Hitting a Rough Patch

The six reasons why men lose the plot at work, and what to do about it

I’m sometimes asked to step in when a key person has somehow (and often unexpectedly) hit a rough patch at work and their company has sensibly decided to help them through it. You’ll know when this is the case, because either their output/quality has dropped off the chart or, more commonly, people around them are feeling the brunt of them losing the plot.

My experience has been that this is one of the situations where taking some time to find out why they’ve lost the plot can really help. Here’s my list of causes and tips about what to do, in order of the ones I’ve come across the most:

1. They’ve lost sight of the wood because of all the trees
Even when you’re a really senior leader, there are times when you’ve got to get down and dirty amongst all the details so you can understand things enough to lead people through it. The coach’s job then is to help them remember why they’re there and where they need to be going and to pull them back up into the helicopter view again.

2. They’re not being a ‘complete’ version of themselves
People often seem to slide into the habit of hiding parts of themselves at work. They hide parts which they judge to be “too frivolous”, “too weak”, “too demanding”, “too friendly” – you name it, we’ve no shortage of possible judgements. Over time, the parts they are hiding are like they’re relegated half their team to the sub’s bench and are playing without a full squad. The coach’s job then is help them be a great team manager, to find out the strengths of their own hidden parts and bring them back into play in the right position.

3. They’re feeling powerless to do what needs to be done
Spot the warning signs for this one by looking out for extremes: people who are either (a) over-reacting – overtly displaying anger etc or manically piling-on more and more to-do lists; or (b) have withdrawn or even disappeared from the scene.
Working with feelings of powerlessness is demanding, because you’ve first got to go through the fear and vulnerability and then start looking at the beliefs and habits that give away power. After that, you can, if necessary, consider competence. My experience has been that simply training for more competence (skills and capabilities) is less effective without those first two steps.

4. They’re carrying shame about who they are or what they’ve done or not done
Someone once told me that shame is our fear that the rest of the world will see us as we really see ourselves. It’s the gap between how we think we need to be or behave externally and what we know about our limitations and weaknesses on the inside. And it leads us to put on more and more layers of armour to stay safe.
We often have an inherited picture of the ideal male leader: powerful, independent, having the answers, invulnerable, always acting with integrity. This can be a very constricting view! So the first part of working with shame is about coming to terms with who we really are. And then we can start letting some of the heavy, suffocating armour go clanking to the ground.

5. One or more of their boundaries is being or is at risk of being crossed
“Here’s a line. In your interactions with me, you can go all the way up to this line. Do what you want on that side of it, that’s fine. Do not cross it.”
It seems simple to talk about boundaries; everybody gets it. Yet, in the busy-ness of work, with lots of demands for our attention, our virtual border guard can get forgotten. And who wants to be the unreasonable, snapping Rottweiler, constantly patrolling on the end of his chain? Coaching around boundaries can be a really straightforward discussion – what are the no-go areas for you? Where are the lines in the sand? What is unacceptable? How do you let others know where the border is? What are the warning signs that an incursion is happening? What do you want to do, if a boundary gets crossed?

6. One or more of their key values are not being upheld
Although this is the last one on my list of six, I think it’s down here not because it happens less, but because it less often leads to overtly negative behaviour. My guess is that we could all do with fairly frequent reminders about our values. Values are the things that are intrinsically important to us (recognition, creativity, just to randomly name a couple). And when we are actively living and working in line with them it is incredibly empowering. The coaching job here is around discovery – eliciting and experiencing values. The leadership job is to help individuals align what’s important to themselves with what’s important to the business.


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