Example: Jason was a junior developer who described himself as a geeky programmer. He had graduated three years early–a child genius–but didn't know how to navigate people. But he really wanted to develop his relational intelligence and was determined to work on how to relate to people below and above him more effectively. He was most competent behind screens, but most fulfilled when he was mentoring and taking the lead on projects.
His company had just secured a new round of funding, so it was chaotic, growing fast, with unclear reporting structures. His only barrier to the next level was his manager Cheryl. She had never done a performance review for him despite Jason requesting it several times. She just told him casually in passing he was doing great, no complaints. He thought Cheryl was incompetent, but he needed her approval to get a promotion. He finally got her to agree to a one/one. He prepared for this meeting like a dissertation. I helped him think through all the possible questions she might ask, he did charts showing work flows pointing out where he had contributed and where he saw opportunities for his team. He listed the leadership courses he was personally paying for including enrolling in a Thinking Partnership agreement with me. It was one of the most thorough displays of personal and professional development I had ever seen. He was proactively putting himself out there in a way most companies would love.
In short the meeting was a disaster–Cheryl was completely disinterested and her incompetence proved out. Jason called me afterwards feeling deflated and hopeless. I asked him to pause, and asked, "Did you go all in to prepare for the meeting you wanted to have, and were you proud of your efforts?" He agreed grudgingly, to which I then added, "While it didn't produce the result you wanted, you have to respect yourself for the amount of work you did."
Slowly he came to see how this wasn't his failure but his manager who had failed him.
So we looked for alternative routes that could grow his capacity and trust in himself to influence his own future. His written communication was strong as was his desire to succeed. He chose to send an email directly to the new head of HR, saying nothing about Cheryl's incompetence, but rather along the lines of, "Sorry I didn't get a chance to meet you, I wanted to share what I had prepared and my hopes for my future at this company." The head of HR approached him the next day and told him how much she appreciated the thoroughness of his plan, and asked how the review with his manager went. In confidence he shared what happened.
Three weeks later he hadn't heard anything, but had continued to apply himself to creating his own future as fervently as before. Four weeks later the HR manager called him in and he was promoted.
The artist David Salle once said in an interview, "I have to get lost so I can invent some way to get out." And I have found this to be true over and over again in working with people. The challenge is when we are lost, we often aren't thinking creatively of how to get out; we are stuck in fear and despair. These are the best questions I know to help us find a way out.
What can I learn from this?
How can I grow my capacity?
How can I do this better?