The Quintessential Blog

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February 23, 2017 BY PATRICK ALBINA

Drop your tools

Many of us struggle with the challenges when transitioning from a practitioner to becoming a manager.  The nature and impact of challenges are commonly underestimated and misunderstood as we are often promoted up the corporate ladder for those things that we have done well in the past, when suddenly we encounter a new set of problems that we are not fully prepared for.

Many of those that I coach have a technical/analytical background and are highly proficient in their chosen field.  They come to me because they struggle with a new set of problems associated with managing people as the nature of these challenges cannot be directly addressed through the application of their existing toolset.  In navigating this new world, one of the first things I do with those who I coach is to help them “drop their tools…”

Since 1990, at least 23 country firefighters have died in various incidents, each time with their equipment beside them.  They died in close proximity to safety zones that could have been reached had they been lighter and able to move faster.  In several instances, the firefighters were still wearing their backpack with their chain saw in hand.  The inability of these firefighters to figuratively and literally drop their tools when the firefighting efforts were clearly futile cost them their lives.  If they had dropped their tools, would they have made a different decision?

Karl Weick, the renown thought leader on ‘sense-making’ explored the failure of seasoned professionals to ‘drop their tools’ resulting in incorrect decisions.  He identified circumstances where fighter pilots, whose planes became disabled, lost their lives when they held onto what they call “the cocoon of the cockpit” rather than face the harsh conditions following ejection.   Naval personnel told to remove their steel-capped shoes before abandoning a sinking ship often refused to do so, only to punch holes in their life rafts when they boarded them.

These seasoned professionals held on to their tools because they did not know how to drop them, and furthermore, they could not rationalise their tools as separate from their identity.  The fusion of a professional’s tools with their identity means that under stressful conditions, it makes no more sense to drop one’s tools than it does to drop one’s sense of identity.   Implicit in this idea is that tools and people are inseparable and the mere thought of dropping one’s tools would raise questions associated with their source of power “…without my tools, who am I?”

In his book, “The Fifth Discipline”, Peter Senge highlights seven learning disabilities that are typically found in organisations. One of these learning disabilities is the tendency for people to entirely identify themselves with their position, i.e., “I am my position” as based on what we know.  Along with one’s position come all the representations of power such as title, rank, reputation, knowledge, status, authority etc.  By constraining one’s thoughts to the limited frames of our position, this learning disability collectively manifests itself as silos, where there is often a long history of defensive posturing between teams, and/or functions.  Our inability to see beyond our frames of reference is bounded by our tools, where a “solution” in one area without an appreciation of the systemic nature of the problem may bring short-term relief, but the pain will reappear sooner or later in another form…and the blame game continues.

So if not axes and chainsaws, what are our tools?  They are our well-known and rehearsed methodologies, techniques and mindsets as based on our vocational preferences, training, experiences and education.  Those of us who worry about our credibility if we were to drop our tools are unable to pay attention to the unfolding drama that could suddenly turn on us.  Did the 23 firefighters who lost their lives within reach of safety zones undertake the correct course of action?   As firefighters who were being true to their identity, it is likely that they did.  However under the futile circumstances, were they really undertaking the role of firefighters or simply people trying to flee the threat and seek safety?

Human potential can be realised as much by what we drop, as what we acquire. 

By helping those who I coach to know how to hold on to their tools lightly, I offer the ability to identify choices that are otherwise unseen to them.  It helps them to gain lightness, agility and perspective, enabling new things to be learnt.  If we can start to think in different ways, we are able to act in different ways.  In order to act in ways that best suit the situation, we must make decisions that consider perspectives other than our own, which in turn opens up new possibilities and opportunities.  To me, this is a great start in learning how to engage with people on the way to becoming a competent manager.