Transferring Ownership for Problem Solving

Dear Coach Alan,

My name is Martin, and I am the president of a software company. A year ago, I hired a chief information officer, Bob, who lives about an hour from our home office.  Bob did not want to move, and he convinced me that he would be able to handle the commute to work. He was highly qualified, and I accepted his commitment. Over the past few months, Bob had accumulated excessive snow days, claiming he was not able drive to work.  When I called this to his attention, he claimed he could work from home on these days and meet his obligations to oversee ongoing projects and support his staff.  I was not convinced that he was unable to drive to work.  I was also concerned about his ability to carry out his work obligations from home.  I also felt, he was setting a bad example for his staff, mostly millennials, who showed up every day for work.  I was very upset, and I called him into my office, pointing out his failure to meet his commitment to me and the company.  This meeting did not go well, and he became defensive rather than accepting his responsibility to show up for work. I don’t want to lose him, but I will not accept his failure to show up for work.  Can you help me to resolve my dilemma with Bob?

Dear Martin,

We need to identify a different way that you can deliver your message to Bob.  Your direct confrontation led to a predictable response of defensiveness.  When people perceive themselves as being under “attack,” even when justified, they will try to protect themselves.  One suggestion is to transform the tension between you and Bob into Bob’s internal tension.  This can be done by clearly communicating your expectations, based on Bob’s previous commitment and the importance of his being present at the office. Then contrast this expectation with his performance, which falls short of expectations.  By asking Bob to resolve this discrepancy, he will be faced with resolving the dilemma that you are experiencing.  Hopefully, he will come up with a resolution that you will find acceptable.

In summary, shifting the tension to Bob will engage him in problem solving. By placing ownership of the problem and its solution on Bob, he is less likely to become defensive and feel more obligated to resolve the tension between expectations and his performance.

It is probably not wise to make any accusations regarding his taking advantage of the company or arguing about whether he can be effective working at home. This is likely to create defensiveness. Stay focused on the desired outcome, and let Bob come up with a solution for how he will change his behavior.


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