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Coaching the Terrorist on your Team
By Bob Bapes   Printer Friendly Version

On my first trip canoe trip I remembered to bring a six-pack of my favorite beverage, but had no way to keep it cool. It was a relatively hot day and the sun was warming the cans quickly. I thought, "The water is a lot cooler than the air, I'll just tie the cans onto the canoe and throw them overboard."

I did just that, thinking the cans would follow along without resistance. Boy was I surprised! It was as if I had thrown an anchor overboard. I could hardly move the canoe forward at all.

Sometimes a member of your team, let's call him or her the "terrorist", performs the same function as that six-pack. They become an extremely effective anchor that prevents the rest of the team from making progress, holding back the whole canoe and everyone in it. It is tempting to just cut the line (fire them), yet in today's litigious society, that is difficult. When people get fired, they don't get mad or sad, they get a lawyer.

The way to get the terrorist back in the canoe can be long and complicated. But it must begin with a simple act on your part. Individuals live up to or down to our expectations and right now your performance expectation for this person is low.

Do you remember Magic Slates from when you were a child, the toy you wrote on with a wooden stylus and then lifted the page to erase it? Right now you have a magic slate in your mind with your terrorist's name on it. What you must do is "lift the page" and erase the negative history you have with this person. This may be difficult for you, but is essential to start the process of getting them back in the canoe with the rest of the team.

Once you have "lifted the page", you must talk directly, assertively and honestly with your difficult person. Go to them and say, "I know we have not had the best relationship over the past several years. I'm willing to accept a significant portion of the blame for this. I know you do a lot of good things for this organization and I don't recognize those contributions. From now on, when I see you doing something I think is good; I'm going to thank you for it. Is that OK with you?"

Then it is up to you to see things that person is doing that are praiseworthy and thank them for it. Look hard, it doesn't have to be an earth shattering deed, just something positive.

Mikhail Gorbachev tells the story of his famous summit meeting with Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik, Iceland. The meeting room was filled with many advisors from both sides and was going nowhere. Each side was hurling accusations of reneging on agreements that had been made in the past.

At this point, US - Soviet relationships were not the best. Remember that President Reagan called the Soviet Union the "Evil Empire."

Yet he recognized they were not making any progress on proposals that were important to both sides. So Reagan put aside his previous beliefs. He "lifted his page" and said, "This is not working."

He asked if Gorbachev would be willing to meet privately, without the advisors. Gorbachev agreed and with just one translator for each present in the room, Ronald Reagan stood, looked Gorbachev in the eye, extended his hand and said, "Hi, my name is Ron. May I call you Mikhail?" They shook hands and that was the beginning of the famous Reykjavik accord.

If this technique can work at the highest geopolitical levels, it can work for your difficult relationships too. Help your problem workers get back in the canoe and you may just discover they are among the best paddlers.


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