Consulting a very stubborn manager

I got a hand written “thank you” note from a consultant whose work I supervise once a month. She is a very critical thinker, tough on herself and tough on me, so the note of thanks was appreciated all the more.

I have been helping her on how to consult with very stubborn managers; managers who have a fixed idea and stick to it in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.

When I look back and examine what I have said, it comes down to the following basic ideas.

  • The stubbornness of a manager is his problem, not yours. “When a cancer patient dies, it’s not the fault of the oncologist” is a sentence I may have said a hundred times.
  • Try to identify the secondary gain that the manager gains by being stubborn. For example, if he refuses to acknowledge that the goals he sets are unreal, what are his gains for not doing so. (Like preventing an argument in January with the Board instead of slipping up in November).
  • Try to work around the issue, not taking it in directly. For example, if he has that “I will not add one more software engineer to R&D”, look for ways to add software engineers in Service.
  • Boxers often plan to take on a beating in the first few rounds until their opponent gets tired. Managers often stick to an idea just to buy time. Is your manager showing any signs of this tactic?
  • Perhaps try to examine if your manager’s ideas stem from his (or even her) ideology. If they are part of an ideology (such as I will not hire people without a BSc), then probably you’d better back off. Ideologies die hard if at all.
  • Very stubborn people will sometimes be willing to suffer and allow others to suffer so as not to show weakness. So, ask yourself if the manager you are working with can feel safe enough with you to change his mind or even her mind.

Now I remember a story that an Egyptian colleague told me.  A rich man hires a shepherd to take care of his flock. One morning the shepherd tells the rich man that a wolf is threatening the goats, and he had best fence them in. “There are no wolves in this area”, says the rich man. Next day, same story. And so on and so forth for nine days. On day ten, the shepherd comes to the rich man and says, “I am sure glad these goats are yours and not mine”.

One of the smartest managers I ever worked with had a sign on his wall, “in the end, I’m the boss. Do what I tell you”. Next to that sign, he had a boxing glove.


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Targeted OD interventions

Targeted OD interventions are aimed at solving specific problems without subjecting the entire organization to what is nowadays sadly seen as a long, tedious and unnecessary process.

Examples of a targeted process may include include improving the functioning of a certain department, mitigating turnover of a certain skill level of software engineer, or improving the process flow and overall effectiveness of onboarding.

A main challenge of targeted interventions is that they do no treat all the issues at hand. For example, if people are leaving 6 months after they join a company, if is doubtful that a targeted intervention to mitigate this will address the “deep state” issues which encourage this turnover.

Another challenge of targeting interventions is that they are often owned by Training and Development, which have the least political clout that any other function except perhaps the reception clerk, be it a he or a she.

And of course, targeted interventions which solve some problems create others, which are not solved. So the diaper is still dirty, it’s just worn by someone else. For example, new recruits are better paid, but the union now starts licking up a fuss for ” the new folks pushing in  front of everyone else” and starts blackballing the new recruits.

Finally targeted interventions are often carried out by OD consultants who are not yet skilled enough to do system interventions, so they get the bread crumbs. Happy to get any job that comes their way, they sell lots of cheap hours and bungle up the job.

Targeted interventions are not going away. So here a few things you can do to make sure that you get your bang for the buck.

1 Define and redefine the mandate of the intervention over a course of several months so that you are not stuck with an initial incorrect scope of work. Ensure that the contract signed supports this flexibility.

2 Hire a consultant who is over-qualified. He (or even she) will work less hours and not fear telling you what really needs to be done.

3 Targeted OD interventions need strong ownership; if Training and Development  owns it- it ain’t gonna work.











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