Destructive People: Be patient. Lose battles. Win the war!

An individual’s damaging or destructive behaviour towards others in the organization usually forces us to a) look for the causality of the behaviour, b) apply a label to it, and c) seek a prescription to ‘fix’ their attitude.

We are in for a lot of frustration.

Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.  Robert Heinien


The limitation on making any progress is in the behaviour of others towards the problem person.

For example, if the deviant person constantly bullies people, they likely live in a separate universe from those advising them to stop. They cannot hear you because they have a fixed mindset*. Their fear may drive them to any measure they can take to advance or protect their interests, including appearing to support you.

They are not a customer for change** At least, not the way you want it to happen. They may change their fixed mindset at some point, but their way and at their speed, not yours!

Hence, not only are they in denial, you are too. So, if they have a fixed mindset, how do you modify your’s first?

1. Avoid putting energy into: a) satisfying their demands, b) hoping they will change by allowing us fix their issue.

2. If the person’s bad behaviour is systemic then it’s not going away for a while. Why be caught like a deer in the headlights by the problem? Let someone else change his or her fixed mindset – another time.

3. Reframe the opportunity for change by addressing the system around the person. Set a vision for the future based on better outcomes than the ones the badly behaving person seeks.

4. Focus on small steps towards the outcomes desired by the folks affected by the bad person. The difficult person will still be there, but you’ll be moving in another direction.

Great things are done by a series of small things brought together. – Van Gogh

5. Be patient. Lose battles. Win the war!

Questions for people who want to make progress:

What are you working on that doesn’t need to change? i.e., whats working that becomes your resources for being resourceful and resilient over time?

Suppose a miracle were to happen and the problem went away? What would you be doing instead? What would others be doing to help you?

Suppose that were happening more often, what outcomes would you be achieving?

 What small steps might you have seen yourself taking to begin reaching your outcomes?

Again, we are not going to ‘fix’ the problem person this way. We going to help those around them make progress.

More thoughts on getting beyond fear using solution focus.

*Coert Visser on the positive aspects of growing beyond a Fixed Mindset

**Ben Furman on ‘Involuntary Clients’

How to Help Immovable Objects Move

Benjamin Franklin understood the 1/3 change rule. 

‘All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move.’ – Benjamin Franklin 

Why do we pay so much attention to the ‘Immovables’? They don’t listen. They blame others. They slander the opposition. They repeat their mantra endlessly: ‘This is about the taxpayer, freedom to bear arms, stop the oil pipelines, etc., etc. They wouldn’t know how to let go even if we put a metaphorical gun to their head.

The Movable middle third sit on the fence glancing either way, but wishing to move forward.

Those that move and are already living the future they want often go unnoticed. They are risking nothing because they are used to making progress and mistakes and learning from the process. It is to them that we must pay attention.

Yet the media, managers, and the fearful focus on the Immovables. They make good headlines that feed them the attention they crave.

How to work on change with the three groups:

1. Those ‘On the move’:

Ask: What works when you move forward? Let the next group interact with them.

2. The ‘Movables’:

Ask: What do you like about the ‘on-the-movers’? Which part of their work can you see yourself adapting? What small first steps would you see yourself taking right away? How would you see that being useful to yourself?

3. The ‘Immovables:

Ask: ‘If your nose hairs were on fire would your nose hurt?’ In other words, ignore their ideas and opinions. Try a good old-fashioned passive-aggressive, ‘Sure, we’ll do that.’ But, don’t.

Work with the first two to let them see how they are moving forward towards solution, albeit at a different rate.

This will irritate or anger the ‘Immovables.’ Remember that’s their problem. You are not going to change their behaviour. Our problem with the ‘Immovables’ is our impatience with them … that they won’t listen to us.

But, you can change your behaviour towards them. Be patient and let them live with their frustration until gradually they become less relevant.

The better systems of #1 and #2 people will help the larger group move forward.

More on ignoring the immovables


Machiavelli’s Guide to Autocrats & How to ‘Oppose’ Them

Margaret Thatcher. Love her? Hate her? There’s no middle ground.

On a more micro level, Rob Ford, the Mayor of my great city, Toronto, keeps repeating one simple line, ‘Get rid of the gravy train’ and comes at a time when the finances and effectiveness of city management need close attention. He seems determined, at all costs, to angrily impose his will on cost control by blaming his many opponents.

