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Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of what is really important when faced with challenges and problems. When you’ve just had a fight with your partner, it’s hard to think about what you loved about them when you decided to become their partner. And when a business owner struggles with a problem employee, it’s hard to remember the vision and values they built their business on.

When we react to difficulties without first considering our values, we can step further away from those values and instead, find ourselves following inner guidance that is informed by fear and frustration. The following case history illustrates this. Names and other details have been changed to protect the privacy of my client.

Joe owns a concrete forms company. He started out as a solo operator, but soon he was overwhelmed by the demand for his services. Soon, Joe needed help and found someone perfect for the job. Steve was soon able to complete Joe’s sentences accurately and was there with the right tool and the right idea before Joe could even form the words to ask.

Business continued to grow, and Joe needed more help. He hired Larry, a former coworker in a related industry, because he knew how good Larry was at what he did. But soon, Joe realized that Larry was only good at that one thing he remembered him for. Joe began spending more time trying to train Larry than he would have spent if he had just tried to do it all himself.

When Joe and I met for our coaching session, he had grown frustrated and impatient with Larry and was stumped about what to do. Should he keep giving Larry more chances? Should he give him a deadline to increase speed and acuity? Should he just let him go?

I listened, asking questions to get a better feel for what might be causing Larry to have so much trouble learning a new skillset. Joe told me that Larry had some learning disabilities and a childhood background of untreated trauma. These disabilities made it hard for Larry to figure out the correct materials and lengths needed when loading the truck for the next job. It was taking Larry four times as long to complete these kinds of projects as it took Joe. Joe tried to help him, but nothing seemed to work.

I suggested that for mentally and emotionally healthy individuals, it can be challenging to learn a new skill. It becomes even more challenging to learn multiple new skills all at once. Larry has never been to therapy to deal with his traumatic childhood. Growing up, he learned to second guess himself constantly. Larry has a fixed mindset (Mindset, by Caroline Dweck) due to the adaptations he developed to survive a childhood of ridicule and bullying.

Larry was being asked to do things he had never done before in a high-paced environment. He was the newest employee and watched as Joe and Steve easily navigated the tasks that they performed. He was the only one who seemed to be struggling. The more Larry struggled, the worse he felt, and the harder it was to learn anything new.

As Joe began to realize how steep the learning curve must be for Larry, I asked if he was open to a couple of suggestions. He agreed to consider my ideas. I asked Joe if he could make a video demonstrating, step by step, each of the new tasks Larry was being asked to master so that Larry could watch them as often as he needed to until he sufficiently developed the new skill. Joe thought that might work well and said he would give it a try.

I also suggested that Joe sit down with Larry to list all the tasks that he was being asked to perform. Using a scale of 1 to 10, I recommended that Larry rate the difficulty of each task. I told Joe I thought Larry needed to spend most of his time doing things he could do without too much difficulty. What if Larry spent five hours of his day on tasks with a difficulty scale of 1 to 5, two hours a day on tasks with a difficulty scale of 6 to 8, and one hour a day on tasks at 9 to10 on the scale. Larry would doubt himself less and would start having some wins to feel good about.

Joe liked both ideas and said he would implement them right away.

I then asked Joe what was important to him about his concrete forms business. He said that he just really enjoyed following blueprints, setting concrete forms, and solving problems that the plans didn’t account for. It was fun! The creativity, helping to build the foundation for beautiful homes, and being the unsung hero of the residential home industry all added up to so much fun that it was easy for him to become obsessed with his business.

“So, you enjoy building and setting concrete forms. But my sense is that if you could do it all, you wouldn’t mess with having employees. Do I have that right?”

Joe laughed and said, “Yes! But I also don’t want to turn business away.”

“Why not?” I asked.

Joe took a few seconds and said, “Because the more business I do, the more profitable the business.”

“So, making a profit is important. What else is important about doing more business?”

Joe thought longer before he answered. This time he said, “This is going to sound stupid, but I want to make a difference in the world.”

Okay, so you want to make a difference. How does making more profit while having fun setting concrete forms make a difference in the world?”

Joe said, “I think foundations are really important. A home can be the center of a family. A lot of drama, a lot of conversation and connection, a lot of pain, a lot of joy…a lot of what it means to be human happens in a home.”

“So, what is it about concrete forms that can make a difference?”

“Homes don’t have a lot of structural integrity without a foundation. And foundations don’t offer the right kind of support if they aren’t the right size and shape. The foundation holds the home up. A well-formed foundation makes the home safe and durable. All that happens in a home can’t happen without the support and functionality of a strong and solid foundation.”

Joe and I were quiet for a while before I said, “So, what I’m hearing is that you love making and setting concrete forms because it’s fun to do and because they provide your customers with stability, structure, support, security, and connection”

“Yes, exactly!” Joe agreed.

“So, that is your ‘Why’. That is why you love your business.”

“Yes”

“With this understanding, who do you want to be for your employees?”

Joe tilted his head and gave me the confused puppy dog look.

“Who you are being with Larry is frustrated and impatient. Yes?”

“Yes”

“Who do you want to be for your employees?”

Joe sat forward in his chair and said, “I want to be a caring leader. I want them to have fun. I want to provide them with the stability, security, and structure they need to support themselves and their families. I want them to enjoy coming to work and to know they are making a difference.”

“What would it look and feel like to deal with Larry’s challenge from that state of being?”

“It would feel great – powerful. It would look like me caring more about him than caring about my own frustrations.”

Joe later reported that his relationship with Larry improved dramatically after he became more intentional about helping Larry to succeed. And Larry began to thrive. Once he knew that Joe cared about him, Larry was able to relax and become teachable.

Joe’s true values inspired his actions. And when frustrated or impatient, Joe reminded himself of the man he wanted to be for his employees.

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