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A time to challenge and a time to wait

I felt the challenge during a 360 feedback session conducted this week. As part of a leadership development programme I had a day to debrief a number of senior executives on their 360 feedback reports.  A few days before I had received the reports and in one report I was surprised to read the quantity of verbatim comments which were critical in a number of different ways including the person being described as abrupt and aggressive, and so I expected that this would be an ‘interesting’ session.

As the time arrived for the feedback meeting with this individual, I was ready, but could feel my tension rise as I looked at my watch. The person arrived 5 minutes late, and even before I’d finished my introduction about confidentiality, etc he said abruptly “do we really need to spend this long? I have a meeting at 1.00pm”. This meant there was 40 minutes for the whole feedback meeting. I could feel the tension rise even more. I could have argued at this point, trying to persuade him that more time was needed. However, I felt that this would be like two bulls locking horns and I would be playing his power game. So I decided to be the yin to his yang, and agreed to proceed. It was clear that he had not read the report and I could see a change in him as he realised the scale of the matter. It came close to 1.00pm and now I felt it was time to challenge. I said “Would you like to make a phone call and cancel your meeting?”.  There was a pause and then “Yes, I think I will.” This was quite a breakthrough and I breathed an inner sigh of relief. The tension defused gradually as the meeting went on and it turned into a very constructive discussion with specific actions. Without the pressure of time, the person was more at ease, more reflective and more ready to accept the reality.  The interesting thing was that the rapport between us built following the challenge as if I’d earned the right.

In years gone by I would have accepted his requirement to end the session at 1.00pm. After all, I am a coach in service of my coachee, there to follow his agenda and if he says the meeting must end at 1.00pm, then who am I to disagree? When considering the support / challenge matrix below, this response would have been at best in the cosy club of high support and low challenge. But more likely this would have been in the ‘rust out’ inertia/apathy zone of low challenge and low support. I would have just gone through the motions with this aggressive senior manager, to ‘tick him off the list’ and written him off as a lost cause, and he would have been able to go to his next meeting without any change. However this now feels completely wrong. My intuition told me there was more to this; my principles told me to be curious and to believe that he had potential and hidden greatness .