Now, there’s a question. One conclusion I have come to in my years in this business is this: All organisational problems stem from the inability of one person to look another in the eye and say what they really want. (Yes, I know, some of them are actually caused by IT, but you know what I mean).

Here’s a classic example: the performance review.  You, as the reviewer, are holding some clear unambiguous feedback about the person you’re reviewing, let’s say that their work is regularly inaccurate, and it’s causing problems for those who have to deal with their output.  Because you’re a Modern Manager, you know that what you are ‘supposed’ to do is ask the other person how they think things are going.  So you do, in the best caring voice you can muster.

“Oh, fine,” they say.

“Ah,” you say, and pause a moment.  “So, you don’t think there are any problems in the way you work?”  You are tempted to wink significantly, or nudge them, to let them know this is the bit where they make it easy for you by saying: “Well, now you mention it, my work is regularly inaccurate.  I will definitely do something about it.”   But you settle for looking encouragingly at them.  They think for a moment.

“No,” they say, “not that I can think of.”  As you ponder your next move, they come back with the killer: “Why?  Is there a problem with my work?”  Bingo!  They’ve given you an entree.  You look them in the eye and you say:

“Er, no, no, everything’s fine.”

Recognise this, whether as the giver or receiver?  I have seen grown men and women with amazing business brains, and absolute clarity about what they need from others, wilt when they finally get an opportunity to make a clear request.  So what happens in that critical moment when the opportunity affords itself?

In the interests of empathy, let me share with you, as American gurus say, a powerful personal experience.  I was a participant some years ago on a Coaching Skills workshop, one of the aims of which was to equip participants to set up their own coaching practices.  We were asked to perform a simple exercise in pairs: you had to explain to your partner, as if they were a potential client, what your approach to coaching was.  Then they had to say, simply: “And what do you charge for this service?”  All you had to do was look them in the eye and say: “My fee is £x per hour (or per day, or per contract).”

Fascinating: all round the room, instead of the above phrase, the ‘clients’ were getting some version of: “Well, er, it depends a bit on, you know, the kind of requirements and… er, I would say what I might normally charge would be somewhere in the region of…..” and so on.  Why?  Well, as I experience it, it’s simple: the instant you open your mouth to tell the other person what you want, fear flies into it.  What if that’s too expensive and they say no?  What if they laugh at me?  What if they hate me?  (Note to any prospective clients reading this: I guarantee always to be cheaper than someone, if only Porsche.)

Back to the review.  What does the leader fear in this case?  Simply, a reaction that they are not expecting.  (What if the reviewee argues with me?  Gets upset? Doesn’t do anything differently?)  But the exciting thing about dealing with human beings is you never really know what they are going to do next.  In which case the solution is not to disguise the difficult request in the first place, but to be prepared for any reaction.

What this is really about is our inability to perform the leadership equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time: which is, simply, dealing simultaneously with both the task and people aspects of a conversation.  No one was born able to do both at the same time, so we fall one way or the other.

Back to the review.  Task requirement: make a request of someone to do something differently.  People requirement: don’t upset them or make them (or you) feel bad.  If you don’t know how to do both, you will automatically default to – in this case – the people requirement.  (For the record, some leaders default the other way: their version of the review would be not to have the meeting at all, but to send a curt email saying: ‘your work is hideously inaccurate – sort it out’).

The most helpful words to hold in your head when telling someone what you want are Clarity (can I state clearly and simply what I want or expect) and Empathy (can I be responsive to the human needs of the other person).  Balance the two and your leadership will be turbocharged.

Phil Lowe
Phil Lowe is a coach and facilitator with 27 years’ experience of helping leaders find, and act on, their authentic selves. He is fired up by helping individuals find the “sweet spot” between who they really are and who their organisation needs them to be. He works a lot with individuals struggling to navigate their way through transitions which challenge their identity and sense of self. He is a faculty member of London Business school and originally gained an MSc in Organisational Behaviour at London University. Before this he was a professional actor and scriptwriter, and brings a creative flair to his work.
Phil Lowe, Executive Coach