Coach's Corner

A selection from frequently–asked questions
Dear Coach,
I run a design / manufacturing company with close to a hundred and fifty staff and we supply the automotive market with component parts. Despite all the talk of economic recovery we’re a long way from being out-of-the-woods yet. We still need to keep our expenses under tight control, work more efficiently, and do more with less – and so far we’ve avoided lay-offs.
Even though we’ve put in several new initiatives to secure and protect our people, there’s a lot of resentment, particularly among some of them, and they are painting us in management as the ‘enemy’. How can we get them back ‘onside’ and to realize that management really isn’t the problem?

What’s happening here is both normal and inevitable; it’s hard-wired into human thought processes that those whose decisions and actions create pain and discomfort for us are justifiable targets for our anger and resentment.

Way back in time, human-kind ensured the preservation of the species by focusing attention and ultimately blame on those who threatened us.  We learned to be suspicious of the unknown, cautious in our approach and defensive in our actions – we avoided them. We needed to know, beyond a reasonable doubt, that any stranger was not intending to harm us and also that they wouldn’t take advantage of us for their own ends.

This deeply entrenched behaviour isn’t as useful in modern times; it’s now become maladaptive – it doesn’t serve us as well as it once did, but it’s still there. In the ‘cut and thrust’ of today’s demanding business climate the tendency persists to ascribe evil motives to those who disrupt our legitimate expectations of an increasingly comfortable and predictable life experience. The result is mistrust, conflict and disengagement.

This is an immensely strong and pervasive response that cannot be ignored – it won’t just go away. It’s emotional too, so a reasoned argument will not ‘cut the mustard’. Delivering a prepared rallying speech to the troops will not help and making a case based on logic won’t persuade other people that this deep-seated resentment they are experiencing isn’t well justified.

Once antipathy and inertia set in they’re hard to move – but it can be done with a little patience and skill. What we’re attempting to do here is to shift other people’s perspectives (the way they frame situations) and perceptions (the values they attach to their experiences) – to get them to look at realities in a different way. This is an emotionally-based approach to what is, in fact, an emotional challenge. So the first step is to cease and desist with the rational arguments.

Whenever you put efficiency before effectiveness you encourage frustration. Our people don’t want to hear that it all has to be done differently; they need to understand what different things need to be done. Your appreciation of the challenges is likely founded on an interpretation of the facts that others don’t currently understand or accept.

If you cut costs by limiting overtime and canceling needed training, decrease autonomy and ask them to undertake additional work, they’re going to view it from their perspective and you’ll be to blame. This is the way that people have always dealt with threats and obstacles – and you’ve just made yourself the target.

Since the problem is seated more deeply, in the emotions, and it’s being perceived as a threat, this is where you need to go to confront it. Your people need to experience the new facts and realities for themselves – and first hand.

They have to tread the path you’ve already trodden, to be exposed to the predicament that you faced and to work on finding solutions for themselves; your job is to guide and support them as they do so. This takes time and effort, and some won’t be interested in taking this more difficult route. From their vantage point you are paid to do this and they have the inalienable right to bitch if they don’t like the outcomes.

Many though will work to understand for themselves the true nature and consequences of the situation and to attempt to design solutions. It’s possible that they could come up with better answers than you – great – but unlikely. What will happen is that, in the process of attempting this, they’ll become far more empathic and more receptive to the remedial strategies you’ve already prepared.

In short, if you want to create understanding then you need to create the problem in other people’s minds before you present the solutions. They have to experience the realities for themselves, to play with alternatives and juggle a few options. By doing so, they’ll amend their perspectives and their perceptions.

This doesn’t mean that you abdicate your responsibilities as leader and manager; it’s your job to make the calls. You’ll find more receptive minds though when they are able to see the world through your eyes, even if only for a short while

I hope this helps.