Moving Past Persistent Resistance

We all have that story of a time when we ran into persistent resistance. Years ago, I was partnering with our organization’s IT team to outfit a new computer lab. There were a lot of details to work out. I was approaching the project with the learner in mind. My IT counterpart was focused on minimizing the cables that would be crisscrossing the room. Unfortunately, my want for the learner did not line up with his want for the scope of work needed to get the lab ready. I faced resistance.

After a few conversations that seemed to go nowhere, I remember looking at my colleague and asking, “Is it that you can’t do it or that you don’t want to do?” He looked at me stunned and admitted, “I don’t want to.”

Stuck or Breaking Through

It was a real breakthrough moment in our work together. The resistance I was feeling was laid bare, and we finally were able to work together to get the lab built. In the end, it looked a bit different for both of us, but it worked and worked well.

At the time, I didn’t realize that we were in the middle of a foundational part of consulting. We were contracting and admittedly not very well. We were stuck, and I knew we were stuck because neither of us was willing to move away from what “I want” with little consideration for what the other person might want as well.

Thankfully, we did eventually move past our persistent resistance. The lesson learned, however, is that it didn’t happen by accident. I had to walk directly into the resistance and be prepared for what might happen. I’m not so sure I did it perfectly, but it was effective. Once I acknowledged the resistance, we were able to have productive and collaborative conversations so we could get the job done.

Conversations For Collaboration

From that point forward, our conversations changed. We started listening and stopped trying to have “my way be the only way.” It was not easy to do. I was the customer, and I consistently had to battle the feeling that he should “just be doing what I want.” As I look back now, I realize that I wanted a pair of hands to do my bidding. It’s funny, really. I’m no IT expert, but I certainly tried to play one. At the same time, he was doing very little to understand what I needed to do and why. There was little effort to understand the problem I was trying to solve. After all, he was the expert with all the answers, right?

The experience highlights the greatest challenge most of us face as internal consultants. And, make no mistake, you are consulting any time you must influence another person with whom you have no direct control. I had none with my IT counterpart, and he had none with me. We were giving no thought to influencing the other. Instead, we were on the “do it my way” train. It’s a wonder the computer lab was ever finished.

A Win-Win

Our relationship only started working when we started looking at it as a relationship. We shifted away from listing our demands to a conversation about what we both wanted from our work together and what we were willing to give the other to help make it successful. There was negotiation, but we became clearer in not only what we were trying to accomplish together but how we were going to do it. And I’m not just talking about the technical stuff. We also talked about the way we would communicate with each other, how best to respect the other person’s ideas, and even how we would disagree moving forward.

It was never a match made in heaven, but we made it work. Chances are, you must make it work every day at work, too. When you do, ask if you’ve taken the time to contract with each other on the “what and how” of your collaboration. If you don’t know, there’s work to do. Ask the question, “So, what do you want from me?” and be prepared to share what you want from them, too. Be simple, be direct, and above all else, be real. You won’t always get what you want. Life is like that. But you will get further faster when you both know how to show up for the other.

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Wanting Proof Positive: Reframing the “Measurable Outcomes” Problem

One of the core beliefs of modern management is that if you cannot measure something, either it should not be undertaken or it does not exist. This conviction arises from our faith in the scientific method and the results-oriented outlook of the engineer and the economist. Thus, whenever a change is discussed, there will be an immediate demand for measurable outcomes and hard data that the change will improve the operations.

But what happens when what you value cannot be easily measured?

In fact, many of the things that matter most in your organization defy measurement. Let’s explore how to reframe the cult of measurability in order to ensure you pursue not only what “works” but what matters.

If You Acted On This Definition

If you’re starting with the aim of measurable outcomes, your course of action would include performing research to evaluate the project, and you’d likely bring in independent evaluators to do a pre-and post-intervention study.

Reframing “Measurable Outcomes”

Stop to think. You can measure the impact of a project to the extent that the organization can measure itself, which is a very elusive proposition in a human system. So what about a third party? The problem with bringing in outsiders to evaluate is that the evaluation has its own impact, and this may bring more interference than enlightenment.

