November 9, 2017

The Fifth Discipline, Prima Donnas and Seeing the Same Game

Almost 25 years ago, one of the best-selling management books of all time was released: Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline. I know I was in the minority, but to be honest, I was not a big fan of the book. But one thing really stood out for me and that was the discipline of Mental Models and the importance of suspending them, i.e., holding them up, for others to see.

There are many times this is a useful exercise, but it is especially important where conflicts arise over a course of action.

Let’s take performance issues. Now all performance issues don’t lead to conflicts about how to handle them. If someone in the organization is not delivering on their objectives, even after getting feedback and coaching, the decision is usually not hard. On the other hand, a tough choice for many leaders is what to do with high performers whose results come with a lot of, shall we say, collateral damage?

For example, what do you do with a top sales person who treats her team with mordacity (think of a character like Meryl Streep in the movie The Devil Wears Prada)? Or how about the brilliant engineer with 40 patents who thinks being a team player is a waste of his precious time and is socially inappropriate more often than you care to recall (think of Sheldon on the TV show The Big Bang Theory)? Folks like these are often referred to as prima donnas and you would be hard-pressed to find an organization that didn’t have at least one that was viewed this way.

Of course you talk to them both. You tell them their style is causing problems and work with them to try to take the edges off. You might even hire them a coach.

If no change occurs, what do you do? Do you cut them loose? What if there is some progress but the troubling behaviors persist?

It goes without saying that these hypothetical situations cannot be answered without all the detail and nuance of each unique situation. Equally obvious, if everyone sees the situation the same way, the choices may not be easy, but there will be consensus on how to proceed.

What I want to address here is what to do when there are conflicting opinions. Let’s say someone on the management team is fed up and thinks the fallout can no longer be tolerated, but someone else in the management chain is more focused on the upside. Or let’s say HR is tired of dealing with the complaints from everyone around the person in question and says the person needs to go, but management is worried about how to fill the gap.

This is where having everyone suspend…hold up…their mental models is essential for effective action. It starts with sharing views on the benefits and costs. How is everyone valuing and trading these costs and benefits off? Revenue generated and the value of patents in the pipeline might be easy to quantify. How do the parties in conflict about the situation view the costs of the prima donna’s disparaging comments on the rest of the team?

In addition to costs and benefits of the current state, having the parties share their views under an array of future scenarios deepens the understanding of the mental models people are using. Is there any agreement on the “bright red lines”…lines which if crossed would lead to immediate dismissal, no questions asked? How about the reverse, what are the improvement milestones, which if achieved would lead to a softening of positions?

Other scenarios to explore include the possibility that the engineer or sales person goes to the competition and also the possibility that the prima donna is allowed to stay and 3-4 people on his/her team leave? What would the implications of these scenarios be?

Asking these questions and having each person involved in the decision answer them is a critical step on building consensus around the action steps that best balance stakeholder needs.

Not long after The Fifth Discipline came out, I read a book by Bill Parcells, the football coach who lead the NY Giants to two Super Bowl Championships. It was typical of all those books by famous sports coaches capitalizing on their success by writing about “their way.” In other words, it was largely unremarkable.

But one thing stuck with me. When his quarterback, Phil Simms, used to come off the field after making what Parcells regarded as bad decisions, Parcells would say to Simms, “Are we seeing the same game?” He meant, this is what I think is happening and what I think you should be doing. But you are doing something else, so are you seeing something else?

He meant, this is what I think is happening and what I think you should be doing. But you are doing something else, so are you seeing something else?

I have always really liked this question and I frequently suggest it to my clients.

He could have said, “You’re an idiot,” and probably often did. But “Are we seeing the same game?” invites others to share what they see, share their assumptions and share why they are making the choices they are making. Exploring mental models ensures everyone understands the strategic and competitive landscape so that choices can be made which best lead to winning, however that is defined.

As you look around you at the unavoidable individual and group conflicts that are part of every organization, where would it be useful to get people together so you can ask, “Are we seeing the same game?”

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