The key to problem-solving? Understand your problem first.

Rachel Rider
Rachel Rider
Executive Coach, Leadership Consultant

I’m working with a client, “Amy,” a Vice President in a rapidly growing tech company. Last week, she came to me and said she was afraid she was about to be fired.

She was half-joking, but the fear was very real.

She had had a run-in with someone above her, a senior vice president new to the company, named “Melissa.”

Melissa told Amy to send her a report. She was vague about the project’s parameters.

Amy was furious. She felt she didn’t have the input she needed and frankly, she felt like this was a complete waste of her and her team’s time. Amy wanted to protect her team.

She told Melissa off, saying the Senior VP didn’t understand how they did things here.

And now she was waiting anxiously for the inevitable repercussions. The truth is, her company would not have sent her to me had she not been a valuable leader they were willing to invest in—so termination was not imminent.

And…Amy knew that she could simply defuse the situation by putting something together for Melissa to respond to.

But there was a deeper, unstated problem. “Before we even start to talk about what you should do, we need to figure out why Melissa rubs you so much the wrong way,” I probed.

“She’s basically an awful person,” Amy was quick to reply.

“Okay, tell me more about that.”

“Melissa acts… entitled. Like she is the expert who knows everything. She didn’t ask any questions when she got here. She just walked in and assumed the little people would get everything done for her.”

“I just don’t know how to work with this woman,” Amy finished.

This is a typical dynamic in the tech industry. A scrappy startup blows up and brings in seasoned specialists to direct the next level of growth. In essence, they hire experts to take them to the next level. And that next level often doesn’t align with the culture the scrappy startup-turned-wildly-successful has created.

We chatted about how this is a normal conflict in her industry. But our conversation still hadn’t uncovered the reason for Amy’s virulent response. “What about Melissa’s actions bother you so much?” I asked.

Amy kept coming back to how angry she still was. When people remain angry or strongly emotional in some way, even after unpacking what happened, it’s a sign that there’s something beneath the surface at work. Something in their history.

“Who does Melissa remind you of?” I asked, gently.

“Nobody comes to mind. I’m drawing a blank..”

I read back to her the list of complaints she had about Melissa: She’s entitled. She doesn’t ask questions. She assumes other people are there to make her life easier.

“Oh, wow. That sounds just like my mom!” Tears started rolling down Amy’s cheeks.

“My mom treated me and my little sister like we were hired household help. We had more chores than any of the other kids in the neighborhood. She never asked us how we felt about it or about anything. We had to listen to her, but she never listened to us.

That was a breakthrough moment of awareness that gave Amy power.

“The relationship with my mother changed when I came to terms with the fact that I was never going to be able to change her. I couldn’t force her to care about how I felt. I needed to put distance between us.”

“Melissa,” I reminded her, “is not your mother. You are no longer in an environment where you are dependent on someone else for your food and drink, the way you were with your mom. Melissa cannot hold the power that your mother did when you were a child. You are an incredibly successful adult in your own right. You are a powerhouse.”

Amy started off trying to solve the problem before understanding why the problem existed in the first place. It wasn’t easy for her to face the core of the issue.

By herself, she may never have taken the time and could have continued on an angry collision course with Melissa.

By working with a coach, Amy had the time set aside—and with it, an opportunity to experience an awareness that turned the whole situation around.

We didn’t even need to talk about how she was going to manage her relationship with Melissa. The awareness alone was enough to start to unravel her feelings of being stuck.

Amy realized she didn’t need to protect herself or her team from Melissa. She didn’t need to try to get Melissa to see her point of view.

What mattered, Amy realized, was what she could do to be as successful as she could in her role. What would success look like for her? How should she engage with Melissa? How might doing the report make her more effective?

If you feel similarly stuck in some aspect of your work, a coach can help you think through what is really going on, help you see where you have power and influence, and what you can change.

A coach provides a sounding board, asks powerful questions, helps you test your assumptions, and reflects back the themes they hear you saying. To learn more about working with a MettaWorks coach, schedule a complimentary discovery call here.

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Rachel Rider
Rachel Rider
Executive Coach, Leadership Consultant

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