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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either (a) over-reacting – overtly displaying anger etc or manically piling-on more and more to-do lists; or (b) have withdrawn or even disappeared from the scene.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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where is your leadership absent?

The Truant Shadow

Why some men are absent from their leadership at work and in families – and what to do about it

Sometimes we do and say stuff that comes out wrong – but we do it with good intentions. These behaviours are a kind of distortion of our true strengths, and one of the distortions that you might notice around you, is the Truant.

The Truant is a distortion of a someone’s strengths in being a nourishing and responsible leader who looks after the growth potential in the people and things around him. What happens is that our fear and shame gets in the way of being able to use our real strengths to lead and take care of people.

The Truant is what happens when we have a flight or freeze response to that fear and shame. We’re afraid of not being able to live up to our potential, of falling short of what people need or expect from us. And we’re ashamed that we’ve already not been ‘good enough’ in some way. Overloaded by the pressure of that fear and shame, we run or hide.

You’ll see the Truant response often in men when it comes to fatherhood. In the West, half of all children will spend time in a fatherless home. And similar issues arise at work, where men may absent themselves from taking long-term responsibility, or be dismissive of the day-to-day drudge work that makes organisations secure and prosperous.

The first step in helping men who have been Truant in some way, and are ready to return, is to stop being absent from the fear and the shame. After all, that’s what we’re really running from or frozen into inaction by. The good news is that fear and shame won’t destroy us, even if it feels like they might.

Here’s some questions that will turn people face-about to the hard issues:

  • What responsibilities have you ducked?
  • What have you failed to provide for?
  • Which people have you let down?
  • What has been the impact on other people of your ‘absence’?
  • What does the above say about you as a man?

My advice is to write down the answers to these questions often enough to be able to face the truth and to just ‘be with’ them for as much as they can, no matter how tough or bad it feels. Only then are people ready to come out the other side.

And remember, to some extent, everybody shares these experiences – it’s part of being human. You are not your behaviour and your behaviour can change.


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