diverse as managing strategic change, handling effective conversations, and mentally preparing for resettlement following a prison sentence. He enjoys writing and he published a book in 2014 (The Vital Edge) which draws on the leadership parallels between sport and business. In his spare time he enjoys cycling, tennis, swimming and travelling.

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