A senior executive that we were coaching recently was finding the they had problems managing upwards, as the Vice President to whom he answers seemed to have an ambiguous attitude to his work. On the one hand there was some negative feedback regarding ambition, drive and initiative, and on the other hand a rather pointed invitation to apply for promotion.
The issue wasn't in coaching this individual, but in understanding how an organisation can, on the one hand, be highly successful, while on the other hand can allow or even encourage such a cavalier attitude to staff engagement and trust.
The mixed messages being sent to this executive might have been the result of many factors:
poor collection of feedback,
poor process for the delivery of negative or neutral feedback
misinterpretation of data which then found its way into the feedback process…
However the hardest thing understand is that neither the Vice President nor the senior executive (and recipient of this unsettlingly uncertain set of communications) were able to explain the conundrum.
The coachee was unsure whether or not to apply for the senior post, given that he had had such negative and, as he saw it, dismissive feedback about his performance and future prospects. His morale had been dealt a severe blow, and his main line of thinking was to cut and run to another company. He had no explanation for the poor feedback, as he believed his performance to be consistently good, and he had the figures and results to prove it.
The Vice President in question was also (when asked directly by my coachee) unable to give a clear explanation of the poor feedback, and was at the same time unwilling to have another look at the evidence that indicated that the feedback was undeserved. Strangely, he was also unable to give a clear reason for suggesting (strongly) that the client apply for the more senior post.
This huge airlock in communication, and seeming inability, or perhaps unwillingness on the part of one individual to see both sides of a near-paradoxical situation has left a valuable employee wondering if he has a future in the company at all.
So where, if anywhere, does the fault lie?
If the client has indeed been underperforming, then by all means he should be given feedback to let him know that this is the case, and also offered assistance to get back on track and recover any lost ground. He should be given a chance to say what his thoughts are and should have those thoughts listened to in the most acute manner possible.
If the feedback is in some way unfair then all possible efforts should be made to establish where in the process of generating this feedback the problem might lie. That would of course mean talking to those people involved in the process and listening to their answers, with a willingness to act on them if possible or desirable.
And as with so many issues in organisations large and small the root of the problem lies in communication, or perhaps lack of it.
I sincerely doubt whether an organisation that had at its heart a culture based on coaching would ever struggle with this kind of paradoxical puzzle.