When a Manager is not Agile (but thinks he is) – part 2

When a Manager is not Agile (but thinks he is) – part 2

Let’s continue our article on how we should approach a situation where the manager is not aware he is hurting the team.
28 Nov 2018 1456
Let’s continue our article on how we should approach a situation where the manager is not aware he is hurting the team.

Alex believes that he is a nice guy, a modern manager and agileist. He probably thinks that what he does is the right way of doing things, so given that he considers himself “a good manager” he suppresses the command-and-control part of his personality. But one cannot just suppress that part of the psyche — it will inevitably manifest itself one way or another in one’s actions. So Alex lives in a constant state of stress and self-deception, enacting his true set of beliefs while suppressing those beliefs. That leads him to a state of frustration due to cognitive dissonance. So he rationalizes his actions by externalizing and flipping his true attitude (thus “I am a command-and-control obsessed person” becomes “They are unable to self-organize, so I have to micromanage”).

If you try to push him to accept his command-and-control part, such a push creates a risk for his self-identification as a “good guy”, thus creating frustration. He is not ready to accept that part of himself, so his subconscious part externalizes this frustration by masking it as anger towards the coach. Bang! And given the described attitude towards command-and-control management, one sometimes doesn’t need to say anything — this contempt is vividly displayed on his face during each interaction.

The situation that I described here is probably the worst case for any consultant: “I invited you to change them” (meaning “I am not the one who needs to change. Change the team”). Most agileists I have spoken to about such kind of situations agree that the chances of success here are close to zero. You cannot force a person to change. But what if we are using the wrong tactics, pushing too far and too fast?

When a Manager is not Agile (but thinks he is) – part 2_960.jpg


The undirected approach to counseling described by Rogers “is characterized by a preponderance of client activity, the client doing most of the talking about his problems. The counselor’s primary techniques are those which help the client to more clearly recognize and understand his feelings, attitudes, and reaction patterns, and which encourage the client to talk about them. One half of the counselor’s items fall into these categories. The counselor may further achieve this aim by restating or clarifying the subject content of the client’s conversation. Not infrequently he gives the client the opportunity to express his feelings on specified topics. Less frequently he asks specific questions of an information-getting sort. Occasionally he gives information or explanations related to the client’s situation. Although not the type of technique which could be used frequently, there is considerable redefinition of the interviewing situation as being primarily the client’s situation, to use for his own.”

By doing this patiently enough, without pushing the client too fast, the counselor helps a client to recognize and accept his feelings, attitudes and beliefs at his own pace. And as soon as the client accepts new facts about himself, he can start to deal with them. In order to do this a counselor must be patient, humble, and have enough compassion and self-awareness to not become judgmental about the client’s beliefs. This can be hard to learn, but it is a skill, so it can be learned.

This approach has one side effect that we must be aware of. Because counseling can only be successful when it is indirective and based on total acceptance of the client, you can be confronted with a difficult choice after the client gains insights on his beliefs and convictions. In the above example there are at least two options. A client can decide to change himself so that he will facilitate, rather than inhibit an agile mindset and practices within his team. Or he can decide to accept the fact that he wants more control, and throws away the whole idea of becoming agile. This will probably have some positive effect on his organization as the churn rate will probably drop as soon as manager’s declared values and actions will match (though some current employees will leave the team). So in this scenario you can feel as if you facilitated an “anti-agile transformation” of an organization. In my opinion both outcomes are rather positive. Even though the second scenario does not make that organization agile, it, at least stops feeding a myth that Scrum is just a set of rituals that make no difference. I see it as a positive change anyway.

How to implement this approach of non-directed client-centered counselling to agile consultancy? As my friend Roland Flemm says, first you need to get educated properly. But assuming you have the knowledge and skills needed, what’s next? That’s an open question for me. I see that there are several constraints for this. First, this should not become a psychological treatment. This can be achieved by being constantly aware (at least by the counselor) of the fact that there is a limited set of topics that can be discussed during such conversations. Luckily enough this method does not require digging deep into the psychological experiences that created these beliefs — just accepting them seems to be enough for successful counseling.

The second constraint is the actual way of doing such kind of counselling. It should not be performed as an attempt to delve into the mind of a person. A possible way of achieving this is by paying attention and being truly curious about a client’s feelings and beliefs.

Third — you will need to have enough time for genuine conversations, so that you could build trust and help a client to reflect on his deep beliefs about how work should be done and how to manage people. You can probably agree on that upfront (while keeping in mind the second constraint), so that the client will be ready to spend time talking with you.

Last but not least you have to set client expectations so that he will not expect (or insist on) you to give advice and guide him on what to do. A client will have to decide what to do by himself, while you may help him create a plan of how to do it.

Maybe you have used such approach running agile transformations? Please share your experience.

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Sergey Makarkin
Chief Program Manager

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