Tag Archives: manager

The Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I was in your workshop last week and suddenly realized why I feel frustrated in my position. In the course of a project, I solve problems and make decisions, submit them to my manager for review, and then, he sits on them. People who depend on those decisions, one way or the other, ask me, “what gives?” The decision sits on my manager’s desk in a black hole while the project gets delayed. In the end, my decision survives, but the project is late, time and again.

Is it possible my manager is in over his head? He gets credit for my decisions, even though the project is late. I am worried that I will be stuck here under my manager for the rest of my career.

Response:
There is always more to the story and I cannot speculate on the capability of your manager. I do know that your manager’s goals and objectives set the context for your work. Keep your head down. Keep making decisions and solving problems on your assigned projects. Continue to give your manager “best advice.” That’s your role.

Your biggest fear is that your career may be in a dead-end under your current manager. It likely appears that your manager is, indeed, not focused on your professional development. Not his job.

Look to your manager’s manager, your manager-once-removed. Your manager is specifically focused on a shorter term set of goals and objectives. Your manager-once-removed is focused on a longer term set of goals and objectives. Some of that longer term focus is the professional development of team members two levels of work below.

Manager-once-removed
———————————-
Manager
———————————-
Team member

The working relationship with your manager is different than the working relationship with your manager-once-removed. The relationship with your manager is an accountability relationship filled with task assignments, checkpoints and coaching. The relationship with your manager-once-removed is a mentoring relationship filled with discussions about professional development, career path, working environment, challenge in your role.

It is likely that your company does not recognize the importance of the manager-once-removed relationship. It is possible your manager-once-removed has no awareness of this necessary managerial relationship. You do. You are now aware.

What to do
Pick two or three professional development programs that you find interesting and that could help you bring more value to the company in your role. Don’t pick something that pulls you away from your current role or something with an unreasonable budget. It could be something as simple as three different books you would like to read that will bump up your skill level.

Ask your manager-once-removed to schedule a short fifteen minute conference to ask advice. Don’t ask for advice, ask for a short fifteen minute conference. This is not a casual conversation in the hallway. You want undivided attention across a desk or a table.

This fifteen minute conversation is your first of several meetings with your manager-once-removed to talk about longer time span issues related to your professional development. This is not a time to talk about the accountabilities in your current role, those discussions should be with your manager. This is the time to talk about your long term development and contribution to the company over time.

Take baby steps and build from there. A reasonable routine to meet with your manager-once-removed would be for 30-45-60 minutes every three months. Keep in touch. -Tom

That’s Me

“I don’t care,” Roberto insisted.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I don’t care if that is what the boss wants. It’s a stupid idea. And my role is not to do stupid shit.”

“Pushback?”

“Call it what you want. CEOs run fast, sometimes making a mess. That’s why I have a job, to clean up the mess they call strategy. Somebody has to execute. That’s me.”

Requires a Conscious Mindset

“So, how do I get the team back to productive work?” Miriam asked.

“Facing the issue of having to work together, in a conscious, cooperative way, takes effort,” I replied. “It doesn’t happen by itself. As the manager, when you push the issue back to the center of the table, there are four predictable responses. The team will go into fight or flight. They will freeze or appease, not necessarily in that order.”

“I just have to outlast the panic,” Miriam remembered.

“To work together, the team has to change its belief about the way it works together. Culture starts with the way we see the world, the way we see our circumstances. Teams that work together have a different mindset. They don’t cooperate (for long) because we tell them to. They support and help each other because they believe that is the way things are done around here. It may not be comfortable at first, but high performing teams not only live with the discomfort, but create rituals to meet adversity head on. I can always tell a team is making progress when they trade in (solve) old problems for a new set of problems.” -Tom

BAMS

“Miriam, I want you to look at these two columns of words,” I pointed. “One column describes a group engaged in work, the other describes a group engaged in non-work. When you observe a team, these are things to look for.

Work ——————- Non-Work
Team cohesion———- Pairing behavior
Conscious ————- Unconscious
Cooperation ———– Collusion
Scientific ———— Un-scientific
Constructive ———- Complaining
Focused ————— Distracted

“These are sometimes not so subtle signs of a team going into disarray,” I explained. “And, it is mostly unconscious. The team doesn’t even know it is doing it. There is an exercise I conduct at the beginning of most meetings. It’s called Good News. ‘Tell the group something positive that happened to you in the past week.’ Invariably, one or two people will have difficulty. ‘I can’t think of anything,’ they will say. What if I had asked the opposite question, ‘Tell the group something negative that happened to you in the past week?’ No group has a problem coming up with the negative stuff. It is unconscious. Positive thought requires conscious effort.”

Miriam’s eyes grew wide. “So, what do I do. I see this group behavior often. As their manager, how do I get the team back to productive work?”
_______
Some of you may recognize this model as BAMS, Basic Assumption Mental State, described by Wilfred Bion in his tortuous book, Experiences in Groups. -Tom

Classic Pairing Behavior

“But, what if I am being overly dramatic?” Miriam continued to question. “What if the team’s inability to work together is just my own projection of insecurity, and that when the going gets tough, they will put their differences aside and cooperate with each other? What if I am just afraid of a little water cooler talk?”

“What do you mean, water cooler talk?” I wanted to know.

“You know, two people at the water cooler, complaining about the third person,” Miriam replied.

“Always the same two people, ganging up on the other?” I asked.

“Heavens, no,” Miriam chuckled. “There is equal opportunity pairing at the water cooler. Depends on the issue to determine who is at the water cooler and who is thrown under the bus. Scapegoat of the week.”

“And, how do you know what is discussed at the water cooler?”

“Oh, I hear. The rumor mill is much more effective at communication than the company newsletter.”