When you disarm the people, you commence to offend them and show that you distrust them either through cowardice or lack of confidence, and both of these opinions generate hatred.     – Machiavelli

Does your organization have an autocratic leader?

Some leaders are right for their time. Thatcher seems to have been around when Britain needed to change and no one else seemed capable of making it happen. But, by the end of her term, her autocratic ways had run their course and she’d lost her relevancy (it could not occur to her that pushing for the invasion of Iraq to eliminate Saddam Hussein, a totalitarian murderous leader, was inconsistent with supporting Chile’s equally totalitarian and murderous Pinochet).

So, we sometimes need autocratic leaders – countries and companies – to break the status quo. In a democracy, they have to be ruthless in order to break the existing outdated ‘rules’.

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.      – Machiavelli

These leaders are almost always: a) visibly successful on a short to mid-term basis; b) oblivious to any incidental harm they cause; c) make many bad decisions; d) can’t see the tide of opposition that eventually rises to defeat them.

Many would argue that Canada’s Stephen Harper’s recent Senate scandal denial demonstrates many of the same characteristics.

Sadly, opponents of autocratic leaders refuse to listen to any change proposed and fight to preserve their status quo. In doing so, they hand the keys for change to the autocrats who get even more intransigent and obnoxious. The autocrat’s mind’s been made up. Pissing them off only concretizes their position. Opposition protest clarifies their cause.

What can the ‘opponents’ do … other than patiently wait for the autocrat to run their course? What does an organization need to do when an autocrat takes over?

Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.               ­ Machiavelli

Listen actively and first have them ask themselves:

What is it that the autocrats actually want?

What’s the bigger goal? Setting aside our distaste for them, what are they saying that makes sense?

Suppose the autocrat is correct about their cause, what elements of it will be useful to us?

If we recognize that, what can we negotiate with them to modify? 

Before all else, be armed.                   Machiavelli

Given autocrats don’t listen, what can we do help them get their way in a slightly more efficient fashion, less damaging way? Ask them:

Assume that your opponents have something in common with you. What is that?

How can you achieve what you believe is right and not cause collateral damage just to prove you’re right?

What is it that you want in the long term for which you’ll be remembered?

What are the principles you espouse that will be useful to people in the long run?

What benefits in your proposal are useful to everyone?

Will these questions make a big difference? No.   Will they make the transition a little less painful and reduce collateral damage? Probably.

Will it help the opposition make more sense of what’s happening and therefore enable themselves to oppose more effectively? Yes. 

It’s not about fighting fire with fire. It’s about thinking to yourself, ‘What would Machiavelli say about this and how can we make sense of what’s going on?’

Do you have an autocrat in your organization?

How do you work with them to minimize damage?

Alan Kay is a Solution Focused change management practitioner. Clients say about his work: ‘Alan gets people to do things.’   ‘Alan helps organizations fulfill their potential – the work results in clear stretch strategic objectives fleshed out with practical action plans.’ ‘Alan has helped us transform our organization. He is an outstanding teacher, facilitator and coach.’ 

Solution Focused dialogue via disagreement at the ‘Kitchen Table’

How do you make sense of negative dialogue during strategic planning?

Changing the dialogue at the Kitchen Table

During a strategic planning project the client agreed to roundtable dialogue sessions. The organization was successful, but elements of its old culture made change difficult. We decided on three groups of roundtables: the customers, distributors and staff. In all three areas the client was worried that there would be disagreement and negativity. Hence, the use of ‘Kitchen table’ dialogue to overcome the negative perceptions.

My colleague Coert Visser kindly a blog that examines this interesting case where the organization had thought there was disagreement and resistance to change, and instead they created purposeful dialogue and progress.

Click here to view case

How do you handle negative dialogue in your organization?

More on ‘Kitchen table’ dialogue



Six ways to banish monkeys from meetings

It’s a productivity issue, not just a matter of either bursting blood vessels or falling asleep over time-wasting meetings.

But first, you know these meeting behaviours, don’t you?

Still, win-win, collaborative meetings do not need to be a feel-good fantasy!

They are entirely within your reach

Just try one of these recipes in the book Monkey-Free Meetings.

Not only do you get…

Meeting Tenderizer: Soften up your prospective client and make a sale without being an expert sales person.

Meeting Resuscitator: When you want to make sure your organization will implement the plan.

Teams at War: Get the angry / frustrated / in-denial teams collaborating before that next big meeting.