Yet the economist in us justly wants to know how much this will cost. The engineer in us needs a test to affirm knowledge, a ruler to mark distance, a clock to demonstrate time. We justly want to know how to measure and know how we are doing. We need to know where we stand. But the question of measurable outcomes ceases to serve us when we think that measurement is so essential to being that we only undertake ventures that can be measured.

Measuring What Matters

Concrete measures can determine progress, but they do not really measure values. We pursue what matters independently of how well we can measure it. It is important to measure what we can, but to raise this question too early and to use it as a criterion that will determine whether or not to proceed runs the risk of worshipping too small a god.

What will matter most to us is the quality of experience we create in the world, not the quantity of results.

The real cost of creating something of value is emotional, not economic. What is most valuable cannot be purchased at a discount. The price of change is measured by our effort, our will and courage, and our persistence in the face of difficulty. The shift here is from an economic measure of cost to a personal measure of will.

Dealing With Doubt

It is important to recognize that our obsession with measurement is really an expression of our doubt. Doubt is fine, but no amount of measurement will assuage it. Doubt, or lack of faith, as in religion, is not easily reconciled, even by miracles, let alone by gathering measurable evidence on outcomes.

The wish to measure tightly is the recognition that every project has its own risks. Why not deal with the doubts and risks directly by naming them carefully right from the beginning? We cannot engineer human development, nor can we know it with the precision we might wish for. We can generate some data about the change, but most of it will be putting numbers on people’s feelings–that’s what surveys do. Why not just convene people every once in a while and ask them how it is going? Ultimately, we will know how we are doing by assessing the quality of our experience. If experience is such a good teacher, maybe it also knows how to measure.

To act within this new frame:

  1. Act on what matters, not just what works.
  2. Ensure you pursue what you truly value by asking the “why” questions before asking the “how” questions.
  3. Focus on quality of experience, not just quantity of results.

Define What You Mean: Reframing the “Clear Vision” Problem

When tasked with implementing change in your organization, you may have found yourself in this position: The goal of change has been shared, presented, and discussed repeatedly. Yet you keep hearing the claim, “We need a clear vision of what we are moving toward.” 

This is another classic consulting situation, and it presents itself as a problem of definition. For instance, how do you define the difference between change and transformation? 

How do you define leadership, empowerment, the new economy, or the role of a middle manager? 

What is the new role of human resources? 

But for all the clamor about wanting definitions, many times, what is truly murky is the question, not so much the answers. This is an indicator that you need to reframe the issue at hand in order to get to the root. Let’s look at some thoughts on how to reframe the “clear vision” problem. 

If You Acted On This Definition

Taking the “clear vision” complaint at face value, you would spend a lot of time trying to define what is new in terms that people will understand. You would write it down. You would produce manuals and short brochures written in “lay terms” to describe that which is essentially a change in consciousness. Then, the ultimate attempt at creating a definition is the competency model: a comprehensive listing of the skills needed to be fully proficient at a job or role. Have you ever seen one that any human being could achieve?

Reframing The “Clear Vision” Problem

To reframe the clear vision problem, you need to see that the request for definition is often not a problem of clarity but an expression of disagreement. 

It is fine to make one attempt at definition. But most of the time, we have already done that, and yet the question persists. In this case, the thing to focus on is the request for us to define the term. If a definition is necessary, then what if you let those who ask the questions struggle with the answer for themselves?

What if the request for a clear vision has to do with roles? For years middle managers have wanted to know what their new role is. Well, after all this time, if they can’t figure it out, maybe there is no new role. The principle here is that you (as the questioner) have to translate language into your own setting and into your own experience. Sure, others can help a little, but they cannot do it for you. 


Learning Clarity Through Ambiguity

Dennis Bakke, head of AES, a very enlightened company that produces electrical power around the world, likes ambiguity in language. He says that if people are unclear about what something means, it forces them into a conversation about it, and that conversation leads to learning. 

Hearing a definition from another leads to memorization, not learning. The only definition that endures is the one that I myself have created. 

If people are unclear about what something means, it forces them into a conversation about it, and that conversation leads to learning.

Lastly, in this situation, it is important to realize that the wish for a clear vision is another form of the wish for safety. It is the desire to know where you are going before you go there. It is a desire for measurable, controlled outcomes. Ultimately, it is a longing for safety that does not truly exist. 

