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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2 thoughts on “Consulting a very stubborn manager

  1. First thing to to keep in mind: You can’t help everyone. A client has to want to be helped. If a client does not want your help, don’t waste your time. Go where your efforts are more likely to pay off. Having said that, be sure to check in with the resistant client from time to time. You never know. They may have a change of heart.

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