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Coaching Your Managers to Solve Their Own Problems

Conflict Solving
Collaboration

25 December, 2020

Sumitha Poornachandran

Sumitha Poornachandran

Engineering Leader at Ex-Lyft

Sumitha Poornachandran, a Senior Engineering Leader, tells how she enhanced collaboration between two of her senior managers by coaching them to solve their own problems.

Problem

Two of my managers had a collaboration issue that was impacting the team as a whole. They were running two different, but dependent workstreams, and one of the managers wanted to extend their charter to include an area managed by another manager. The manager who wanted to extend their charter was rather assertive and had frequently escalated the issue and was trying to involve me in their conflict.

This was going on for a couple of weeks after which I had to step in and explain that they should focus on their own area unless there was something wrong in the other workstream that was impacting their area. In that case, they should be transparent about it, bring it up at the staff meeting, and give feedback that could help the other person course-correct and not merely complain.

Actions taken

I could have jumped in and started mediating their relationship but I wanted to give my senior managers the opportunity to solve their own problems by themselves. Coaching them how to do that was my plan A. My backup plan was to get personally involved and facilitate their communication and in the worst-case scenario, remove one of them and place them elsewhere.

So, I proceeded with my plan A. First off, I spoke to both of them explaining how important it was for them as leads of two dependent workstreams to closely work together. I also explained to them why I wanted my managers to be capable of solving their own problems instead of involving me. They both understood the severity of the situation and decided to give it a try.

My coaching consisted of two parts:

_ Collaboration task_
I suggested that they should come up with a collaboration task that should help them repair their working relationship. It was more an exercise than an actual task and it went on for a couple of weeks. Initially, things didn’t go particularly well and both reported back difficulties.

Key conflict-solving principle
From my own experience “Assuming good intentions” is a key conflict-solving principle that helps people become more emphatic and attentive to people around them. Through multiple examples, I tried to explain that by embracing this principle they would get a different perspective on things. The other person is not challenging you; they are bona fide proposing something.

Eventually, they were able to come up with the roadmaps for both of these two workstreams that were mutually aligned. They also decided to split daily updates and then sync on a weekly basis. The collaboration task did not start smoothly in the beginning but things improved after a couple of meetings. In this process, I provided an opportunity to maturely and responsibly solve their own problem being senior leaders instead of mediating from the get-go.

Lessons learned

Coach your leaders to solve their problems before your step in to help them. This situation helped me validate my belief that people on my team should try to solve their problems by themselves first. I shouldn’t be involved and I shouldn’t be a dependency for them. I should support them and offer guidance without being involved as a mediator.

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