Client’s concern: “Better Accomplishment of Tasks in the Team“
Mr. T manages the dispatch, customs and transport department in a global company. He is unhappy, because the team does not integrate new processes into its daily routine and works poorly together. Mr. T.’s employees, on the other hand, complain that not enough is being decided and decisions, once made, are quickly forgotten again. Things decided, together with the boss, after individual talks between him and colleagues are repeatedly discarded by him. This leads to surprises, restlessness, conflicts within the team and mutual distrust. The boss has changing ‘favourites’, who influence him. What is particularly bad is that Mr. T. does not protect his team against the criticisms of other departments or back up his team when his own boss criticises the work of the department.
I get to know Mr. T. in the context of a change management project. He is a likeable, helpful client who is open to us as consultants. He nods frequently when you speak to him, conspicuously often agrees and also accepts critical feedback with a smile. As the frustration in the team increases with the growing work pressure, it is hardly possible to walk through the department without somebody complaining. In the project review discussion with Mr. T., the question arises whether it would not be sensible to examine what he, himself, contributes to this atmosphere and how he could induce an improvement. He arranges coaching appointments. However, already during the contract clarification, it is noticeable that to a certain extent he is only ‘agreeing’ to this coaching , i.e., his decision-making pattern is repeating itself.
In the first coaching session, the situation in the team becomes the topic. The focus is initially placed on his personal experience. “How do you feel about the poor atmosphere between transport and customs?” I ask him. He sighs loudly and tells me how hard he tries to offer his people a good workplace, how much time he gives to each one, how well he listens and how empathic he is. I, as coach, respond: “Yes, I can understand that well. Harmony is very important to you.” He nods. From his point of view, contact is the be all and end all of a good employee-boss relationship. I reply: “Is that possible, being in harmony with everyone?” He remains within his frame of reference and is not so easily rattled: “Sure, I can do that, it is one of my greatest strengths!”
I decide to explore further whether he can recognise the problem side of this strategy (guiding process Comprehension): “From my viewpoint, this great strength in contact can become a danger, if you are not able to regulate closeness and distance appropriately. You appear to me very focused on closeness and understanding. I can see from all the examples in your working day how much you orientate yourself by other people and their needs. You believe you must fulfil these needs. In this way, your duties as a manager, to sometimes say no out of necessity, and to make clear statements, are chronically compromised. Moreover, if you adapt to others in this way, and each one of them wants something different, it becomes clear that you then start to forget. I could not possibly remember everything that 17 people want. I would be totally overloaded.”
At first Mr. T. cannot find anything in this. Basically, he does not understand what I wish to point out to him. It is only when I repeat to him his recurring sentence, “The board wants…,” that he is visibly shaken. “Oh God, I can hear my mother. The neighbours expect…, the vicar said…, your teacher thinks…!” He describes how much he used to hate it, and that there was no escape for him. It becomes clear and obvious that if he does not engage with this high adaptation pressure and the resulting self-sacrifice, he actually cannot lead meaningfully. Therefore, we spend another four sessions on this topic. In the fourth session, when he distances himself, he comes into contact with his fear of punishment. He fears being dismissed, if he should engage with conflicts in the workplace. He cannot comprehend my question as to whether this is realistic. “Of course you will lose your job if you don’t cooperate,” he says. For Mr. T., this engagement with the topic of fear is uncomfortable and exhausting. I am beginning to suspect that he is cooperating with me to preserve our relationship.
After this session he ‘no longer has time’ for continuing the work, because the change project is demanding too much strength and engagement. Some months later, he is looking for another coach to support him in his efforts to become ‘harder’. He has prescribed a ‘stress management training’ for his team. Sickness levels are high in the department.
From a metatheoretical viewpoint, the client is attempting to show a better, more correct behaviour, without perceiving a genuine need for distance within himself. He avoids the fears he now feels and seeks to stabilise himself in the old pattern. The attempt to work with him on the inner motives for his dysfunctional behaviour only partly succeeded. The client found his fears so real (“of course the board will fire me if I contradict them!”), that he was only capable of distancing himself in contact with the coach, but not in the everyday life of the company. With clients, in whom needs (here, distance and self-determination) are very strongly coupled with fears, there is always the danger of cancelling the counselling session, even where, or especially if, the contact to the coach is good. Then it is easier to quit than to disappoint the coach and they seek someone who does not bring them into contact with fears.
To protect our clients and customers, and to preserve their privacy, no real names are used and all descriptions of organisations and areas of work are avoided. However, the cases are real and have played out as described.