Article 03

Counsel yourself out of management nightmares

In ‘My Fair Lady’, Henry Higgins lamented, tunefully but rather politically incorrectly, ‘why can’t a woman be more like a man?’ We can echo his plaint from a manager’s point of view: ‘why can’t the people I manage be more like me?’

Life would be so much easier if they were. If only they wanted the same things, worked in the same way, spoke the same language, managing would be a dream. Management nightmares like the big-picture boss in charge of the detail-focused team member, or the ‘company man’ supervising the maverick expert, would be simply that: the stuff of nightmares, not of everyday work.

But let’s wake up from this seductive fantasy. The people we manage will continue to be very different, and sometimes nightmarishly different, from us. And speaking as a psychologist, I have some further bad news. We can’t change them. (At last, a golden opportunity for my all-time favourite joke: Q. How many psychologists does it take to change a light-bulb? A. Only one, but the light-bulb has to really want to change.)

People are the way they are for all sorts of good reasons of their own. I remember one boss who was being driven slowly crazy by the persistent lateness of one of his people. He tried everything he (and anyone whose advice he sought) could think of to get this guy to turn up to things on time. What he didn’t know was that this individual’s lateness harked right back to childhood; he had had very disciplinarian and stifling parents, and the only way he could affirm his right to be independent of them was by always being late. This behaviour had persisted into adulthood, and was pretty inextricably bound up with his sense of self-determination and self-worth. There was nothing a mere manager could do to change something so deeply rooted.

That’s an extreme example maybe, but it illustrates the point. If we set about trying to change other people, we are likely to bite off more than we can chew. People are complex systems, and even apparently superficial behaviours are connected with underlying values, hopes, fears and beliefs which they hold on to strongly.

That’s enough bad news. Now for some good news. You can’t change other people, but you can change yourself. If you want to badly enough, like the light-bulb, you can change. This is in fact the opportunity present in every management problem (and in my view, the reason why management is a job worth taking on): when you come across someone who’s a nightmare to manage, you may get the motivation to change something about yourself, and so become more resourceful and more capable.

You can change your understanding of what’s going on. I was talking with an experienced manager who had just recruited a new graduate onto her team. The graduate was very bright and full of promise. But he kept arguing with his boss. She felt he should accept her authority, accept she knew a great deal more than him about how things were done in the company, and take her advice and direction more readily. She understood his arguing as a threat. Then one day she came across him with a group of his old university friends in a pub. They invited her to have a drink with them. She noticed as she sat sipping her gin and tonic and listening to them talk that they argued with each other all the time. It was one of the main ways they connected. Suddenly she understood his arguing differently. He argued with her because he did take her seriously, not because he didn’t. From that point on she found managing him much less of a trial.

She was lucky to have had the opportunity to see his behaviour in a different light. What we can do even without that luck though is be creative in our imaginings about why those we manage behave in the way they do. Keep playing with possible explanations, and finding out as much as you can about them as people. Facilitate yourself into understanding the things that drive you crazy in a way that leaves you calmer. When we’re crazy, we’re more rigid and more likely to make management problems worse. When we’re calm, we see new ways of tackling things.

There are lots of other things about ourselves we can change for the better when we come across a management nightmare. We can change our goals (for example, from getting someone to manage projects better to finding a role which plays to their natural strengths). We can change the context in which we’re managing (sometimes away-days and social activities work in this way, allowing people to behave and experience each other differently). We can of course change our behaviour and see what that sets in train.

The final piece of good news is that when we change ourselves, often the other person will change too. Because they want to.

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