“So, you have your own little birdies who pair off with you?”

“Yes,” Miriam nodded. “And, that’s what has me worried. These are the issues that could blow up the team in the middle of a high pressure project.”

“Miriam, the reason I wanted to hear the details of the water cooler talk, is that this is classic pairing behavior. A group, faced with an unspoken issue will splinter into pairs, often at the water cooler, to avoid confronting the issue in the group. It is a collusion, between two people to find allies in a struggle to avoid the issue.”

“Is that what they are doing?”

“Not just them, you have your own little birdies. You have engaged in pairing​ behavior yourself,” I described.

“My goodness, I didn’t​ even realize. I was doing it, too.”

“Not to worry,” I smiled. “Pairing is an unconscious behavior. You didn’t know it was happening, neither did your team.”

The Killing Fields of the Project

“I know you are right, that I should challenge my team to solve its own problem with its inability to work together in support of each other, but it is a very uncomfortable conversation,” Miriam wondered out loud. “Everyone’s stomach will be upside down, so, in your words, the threat of a real issue exists. I am just afraid that the whole thing will blow up in my face and I will be the one left to pick up the pieces.”

“It is a risk,” I replied, “and, not​ greater than the risk that mid-project, the team will reach the same impasse for this same reason. And, the higher the pressure of the project, the more likely the impasse. Do you want the team to confront the issue now, while things are calm, or meet the problem in the killing fields of the project?” -Tom

A Manager’s Stomach

“Every time you, as the manager, take a team problem behind closed doors, you participate in a grand collusion that cripples the team from solving ANY problem,” I said.

“What do you mean collusion?” Miriam asked.

“Faced with a problem the team doesn’t want to deal with, they panic and engage in non-work behaviors, so they don’t have to deal with the problem themselves. Remember your team of independent technical contributors, all very competent on their own, but they butt heads when they are required to work together?”

Miriam nodded.

“You give them a difficult project where they have to work together,” I continued. “What is the first problem they have to solve? And here is a hint. It has nothing to do with the project.”

Miriam was quiet for a moment, then, “You are right. The first problem they have to solve is how to work together. But are you suggesting that, as the manager, I put them in the same room and talk about their inability to work together?”

“Yes. And what is the reaction when you say, ‘Gentlemen, I called this meeting today to discuss how difficult it is for the three of you to work together. We are going to talk about your behaviors that derail projects and what behaviors need to change.’ Then you stop talking. How is your stomach feeling right about now? How are the stomachs of each of your team members?”

“Are you kidding? It makes me feel queasy just to think about saying that to the group,” Miriam admitted.

“Then, you know you are talking about a real issue. When everyone in the room has their stomach upside down, you know the team is dealing with a real issue. High performance teams get comfortable with discomfort. Low performance teams go into non-work and want you, as the manager, to solve the problem for them.” -Tom

Weasel Wisdom

“This is a team problem, not your problem to solve. Understand, you are accountable for the output of this team, but only the team can solve this problem. Your role is to name the problem, put it on the table, in front of everyone, and outlast the panic,” I repeated.

“I don’t know if I have the courage,” Miriam replied. “Besides, I always heard that you should praise in public and scold in private.”

“Weasel wisdom,” I nodded.

“I heard you say, there are weasel words, but now you say there is weasel wisdom?”

I continued to nod. “Yes, weasel wisdom. If it is an individual’s issue, you speak directly to the individual, and if it is a team issue, you speak to the team, in front of the team. Yes, you are right, it takes courage.”

“And if I don’t have the courage?” Miriam questioned her own confidence.

“What does that say about your belief? Remember, what we believe drives behavior. What is your belief?”

Miriam struggled. “If I don’t confront the whole team with the team problem, it says we don’t believe the team can solve the problem. It says the team cannot talk about the problem. It says the team can only deal with the problem behind closed doors.”

“And every time you, as the manager, take the team problem behind closed doors, you participate in a grand collusion that cripples the team from solving ANY problem.” -Tom

Not the Manager’s Problem to Solve

“Timing?” Miriam repeated. “I don’t wait for the team to struggle. I don’t wait for the panic when the problem emerges?”

“As soon as you put the problem on the table, the panic will ensue. Let’s say you have three head-strong team members, individually, they are all very competent in their roles. But, whenever they have to work together, the three butt heads, with their own opinions about the direction of the project. In this state, emotions run high, cooperation and support disappears, there is passive agreement in public and aggressive backstabbing in private. As the manager, on this project, you need mutual support and cooperation. What do you do?”

“When I see the misbehavior, I would sit them down, individually, and communicate my expectations. I would explain that I would monitor their behavior and that I would not tolerate disagreement and shouting.” Miriam stopped. “I think you are going to suggest something different.”

“This is not your problem to solve. Understand, you are accountable for the output of this team, but only the team can solve this problem. Your role is to name the problem, put it on the table, in front of everyone, and outlast the panic.” -Tom

Watching, Observing, Assessing

“You can still feel an allegiance to the project,” I said, “and, you are correct, as a manager, you have to solve the problem in a different way. You have to move the team. What are your levers?”

“What do you mean?” Miriam looked puzzled.

“It’s one thing to say you have to move the team, but what do you do? Where is your leverage? If your role is NOT to solve the problem, but to get the team to solve the problem, what do you control?”

Miriam stopped to think, then finally replied, “I get to pick who is on the team, team membership. I decide on training. I decide who plays what role on the team. I specifically assign tasks. And, I get to watch, observe. I can coach, but I have to stay off the field. Ultimately, I have to assess effectiveness in the role. It’s either more training, more coaching, more time or de-selection.”

“And, at the end of the day, who is accountable for the output of the team?” -Tom