The Roundtable Model: Maximize the thinking of the organization in an alternative and highly productive meeting framework.

Better First Impressions: Ask questions to show your listening skills in your first meeting with a client, your new boss, or that important networking meeting.

Questions to Move People off Problem Monkeys: Become the master of asking questions that chase the monkeys out of the meeting room.

But also…

Email templates for pre-session input, Win-Win scenario set-up tools, Agenda templates, Action plan templates, Cheat sheet questions, and much more.

The outcome of your investment:

Will this make you a meeting hero over night? Possibly!

Will this demonstrate to people that you are leader in running productive meetings? Yes!

Download a free preview of the book’s introduction section here

14 Ways to Co-create a Strategic Framework and Get Buy-in

Having trouble making sense of the strategy everyone bought into a year ago? Wondering if the organization isn’t equipped for the challenges you face?

Some say that culture eats strategy for lunch suggesting that the two are mutually exclusive and that one is superior. Under pressure for being touchy-feely, culture fans like to strike out at strategy as being rigid and unbending in the face of constant change.

How about we see them as twins rather than opponents?

How about co-creating strategy so that organizational buy-in happens as you proceed and organizational culture is supported?

Here’s an approach that many clients have successfully utilized:

Take the longer view that the new overall strategic framework will take some time to be fully realized.

Work with the notion that the new strategy must be proactive and innovative to meet ever-evolving, and usually unknowable, needs and change.

Understand that the plan is a beginning point / framework and that the outcomes, over time, will likely be influenced by other emergent forces.

Create a stronger sense of opportunity and accountability to collaborate among the organization and help make the new strategy work despite the unknowns.

Use dialogue sessions to come to an initial common understanding of the larger needs of both the organization and key partner / stakeholder groups (including the customer).

Understand and leverage the team’s capability to influence and enable change. Help them by focusing on solutions, not the SWOT analysis.

Move away from the perspective of silos and reactive work-arounds.

Understand the value of building a business case that enables decision- making; making decisions about the unknown are critical to progress.

Seek participatory dialogue and insights from the key partner / stakeholders.

Leverage candor and transparency – challenging the status quo leads to better ideas.

Ensure a focused and dynamic planning dialogue so that it can be distilled into a comprehensive plan.

Ensure that operational planning can be undertaken following the plan’s approval.

Work on the basis that change begins within the planning work, not once the plan is approved.

Create early ideas for action (test and learn, small wins) that will be visibly useful to all.

Solution focus: an enabler of strong strategic frameworks.


Leaders: 12 ways to ask better questions in 2013

Wondering why last year, good things happened but your performance was just ‘OK’? Was it because many of the things that needed to change remained unchanged?

It’s not leadership style. It’s the questions.

Wondering how to leverage your leadership style in a more productive way?

Wondering how you might better lead in letting your people to make the change happen?

Have you considered…

Changing the way you ask your questions?

Asking people not to bring you their problems, but to bring you their solutions instead?

Not addressing people’s questions with your own solutions?

Helping people clarify the problem by asking what they want to be different?

Asking people to think about the solution they want to create and own?

Being candid – saying difficult things and motivating people to get something done?

Acknowledging people’s idea and asking how it will be, a) useful to others, and b) how they plan to collaborate on the implementation?

Asking how to make people’s ideas fit within the strategy that others are working on?

Getting people to think about the outcomes for their solutions, not just the tactics?

Asking for solutions beyond people’s silos that will work for the customer?

Acting as a coach or mentor vs. a prescriber?

Support people in developing their own productive solutions by asking…

What’s worked until now?

What do you plan to do differently?

What small steps do you see yourself taking to make progress?

In support of this solution focused approach to better questions … change our assumptions about change (Coert Visser)…

If you’d like to help people run better meetings at which these questions are used to help make them be better engaged, productive and creating solutions, try my book Monkey-Free Meetings

“I’ve tried Kay’s Solution-Focus approach in a couple of cauldrons – Operationally, and Board-level Strategic Planning – and it never fails as a remedy against the paralysis of problem-indulgence.” Ray Verdon, Board Director, Canada


What’s your communication tool for strategic change?

Frequent and open communication: the #2 best practice in change management

Here’s a tool to create powerful change communication, namely The Roundtable, a la ‘Kitchentable Conversation,’ as explained by Rick Wolfe of PostStone in a recent interview:

“I’ve simply tried to make our business conversations as much like a real life conversation as much as possible. The phrase that we usually use is to just call it a “kitchen table conversation.”

