Pretzel Management: The Wrong Way To Go!
by Elaine Crowley

Some contortionists don't work in the circus.

Anne's promotion to partner in a professional services firm brought Phil onto her staff. Despite Anne's efforts to build rapport, though successful with the others who joined her group, Phil became increasingly distant and unresponsive. Although continuing to fulfill the basic requirements of his job, he made his disinterest in working for Anne very clear.

He made it a point, for example, of avoiding interactions with Anne, giving her only the most cursory responses to her questions. Phil also sought direction from and reported his progress to Anne's two male partners, and then finally, only when asked, to Anne.

For over six months, Anne worked hard to make Phil feel comfortable and part of her team. She tried being "extra nice to Phil" communicating by email and voice mail to "give him space and time to adjust." But Phil ignored the overtures, and Anne, herself, as much as he could.

Still feeling new to her role, Anne was reluctant to make waves. Her partners, used to interacting with Phil, didn't notice anything was amiss. Nothing seemed to have changed. After all, Phil was still making sales.

By the time Anne sought coaching, she was deeply frustrated. The situation had deteriorated to the point where she was doing extra work, rather than asking Phil to do it. She was frequently surprised, for example, by events occurring in Phil's accounts, such as late deliveries and client complaints. Having adapted her own management style in every way she could think of, every time without results, she was out of ideas.

Anne had become a "pretzel manager," twisting herself into knots to accommodate an employee. Her problem was she suffered from a common misconception in American business: the tendency to allow our natural preference for harmonious business environments to overwhelm our understanding of the legitimate role we need to play in our companies. Perhaps more than those in other cultures, we Americans like to be liked, placing a high premium on successfully deploying highly developed interpersonal skills to avoid inefficient conflicts in the workplace. As a result, too often, we end up creating an imbalance in which the desire to be "nice" outweighs the legitimate needs of the business.

Political struggles also offer fertile ground for pretzel management. When David was hired as President, Alan, a company founder who had been president in the past, became Vice President of Development. David and the board saw Alan, his patents, and professional reputation as critical to the emerging biotech company's success with investors and the marketplace. But Alan, who had no scientists on his staff, frequently called on members of the research group to "do him a favor and run a few experiments," without discussing this reallocation of resources with David or the Research VP. Predictably, the bench scientists did as Alan asked. After all, he was a founder.

David soon became distracted by having to constantly placate those research managers whose projects were late because of Alan's ad hoc requests, and finding it hard to hold them accountable for meeting their project schedules under the circumstances. He also had to spend time with employees who were being pressed by their managers to meet deadlines, while simultaneously being cajoled by Alan, and confused about their priorities. Before long, the board and corporate partners got increasingly alarmed by unmet research milestones. In the face of all these competing priorities, David felt contorted into more personal and organizational knots than he'd ever experienced before!

Regardless of the cause, such pretzel behavior is damaging to oneself and one's organization. On a personal level, it's impossible to sustain a facade of accommodation indefinitely. Typically, as those who rely on accommodation run out of patience, their frustration splashes onto a number of relationships beyond the causative one. After long periods of apparent compliance, delayed reactions will be experienced by others as excessive, further damaging reputations and relationships. On a business level, organizational effectiveness suffers. In situations like Anne's and David's, leaders lose the ability to oversee and support strategic initiatives.

Anne and David both came to coaching expressing a desire to straighten things out. This challenge was more difficult than it could have been since each had failed to take any corrective action for a long time. As a result, their "pretzel management" had become the organizational status quo. Each ultimately concluded that straight talk was needed to untie the knots.

Anne and Phil held an out-of-cycle performance appraisal meeting. Anne chose a restaurant, wanting to be on neutral ground. She began by asking Phil if there were anything he wanted to discuss. When Phil declined, Anne described the problem as she saw it, providing specific examples to foreclose debate. She then outlined what she expects from each member of her staff, informing Phil that he was failing in the areas of communication, reporting and collaborative teamwork. Anne next described the standards she expected Phil to meet, such as weekly written reports followed by a meeting to discuss his accounts. She made it clear that Phil's behavior change needed to be immediate and sustained. In addition, she briefed her partners on her plan and asked them to redirect Phil to her when he approached them for direction or support.

David chose to first apprise a member of the board of both the problem and a solution. David obtained support for reassigning one Research bench scientist to Alan, choosing a long-term employee whose skills Alan valued, and whose career goals led her away from the bench to other areas of the business. David met with Alan, offering this solution to his experimental needs and providing someone whom he could train to support him in other areas of responsibility. The board member then met privately with Alan, making it clear that he was valued but that he could no longer poach resources from Research at will. If he needed additional support, he was to negotiate for it with David directly.

Although Alan initially needed a reminder or two, within a few months the disruption in research had ended, with morale returning to acceptable levels, and projects were back on schedule.

What both Anne and David rediscovered was that their success, and that of their companies, required them to focus their attention on their longer-term goals, and their roles and responsibilities. Like many others in our "please-like-me" business culture before them, they learned that appeasement strategies can be exhausting, distracting, and will ultimately be unsuccessful. Both found that by addressing the problem constructively, including appropriate levels of support from others, they could be more productive toward a solution than hoping things would resolve by themselves, all on their own. Giving up their "pretzel management" style enabled both of them to get themselves and their companies back on track.

Executive coach and organizational development consultant, Elaine Crowley, is founder and president of a Boston-area firm that prepares leaders and their organizations to meet today's complex business and personal challenges. The Crowley Group partners with clients to navigate change. For more information, go to .

Many more articles in Executive Performance in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2004 by Elaine Crowley. All rights reserved.

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