22 Sep 2014

If I can’t fix it, I don’t want to hear it

I have been coaching hundreds of executives and I am always fascinated by one reoccurring question that my clients ask themselves out loud during our sessions and by their response to my reaction. The question is “I wonder what my team think about the new policy”. My reaction: “Have you asked them?” Their surprised response: “I cannot ask them, it is policy, we have no choice and if they want something else, I have no solution to offer.”

Whether it is the open space or flexible hours, or part-time, or even strategy, there often seems to be a reluctance to open the dialogue when it appears that certain company decisions are already made. Like: “What if they tell me that they really dislike the open space because of noise and lack of concentration? I cannot change things, this is already decided”.

This reasoning has two faults:

First of all, giving people the opportunity to express themselves is a minimum form of respect. If I am annoyed by the open space and I only hear the lengthy explanations of the reasons why it is believed to be the right decision, I feel totally discounted as individual. Not only am I forced to accept a situation of discomfort, my own effort to accommodate the demand is not even considered or appreciated, it simply goes unheard. How about my engagement? Even when I am willing to accept, it would help me a lot to be heard.
Second, the fact that people voice a disagreement or a complaint, does not mean the recipient of the complaint is suddenly responsible to have an answer or find a solution. If the team tells the manager that open space creates too much noise and distraction, this does not mean that suddenly the manger has to “fix it”. She could ask “how can we go around this issue?” When we try this approach we are often surprised by the response. When I have to be part of the solution, I feel not only heard, but I can also put things in perspective and probably come up with ideas myself, e.g. “well, it does not really bother me that much if we all keep our voice down and when I am not preparing the monthly report; so, if we can align on keeping level of noise low, use separate rooms when placing long phone calls and I can maybe work from home one day a month when I prepare the report, I can live with the open space”.

But why do we so often resist asking for fear of not having answers? Beyond the obvious reasons linked to assumptions about our role and credibility (we may dislike admitting that we have no power to fix things), there is a more subtle mechanism in play, as recent neuroscience research indicates (Boyatzis, March 2014).

When we perform different types of actions, our brain activates different neural networks. Leadership typically requires the activation of two main neural networks, the Task-Positive Network (TPN), which supervises our analytical competences and tasks; and the Default Mode Network (DMN), which supervises our social and relationship competences. Normally, our brain is able to switch between these two networks with very high frequency and thus the two sets of competences are activated in synergy. However, under stress and pressure the two networks become antagonistic. That is, when we are very focused on tasks and action, we de-activate the social network and can become insensitive to the needs of others. When we are engaged in demanding social dialogues, we may switch off the “analytical” network and decisions become slow and confused.

Training to stay alert on both social interactions and tasks helps us to use our total potential at best.

Copyright © 2014 Laura Lozza

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