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Bridging an Unbridgeable Gap

For some of us the priorities are already clear. The priorities are alive in performance evaluations, and they are written into our planners or are posted on our office walls. All we have to do is keep the dialogue open and use MVA as a criterion for planning our time.

However, for other priorities, just coming to agreement about what’s important can be quite difficult.

Consider two managers—Sarah and Rob.

Sarah spent eight years leading a team in the Midwest for a company that she really loved. Recently she’d begun reporting to a new boss on the East Coast—Rob. Early on it became clear that Sarah and Rob were not clicking. Trust was low, and they struggled to communicate. Sarah felt that Rob didn’t understand her and didn’t appreciate what she had accomplished with her team. Rob felt that Sarah was quick to judge and not open to a new approach.

There they were—unhappy and stuck.

Sarah could have reacted in one of the dysfunctional ways many managers do: by blowing up in frustration and anger, snipping at Rob behind his back until a bitter confrontation was provoked, or quitting precipitously to take a less-than-ideal job. Instead, she took a thoughtful approach, which started by taking a step back to consider her own role in the impasse. Reflecting on the situation, Sarah came to realize that, while Rob wasn’t a perfect manager (who is?), she probably had some work of her own to do. She’d worked for a long time without a mentor, a champion, or even a trusted confidante, and she needed someone she could talk to about her job and its challenges, especially during this difficult time.

Sarah decided to hire a personal career coach named Keith Rosen. Keith is a Master Certified Coach and the founder of ProfitBuilders.com, a very successful executive coaching firm based in New York.

Keith helped Sarah work on her communication skills, an area in which Sarah realized she could use improvement. However, as she and Keith walked through a variety of real-life scenarios together, it soon became clear that Sarah also needed help with listening skills. She’d been unable to comprehend Rob’s explicit needs, and she certainly wasn’t accurately interpreting his implicit needs (which as we’ve noted are always harder to plumb). Keith and Sarah pondered and probed the situation together and came up with a plan.

The following Monday, Sarah went to Rob and said, “I’ve hired a career coach to help me become a better manager. In working with him, I’ve realized that one of my main goals is to get in better sync with you. I really want to understand what you need from me and how I can help you be more successful.”

The following day, Keith called Rob and introduced himself as Sarah’s coach. There was a long silence, and then Rob emitted a long, heartfelt sigh of relief. He began to talk, admitting that, like Sarah, he’d been quite frustrated with their failure to communicate. He felt that Sarah was out of touch with the corporate goals (not to mention his own personal goals). Each time they spoke, he sensed she was reacting to his needs rather than simply listening to them and comprehending them. As a result, she seemed to view every change or new idea as a threat rather than an opportunity.

As they talked, Keith gained a new insight into the dynamic between Rob and Sarah. In Rob’s eyes, whenever Sarah challenged or questioned his explicit goals, she was also challenging his implicit goals. Conversely, whenever Rob challenged Sarah’s explicit goals, he was also challenging her implicit goals.

The conflict between them really had less to do with corporate strategies or work duties than they’d imagined. It was mainly about a new boss trying to look good and a long-time employee trying to maintain her dignity in the face of disruptive, disconcerting change.

Thankfully, there was no basis for any fundamental conflict between Rob and Sarah. Rob had no need (explicit or implicit) to send a talented veteran manager packing during his first month on the job, and Sarah had no need to end her successful and happy career at the firm. Both really wanted to try to make their new partnership work. So Keith jumped in and spent time with each of them in private, reviewing their explicit needs and helping them interpret their implicit needs. Acting as a bridge, he connected them to one another with a plan that they could each commit to, build on, and maintain.

Sometimes the fit between two managers is so skewed or so damaged by failed attempts at communication that the obstacles to contact seem insurmountable. In such cases, a third party may be able to help you gain needed perspective and work your negative emotions out of the way. He or she can serve as a bridge on the road to greater traction.

If you find yourself in such a dilemma, consider looking for a third-party bridge. Sometimes an independent coach can play this role, as in the case of Rob and Sarah. In other cases, the bridge can be a manager from another department that both parties like and trust, a conflict management counselor or consultant hired by the firm, or a smart and sensitive member of the company’s Human Resources department. The key is an open-minded attitude and a willingness to listen on the part of both individuals.

Most communication gaps are bridgeable. Sometimes all it takes is a fresh perspective and a new voice in the room to change the atmosphere from confrontation to cooperation.

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