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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies

Manipulation??!

One of the many amazing things about coaching is that you meet people you'd not normally meet and have conversations you might never have had otherwise, and this week has been no exception! Yesterday I had a series of coaching sessions, helping leaders reflect on 360 feedback they've received and think about what it might mean for them going forward. This group contained some very high performing individuals, mostly software engineers and developers, including more than one with a PhD, who were deep experts in their technical fields, as recognised in their feedback. Where they needed to focus, however, was often in the interpersonal or enterprise skills. Networking, communication, influencing, mentoring and coaching were all areas where they had opportunities for growth and so we explored these together and the clients identified actions to help them progress.


These sessions were the first of a series with the clients, so there was an element of introduction and getting to know one another at the beginning, before we started to look into the outputs of the 360 and the observations and reflections of the client on having reviewed it ahead of the call. One topic which often comes up is whether and where the feedback in the report is reflective of feedback that the client has previously received; i.e. does this resonate with what you've heard before. One client in particular, unprompted by me, raised the fact that some of the views shared in the report reminded him of feedback he'd received from his manager previously and he had not only a strong reaction to the feedback but also quite a unique point of view on the subject, which I've been reflecting on since our call.


The feedback in question related to the fact that the client often does not adapt his style and approach when communicating with others, leading to, in the view of his line manager and some of the respondents to his 360 survey, sub-optimal outcomes. This feedback was not unique to the client, I have worked with many people over the years who have wrestled with this particular challenge however, in most cases at least, the problem that they were looking to overcome was 'how can I do this better?'. In the case of this client, his belief was'I don't believe I should do this at all!'

As you'll be able to imagine, I'm sure, I was deeply intrigued by the belief he held and thankfully, it didn't take any effort on my part to learn more. He was very clear and articulate in his views and keen to share them. My client went on to explain that it was his belief that too often, leaders in his organisation used a flexibility of approach when communicating with others to manipulate them into action. I asked him to say more and he brought this to life through the lens of delegation, as follows.


In his experience, when leaders in his organisation want people to do something, they typically position the task in a way which emphasises the value of that activity to the individual they are asking to do it and the benefits to them. That is not uncommon practice at all and I'm sure some of you will have experienced it yourself. In the client's view, however, this is disingenuous at best and manipulative at worse, as it's leading the colleague to believe that value exists for them in doing something where it, perhaps does not and which, the delegator simply wants done. He posited that the person delegating doesn't really care about the development needs or motivations of of the individual and they've just trying to soften the blow or gaslight them into thinking this delegation is somehow altruistic.


A fascinating position to take and one I've not encountered before. He went on to explain that the employment contract is effectively an exchange of time for money and, presuming that the role is well enough paid, the work doesn't need to be enjoyable, it just needs to be done! In his own case, he said that he didn't need someone telling him how a task could benefit him. To paraphrase his perception, 'If it's crap and it needs done, or if it's a regular task that cycles around and it's my turn to do it, just tell me and I'll get on and do it!'


As you'll imagine, this was not a direction I'd anticipated our conversation going in, and it's always worth recognising that it's not my role as a coach to change the mind of the client as to how leaders should behave, but I was keen to help him explore the topic to understand whether it might be something which was holding him back.


There were a couple of challenges which I identified with his position. The first was that the client was, as so many of us are at times, guilty of projection. He was clear on the approach that worked for him and was projecting that since it was the best approach when delegating to him, the same was true for everyone. We've all heard the phrase 'treat others as you'd like to be treated', however that doesn't give the best outputs, in practice. What gets the best from people is treating them as THEY would like to be treated. In order to do this, of course, the leader needs to know and motivations, desires and values of the individual they're delegating to and it takes time to build rapport and develop that understanding. Of course, sometimes it's the case that there's a clash between what the individual wants and what the leader is able to offer (perhaps they want a particular type of work or opportunity which isn't really aligned with the work the team does) but through conversation, these mismatches can be uncovered and explored.


The other challenge was that, while I recognise that gas-lighting people into believing that a crappy task is something which is deeply valuable for them definitely could be manipulative, there's a fairly long continuum which goes from a task with high value and worth to the individual to a task which is absolutely of no value to them whatsoever, and it's very rare that tasks are genuinely on the latter end of that. Most tasks sit somewhere in the middle and, if you really understand the individual you're giving it to, you can have an adult conversation and help them recognise some value for themselves, without having to lie to them. And, if the task is genuinely unpleasant or offers no value, there's nothing wrong with saying that! We've all probably done things in work which were a crappy slog, but we knew they needed done. When someone is honest about it, it helps make them more credible.


An interesting conversation nonetheless and one that I'd LOVE your feedback and thoughts on! Where is the line when flexing your approach becomes manipulation? Share your ideas in the comments!

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