“What would you have done in my position?” many coachees ask me when they tell me about challenging situations from their day-to-day work. Recently, Mr. V., managing director of a subsidiary in a group of companies, asked this question. He had been involved in a conflict with Mr. T., the managing director of another subsidiary in the group, in other words, one of his colleagues.
For a customer inquiry, Mr. V. needed Mr. T.’s support, but Mr. T. had been putting Mr. V. off for weeks: too much to do! A few days before our coaching session, Mr. T. had now taken care of Mr. V.’s matter. He had initiated everything necessary and had also already informed the customer. So far, so good. However, Mr. T. also told Mr. V. in an email that he would credit the sales for the contract to his subsidiary. Mr. V. strongly disagreed with this. He sent an email to the company’s CEO, put the entire leadership team in cc, and had a heated argument over the phone with Mr. T.
From cooperation mode to fight mode
I took a deep breath when Mr. V. told me this story. One of his explicit coaching goals is to focus more strongly on strategic issues in the future and to be less absorbed by day-to-day operations. What would I have done in Mr. V’s position? No idea. First of all, I was more interested in what was going on in Mr. V.’s head in this situation, in other words, his autopilot, which caused him to switch from cooperation mode to fight mode.
Me – “How did you feel when you read Mr. T’s email?”
Mr. V. – “This is MY customer. As always, WE do all the work and our colleagues rake in the cash. And in the end I get accused of not reaching my targets. How I felt? Furious!” Mr. V. talked himself into a rage more and more. It’s amazing how the memory of the incident alone can turn this pleasant person into a bulldozer.
Me – “OK. But I mean the moment when you read the email. What emotion came up?”
Mr. V. – “It was like a punch in the gut.”
Me – “Was it a feeling of powerlessness?”
Mr. V. – “Yes exactly, powerlessness.” Mr. V. looked at me in surprise.
Powerlessness – the famous punch in the gut
Powerlessness is one of those emotions we are not very aware of. Yet everyone in an organization feels powerless at some point: a colleague does something that is surprising and at the same time unpleasant. We are stunned, momentarily speechless. If you pay close attention, powerlessness feels like a pulling sensation or pressure in the area of the solar plexus, just above the belly button and below the rib cage. The famous punch in the gut. A brief feeling of emptiness often occurs in our mind. One of the reasons why we are often so unaware of our powerlessness could be that we find it hard to bear this feeling. Almost as if to protect us, raging anger settles over the feeling of powerlessness. We see red.
I asked – “What happened next? How did that feel?”
Mr. V. closed his eyes and thought about this: “A restlessness throughout my body, like a tingling sensation. And then came the thought: I have to do something. That’s when I wrote the email to the CEO.”
I was already aware of the incident, as the CEO had told me about it a week earlier. I knew that the contract was worth € 10,000. This is a lot of money, but in view of the fact that Mr. V. is responsible for a € 50 million business, it is actually “peanuts.” Incidentally, the CEO had decided to split the amount 50:50 between Mr. V. and Mr. T.
The daily petty war in the boardroom
I found it interesting that Mr. V. was still angry when he merely thought about his colleague. Blinded by rage, Mr. V. could not see what would have been a wise course of action. And yet Mr. V. is an intelligent and very experienced businessman. His CEO believes that Mr. V. is one of the most competent members of his leadership team. Nevertheless, instead of focusing on the big picture, Mr. V. engaged in a petty war with his colleague. That’s what it’s like when our emotions kidnap us. We behave absurdly, counterproductively, differently from how we actually want to behave.
I’ve learned a lot about leadership and emotions since I’ve had children. A few weeks ago, same as every year, I met up with my best friend to bake Christmas cookies. We are very passionate about baking and have optimized the process over the years down to the smallest detail. The dough is prepared separately and chilled so that it has the right consistency when it comes to the actual baking process. Workstations are set up, the kids receive their instructions. And in this way we manage to make four types of cookies in one afternoon in an impressive quantity and quality. With a certain amount of pride I am confident that if my coaching business should go down the drain at some point, I could simply open a cookie shop. I am positive that it would be a success.
Anger awakens the dictator in us
Making cookies is actually about having a lot of fun together, a family event. Samuel, my 19-year-old son, agreed to drive, so I could even have a glass of prosecco while baking. Gosh, life is good! The cinnamon stars had already been bagged. Now it was time to make the traditional German vanilla crescent cookies. I have very specific ideas about what vanilla crescents should look like, so I rolled out a prototype. Everyone followed my template exactly, except for Samuel. He made the vanilla crescents longer and thinner. I pointed out to him that this was not the way to do it. Varying the thickness of the crescents requires different baking times. Next, Samuel formed an S for Samuel instead of a crescent. I felt as if someone was punching me in the gut. My otherwise so kind and empathic son was antagonizing me! In front of other people! Now I was feeling powerless. And then I started to seethe.
“Samuel, what are you playing at?” my tone became harsh. I once again explained to Samuel why it was important to me that the crescents be shaped correctly. Without a care in the world, he continued and rolled the cookie dough into a ring-shaped object: “Look, a donut!” Everyone but me started laughing. The whole thing seemed to be going off the rails. A tsunami of rage was building up inside me. I could have given my son a shake. Isn’t that crazy? I am able to facilitate a supposed racial conflict with 100 employees in South Africa in a confident and competent manner. But if my teenage son doesn’t follow my instructions when baking cookies, I see red.
What is this actually about?
“Mom, chill!” said Samuel, “You’re being a little obsessive right now.” I felt busted and seemed to be waking up from a nightmare at the same time. What had made me so angry? I felt the pulling sensation in the area of my solar plexus, almost as if I was getting nauseous. I looked at my son and the laughing faces around me. What was this actually about? Didn’t we just want to have fun together? I looked at the 38 vanilla crescent cookies lined up on the baking trays. Who actually says they all have to be identical like soldiers in uniform? That is quite grotesque: a cookie parade and me in the role of general! Welcome to the vanilla crescent dictatorship! I burst out laughing.
You realize that you are creating distance between yourself and the madness in your head when you are able to laugh at yourself. Not taking your own ego so seriously helps one hundred percent. That’s why fun and humor are so important to me when working with my clients. I told Mr. V. about the vanilla crescent dictatorship and we had a good laugh.
Victims are violent people
So what would I have done in Mr. V’s position? I recommend: look after your inner state of mind first. Realize that powerlessness is often followed by anger. According to Byron Katie, “victims are violent people.” When we feel powerless, we almost can’t help but lash out (verbally). Instead, I recommend focusing on your body and allowing the sensations that you experience to happen. Amazingly, this changes after a few moments. You start to feel less like a victim and are more able to act and to think clearly. Then I would ask myself –
- What do I really want?
- How do I want to be? And am I that way right now?
- What is important? And what isn’t?
- What do I have to do? Do I have to do anything at all right now?
- What would be a wise decision?
Then I would know very quickly what to do. In Mr. V’s case, probably not a lot. I would let the contract go ahead as planned. Maybe I would thank Mr. T. for taking care of the customer and ensuring that he is satisfied. Maybe.
I can’t tell Mr. V. what to do and that is also not how I understand my role as a coach. Mr. V. is an experienced manager who wants the best for his company. He is able to make wise decisions. I can show him how to deal with his emotions more competently. And I am certain that he will choose cooperation instead of guerrilla warfare, and definitely not a vanilla crescent dictatorship.