I would put a kitchen table, roundtable, at the very centre of change management. I think it’s a more efficient and effective tool than most of the other change tools available because it lets us strip away what isn’t important and really zero in on our conversation with each other on the things that are important.

One of the key purposes of kitchen table conversations is to be preparing the ground for action to understand what resources are going to be needed to make that action happen, and to make sure those resources are available. To understand what kind of commitments are going to be needed and to know what steps need to take place so that those commitments can be agreed.

I love its reliability. I love its power. Time and time again, when you sit down at the table and ask people a big question that they find to be an exciting question, you can be really confident that some wonderful answers are going to come out of it, and that if you ask people in a respectful way, they’re going to take action based on those credentials.

A kitchen table is that place where we let our guard down, where we really listen to people, where we really share with people, where we disagree with people not because we think they’re wrong, we disagree with them because we know that by really wrestling with the issues together, we can arrive at the truth.

The kitchen table conversation succeeds because of hospitality. And the host always has a special responsibility to make sure that the guests at the table feel that they’re… that this is a hospitable place.

You have to make sure that the shy people get a chance to get a word in, but those people who are larger than life are looking for you to help them tone it down – and I mean that quite seriously. All the larger than life people I’ve ever met loved people and they just get carried away and need a bit of help to know that. They need more feedback than the rest of us do to make sure that they leave room for the rest of us to be in the conversation.

People like wrestling at the kitchen table. That’s one of the reasons we come to the kitchen table, for a good rambunctious, lively, laughter-filled conversation.

I think that organizations would be able to move with more speed, that they would be more adaptable, more flexible, that even though they were moving with more speed, that the people on the team would be having more fun.”

Rick Wolfe of PostStone is a management consultant. Companies bring him in to help them find answers to big questions and turn those answers into action.

For a solution focused perspective on using the kitchen table for dynamic dialogue, here’s a case on asking the right questions


Why ask better questions!

I put this challenge out to all my worthy colleagues in the consulting business.
Digging into your client’s problem won’t help clients find solutions that work for them.

To clients who use consultants I say…
When you let your consultants dig endlessly into the problem, they won’t easily get you the solutions you need.

Video ‘challenge’ below:

A Solution Focus Challenge

The solution is in asking better questions.

Four Quotes to Juice up Your Change Project

Wondering why your change project isn’t going as planned? Here’s few insights on making sustainable progress…starting with the quotes.

  • ‘A powerful question alters all thinking and behaving that occurs afterwards.” Marilee Goldberg
  • ‘Change is happening all the time. Our role is to identify useful change and amplify it.’ Gregory Bateson
  • ‘The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.’ William James
  • ‘People are trying to collaborate all the time…just not each other’s way’ Jim Duval

Tell me more, I hear you saying…

  • ‘A powerful question alters all thinking and behaving that occurs afterwards.”

In Solution Focus we call them ‘better questions’. For better change management questions, see below.

  • ‘Change is happening all the time. Our role is to identify useful change and amplify it.’

Resisters, (let’s call them traditionalists) have always previously engaged in change – they just don’t fully realize it. So, we can ask them, ‘When you achieved change on (project name) in the past, what worked?’ This helps them self-identify their under-utilized change skills. The leader then asks, ‘Suppose we used those skills on our new change project, what would happen?’

  • ‘The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.’

Humans are experts in telling you about the problems that prevent them from making progress, and it’s usually the other person. Overlooking the problem conversation is often difficult, but when we do we can ask, ‘So, what would you like to do instead?’, or “If the problem went away, what would be happening?” Their answers start to define what they want, i.e., their goal

  • ‘People are trying to collaborate all the time…just not each other’s way’

Organizations are full of people trying to collaborate, but because they have only a few shared goals (usually elusive), and many diverse goals, they appear to be in conflict with each other. They are using their own unique collaboration model, not a shared one. So, try this question, ‘Suppose we achieve (shared goal), what will we be doing to achieve that?’ and ‘How will that be useful in achieving the goal?’

Points to remember when you use these questions

  • Ask not tell (listen!)
  • Remember they are the expert not you
  • You do not need to have all the answers
  • Find the resources and small steps will follow
  • Enable people to realize and own the choices they have

Thanks to my colleague Mark McKergow for introducing me to the first three quotes and for framing the points to remember

More on Solution Focus