Sometimes I meet teams who’ve adjusted or even embraced a change initiated by company leadership. They tell me how much benefit they’ve experienced. But, then say, “We’ve made all these changes, but our managers need to change, too. They’re still doing things the old way.”

The fact that managers are managing as they always have isn’t surprising. Changes initiated by management are often assumed to apply to other people, not the managers themselves. Further, most people think they are doing the right thing, most of the time. Few people decide to do something unhelpful or ineffective.

Yet, it happens. Smart, well-intentioned people do things that aren’t so helpful. So, how to approach such a situation? Let’s look at two scenarios where someone’s well-intentioned actions contributed to an undesirable situation.

Scenario 1

At a family Easter dinner, a relative showed her toddler a brimming basket of candy.  “Oooh, look at what Grandma brought you,” she gushed. She held up a chocolate bunny, and pointed to the marshmallow chicks, and colorful wrapped chocolate eggs. “See all the candy?” she asked. The toddler did, and held out her arms. The mom put the basket up on a shelf and said, “You can have some later.” This was not what the toddler wanted to hear. A tantrum ensued. That wasn’t what the mom wanted to hear, and the toddler got a scolding.

Undoubtedly, it was a good parental move to postpone candy until after a nutritious meal. But toddlers don’t get delayed gratification, and showing off the goodies didn’t help. The toddler’s behavior was entirely predictable given her developmental stage. Yet, pointing that out would have been received as unwelcome interference and criticism. It probably would have damaged our relationship, too.

Scenario 2

Years ago, I rescued a feral Jack Russell Terrier. After he bit me, I called on an eminent professor from the nearby veterinary school. I expected him to tell me what was wrong with my dog. Instead, he said, “You must stop enabling this dog’s aggressive behavior.” 

He explained that given the dog’s breed and background, my training methods were not appropriate. While the dog did have issues, he wasn’t the problem. The solution wasn’t where I had thought it would be.

Invitation Makes the Difference

What makes these cases the same?  In both cases the people in “management” positions were trying to do well, and lacked some key knowledge and perspective. What’s different is that in Situation 2, I’d invited assistance in solving the problem. I’d invited the professor to be on my team, so to speak. Like my relative (and most other people), managers won’t welcome uninvited advice or criticism. 

So, be an insider, part of the manager’s team. Enter the problem space with the manager as an ally, not a critical fault-finder. Get inside the system and bring the manager with you.

Here are ways to start.

  • Keep mutual purpose front and center. 
  • Create space to see the issue systemically.
  • Look at the problem from many angles and beyond the typical boundary (i.e., beyond those other people who need to change).
  • Jointly brainstorm factors that contribute. Exploring factors broadly will likely show how management actions contribute, at least obliquely.
  • Choose a factor to work on together.

As to a manager’s contribution, give them space to reflect and absorb their contribution privately, at their own pace—and save face.

Managers are people and subject to the blind spots that hinder everyone’s ability to see how their own actions contribute to a situation.

Post Script

After an exacting regime of force-free training, my Jack Russell settled down and turned into a pretty good dog. The toddler who screamed over the Easter basket is now in college.

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