In the end, defining terms is an academic diversion from the more fundamental human questions involving risk, purpose, courage, and adventure. But here is the thing: real safety comes from the experience of discovery, acting in the face of your fears–not waiting to act until your fears have disappeared. It is not until you try something that you will realize that you will survive it.

So To Act In This New Frame For Clear Vision:

  1. Realize that persistent requests for definition are not a lack of clear vision but an expression of disagreement.
  2. Invite the person asking for the definition to struggle with it for themselves. This leads to conversations in which they will truly learn rather than memorize.
  3. Understand that the desire for a clear definition is masking a desire for safety. But real safety is found in acting in the face of our fears.

[Adapted from Peter Block, ‘Twelve Questions to the Most Frequently Asked Answers,’ The Flawless Consulting Fieldbook and Companion: A Guide to Understanding Your Expertise, 2001, pp. 401-402] 

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The Inmates Run the Prison: Reframing “The Bad Boss” Problem

Whether in the workplace, politics, or sports, the barrier to success is often defined as a “bad boss” behavior problem. In fact, the “Bad Boss” problem can manifest in almost any environment you find yourself in. But is this ubiquitous gripe the heart of the issue? Perhaps not.

What the “Boss” complaint reveals is that the most common consulting problems deal with the human system. No matter how technical the assignment, issues are often thought of as “presenting problems”…what seems obvious, the “low hanging fruit.”

Beware: this may be a trap.

When there are no good answers, the problem is likely with the question.

In other words, the root problem is often with the way the problem is defined or the way the question is framed. This is where the client gets stuck and where you might get stuck as well.

Once a better question is asked, it can reshape their entire understanding of the issue and open a path to an alternate future.

So how can this classic problem be reframed? Here are some thoughts on how to deal with the human system rather than just the presenting problem.

The Presenting Problem: The Boss is Bad

The team feels helpless and distressed and identifies the problem as a tyrannical boss. The boss is too controlling, plays favorites, doesn’t communicate enough, controls too much–you name it. This issue is known to surface at every level of an organization–even executives complain of being controlled by others.

If You Acted On This Definition

By focussing on the problem as described above, you might be inclined to find the boss a coach (or gently suggest they take advantage of employee assistance program benefit and speak to a therapist), submit them to the rigors of a 360-degree assessment, and pray that the boss changes their bad habits.

Reframing The “Bad Boss” Problem

As long as the presenting problem is narrowly framed around dealing with the boss, then the team unit essentially has no agency and is rendered useless in creating better working relationships.

But remember: the inmates run the prison. The deeper problem is that the members of the team do not support each other.

Human beings can’t change other human beings, but they can work together to co-create an environment where individual choices are respected and where the impact of their decisions on the team is taken into account.

If members of a team support each other in public, they can handle any boss.

Here’s what team support looks like: if one member confronts the boss in a meeting, the others have to affirm their support verbally–no staying silent or giving support after the conversation has ended. This reframes the problem by acknowledging the innate freedom of the team, and accepting the power to act is in their hands.

bad boss cannot succeed against a supportive team
Public Team Support

If the boss isn’t bossing well, then the team isn’t teaming well.

To act within a frame of ownership [powerful agency] the team has to:

  1. Overcome its sense of caution as employees. This is choosing to act within the freedom that the team possesses to frame a better social contract for the good of the unit as a whole, including the boss.
  2. Meet independently. You must decide what is required to get the work done. Consider these questions: What alternate future does the team desire to build? What commitments is the team willing to make to bring this into reality?
  3. Bring it up to the boss with the whole team present. This is essential to creating a supportive team structure. Be sure that everyone is at the table to avoid a perception that “not everyone is on board,” giving way for the possibility of blame to start all over again.

This may feel like mutiny and knowledge workers may hesitate at this idea. So help them get over it. The payoff is that creating a supportive team will go a long way to dealing with the underlying issues that perpetuate the “Bad Boss” scenario.

[Adapted from Peter Block, ‘Twelve Questions to the Most Frequently Asked Answers,’ The Flawless Consulting Fieldbook and Companion: A Guide to Understanding Your Expertise, 2001, pp. 393-394]