Case Histories - Part 1

Note: This is the 5th and the last, in a five part series on Leadership Coordination, a.k.a., Executive Coaching. Previous installments of all blogs can be found on my website under "Steve's Blogs" - http://stevemarshallassociates.com

The following are all true experiences I have had in my career; only the names have been changed.

Case History #1

Jack owned a business which provided IT and software technical support to medical clinics around the country. His job as CEO was to ensure that client sites were back and running in the shortest amount of time when their computer systems crashed. He was known for being good at his job, but he had one problem.

If things went well on the client site, and his company was able to fix the problem, he had no problem. But if his technical support staff arrived and, after a period of time, couldn’t diagnose the cause of the fault, he became very panicky and stressed. This of course created a vicious feedback loop whereby the stress and tension substantially reduced his power to make good decisions – which just raised the stress.

We talked about this. As the conversation continued, it became clear that Jack was a ‘controlling’ person. He liked things to go the way that suited him. At one level, it was clear that having a job which enabled him to restore control to a broken situation could be a highly rewarding one. One which allowed him to demonstrate that his company was the right choice to bring an out of control situation under control. (And, of course, client businesses whose IT systems had gone down are extremely grateful to the company who fixes it, so there was plenty of room for reward in terms of gratitude.)

Think about the situation Jack was in. His business would have a service level contract with each client, so Jack would know before his staff arrived on site what equipment, communications and software he was expected to support, and would have a description – more or less useful – of what the immediate problem might be. However, to all intents and purposes, they arrived into a situation that was out of control.

Although the opportunity to restore control was there, it depended on his company's ability, training, experience, skills and so on. If the answer to the problem eluded them, and he was surrounded by chaos, then he did not have the means to restore order. As every minute passed and each new "fix" proved fruitless, so the feeling that he couldn’t get back into control increased.

So we talked about his obsession with control. I explained that being controlling is a essentially a defense. It’s saying that the world is unpredictable, and unpredictability is bad because things can happen which hurt me, which I can’t stop happening. The more I can make the world behave how I want it to – or just in a way which I can predict – the less likely something bad is going to happen.

The key thing was that this control defense had nothing to do with his current business, or anyplace where he had worked before. It had been constructed, no doubt over a substantial period of time, long ago. It might have been purposeful at the time (though even then, it would have been unlikely to have been the most useful course of action) – but it isn’t appropriate now.

So the emotional intelligence learning points that Jack got were:

1. He was deliberately playing a risky game: putting himself and his company in out of control situations so that he could demonstrate to himself and others that he could restore order.
2. His controlling behavior was a defense.
3. The defense had been put in place long ago and was inappropriate to the present day.

The best part about my work with Jack; he realized what the early initiating events in his life were what caused him to create this being in control defense mechanism. As a result of the last point he was able to make progress on his own.

Case History #2

Dave runs a consulting company.  A client had accepted some work without criticism but, sixty days later, still hadn’t paid their bill.  Dave was getting irritated:  after all, cash flow was tight.

Dave emailed his client requesting payment.  After a while, he was very surprised to receive an email back from the client listing various problems with the consulting services Dave’s business had provided and pointing the finger for the problems at Dave’s staff.

Dave was indignant and sent off a long, businesslike and polite email, but one which made his position clear.  He got back another email from his client like the first.  So Dave responded in kind, and got another unacceptable reply (and no check).  Dave responded, got another reply (and no check).

Before going on to read the solution, below, what would you do in Dave’s position?  (It’s a safe assumption the client could have kept sending emails indefinitely rather than pay up.)

As I saw Dave on a weekly basis with our regular meetings, he asked for my advice. I asked to see the emails.  I had no way of knowing whether the client was right about the quality of the consulting—but, to me, that was irrelevant.  On reading the lengthy emails from both parties, it was interesting to see that, under Dave’s polite and businesslike writing style, there was plenty of passive aggressive inference. A good example was when he wrote “I attach another copy of the invoice for your convenience”.

“Are you sure you’re doing that for his convenience?  Do you know he has lost the previous copy?” I asked him—it felt a lot more like Dave was electronically waving it under the client’s nose and shouting “pay up!”.

Of course the client was also firing back with equally snide emails and no solution was in sight. The obvious point is that Dave and his client were engaged in cyber warfare. 

I suggested just calling the client and working it out, either in person or by phone. Dave hated inter-personal conflict, so he refused. I pointed out to Dave that whether or not he felt he was in the right—or even whether he was right—Dave was locked in an emotional conspiracy with the client in perpetuating the fight.  He was as responsible for it as the other party.  Most people believe that if you walk away from a fight, the other side is going to walk all over you.  (This is not usually the case.)

Then, an attachment to being right (even if you are right) always stops you from moving forward. Dave had to let go of that need to be right, if he wanted the situation to move forward (something most leaders find very hard).

The practical action Dave took was to draft a short, clinical, and objective response to the client’s recent email, answering the dissatisfaction points raised by the client, but not rising to the bait of any allegations, or anything that didn’t have to be answered.  He also wisely resisted the temptation to attack the client, or to ask for the money.  To his surprise he got a similarly brief clinical response which required, in turn, an even shorter response. The client paid up two days later.

There are two principles of emotional intelligence at work here which Dave needed to be reminded of:

1. If you’re in a fight, you’re equally responsible for it and, if you want it to stop, stop fighting.

2. An attachment to being right will always stop you moving forward (more precisely it stops you communicating fully and therefore prevents you from finding a resolution).

Applying principles of emotional intelligence almost immediately resolved the problem (at no cost) and Dave’s business got paid.  Any other means could have escalated the exchange, which would have been both costly and time consuming.

Next week: More EQ case histories.