Counseling and Consultation for Managers

6 min read

According to RedThread Research, “Over the past 3 years, managers have taken on incredible loads: from the emotional strains of the pandemic to the challenges of social unrest, the loneliness of remote working, and the fear and difficulties of returning to the office.” It’s no surprise, therefore, that according to their research managers are “less engaged and effective.” It’s also no surprise that a variety of mental health issues are showing up in boardrooms across the country in alarming numbers.

As a clinical manager of an employee assistance program (EAP), I often take calls from managers at all levels across a myriad of industries. While the reasons for these calls range from employee conflict, critical incident response, work-group issues, difficult employees, etc., the subtext of these consultations is the stress managers experience in their roles as problem solvers.

Unlike my counseling work, where the power dynamic is tilted toward the therapist, the consultant role is as an advisor who sits as an out-of-the-loop peer, joining in a collegial collaboration, where the manager directly influences the course the sessions take. Given the demands placed on leaders as they try to navigate the shifting workplace landscapes, these meetings often blur the lines between counseling and consultation, as weary managers seek to enhance their skills and ease their minds.

Crucial to a successful encounter is the realization that regardless of why the manager is reaching out, at some point his or her leadership skills will either become a background concern or the elephant in the room. This is a critical moment in the process, which, if mishandled, can lead to defensiveness and undermine the impact of a consultative relationship. Handled with care, it will lead to what in counseling sessions is an “aha moment” of awareness.

Questions to ask managers

Questions that will increase the chances that a manager is feeling supported and coached as opposed to evaluated and judged include the following:

  • Did you come from within or without?

Many managers experience pushback from workgroups due to the, “you aren’t one of us,” syndrome. Conversely, being an insider brings with it old relationships, preconceived perceptions of one’s management style, and a familiarity that often breeds contempt.

  • Did you come up through the ranks?

The inevitable whispers of “why you and not me,” or the equally challenging, “you’re still one of us,” can present major headaches for a manager trying to assert newly won authority over a reluctant and/or passive-aggressive work group.

  • Did you inherit someone else’s problems?

Many managers are brought in as fixers for the mistakes of others. This often leads to a “no good deed goes unpunished” feeling, as the tough calls made are often met with resistance and reminders of what happened to the last manager who tried to change things.

  • How many toxic people do you have?

No matter how skilled, a manager’s best efforts will fall flat unless he or she has identified a plan for dealing with those employees whose primary goals are sabotage and chaos.

  • Do you have the support of your leaders?

It’s imperative that managers know that the people who have their backs are not trying to push them off the plank. Fostering relationships with those who sit on the higher rungs of the company ladder is key to maintaining sanity.

Things for managers to avoid

To solidify the gains made by offering a mix of active listening, feedback, and instruction, I suggest they avoid the following:

Take a dysfunctional team to a ropes course, bowling, or Escape Room and they will still be a dysfunctional team when they return to work. As pointed out in a 2018 article in the Harvard Business Review, efforts to build work relationships in this manner often foster “embarrassment and cynicism” and not group cohesion.

To some degree everyone has grown up in a dysfunctional family, so why would we want to recreate this experience at work? Additionally, one’s real family may not appreciate the, “Sorry, I am at the office,” excuse for his or her absence at home.

Surveys of all kinds are notorious for being skewed depending on the mood of the respondents at the time of the survey. If only disgruntled workers complete them, they might as well be called dissatisfaction surveys.

Many managers will turn to studies of how their people use their time at work when they have run out of ideas. Asking an employee who already feels that there are not enough hours in the day to complete their tasks to do a time analysis will most likely be met with the eye roll response of “Where will I find time for that?”

Mantras like “think outside the box” or “work smarter, not harder” often miss their mark and the message received is that one’s manager is grasping at straws.

Pearls of wisdom for managers

While psychotherapy clients are often warned that counseling may initially bring on more pain and take time to experience results — thus, the drop-out rate in many therapy sessions — consultations require a certain level of a quick fix. Problems in the workplace have deep, intertwined roots, and most managers are simply looking for viable solutions for enhancing workflow and not profound personal insights. The pearls of wisdom shared need to be grounded in reality and easily understood. Some of these include:

They’re not problem children, they’re problem adults. While many adults do in fact show up for work carrying leftover baggage from childhood, a manager who lowers him or herself to dealing with employees like children runs the risk of those employees taking their toys and going home out of frustration.

It’s not you unless it is. Most people enter adulthood with unresolved authority issues and will always be at odds with those with power. Personality clashes are an occupational hazard and not a sign of a manager’s incompetence. That being said, when managers refuse to be leaders, they may find themselves overusing the carrots and sticks of influence only to find that nothing they do is good enough.

Supervise others, manage yourself. Unhealthy managers do not normally produce healthy workers. Managers who do not practice self-care set the example that dysfunction is the norm and will be hard-pressed to find a worthy candidate for employee of the year.

Be an employee whisperer. The old-school, pound the desk, red-faced, leader who used fear and intimidation to motivate is a relic of the past. Calm and assertive not only wins the day, but it also gives managers more weight when they must lean in on an issue and keeps their personal stress meter from staying out of the danger zone.

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