Peeling The Onion…

Did this title really bring you here?  I’m guessing it wasn’t because you thought I would teach you how to correctly peel an onion with out crying.  (Although I know how to do that as well.)  

You’ve no doubt heard the expression “peeling the onion” back farther to reveal a deeper underlying root cause, instead of just the surface symptoms. Or, perhaps we venture out in life being very good at “peeling the onion,” by asking why, and why, and then why again, until we have gone as deep as we can go in getting answers.  

My Grandson Mason mastered this technique.  Mason, don’t run down the stairs, I would yell.   Why not Run Grandpa?  Because you’ll fall and get hurt.  Why fall Grandpa?  Because your legs are too short for the stair height.  Why legs so short Grandpa?  Because you’re only 3 years old Mason.  Why 3 Grandpa?  Whew…by this time he was down the stairs safely, but I was worn out.  He won.
As adults, and as Leaders we need reminders that many situations warrant digging deeper than others typically do. In today’s high speed technology driven world of diverse people and generations, we often feel pressured to “finish” one task and quickly move on to another.
Why is Tom failing Debbie asked me?  He seemed perfect when we hired him.  He has a good undergraduate degree, and an MBA from the best business school in the Midwest.  Tom’s 10 years experience in very specifically related tasks seemed to qualify him well.  His references all checked out.  The onion skin had now been broken and peeled back, revealing a very shiny aubergine layer.
How has Tom done in his first year, I asked?  Well, you know, it is the honeymoon time being new on the job, and the markets have been really tough.  And then we lost a big client.   But I thought Tom was doing pretty well, until…Now the second layer of the onion was about to be pulled away.  A subtle symptom of a failing employee fell to the floor. 
Well, until one of our key employees began to complain.  Now I really trust Barb.  She’s a legacy employee.  She’s loyal, and smart, and has no reason to make things up, so I listened Debbie said.  Barb told me Tom had not been truthful on performance reviews.  Everyone was getting a similar above average rating.  Another layer of the onion fell away.
When Debbie subsequently asked Tom about the performance reviews, Tom was a bit uncomfortable, and seemed to have a pretty good answer to every question.  It didn’t add up to Barbs concern.  Another layer came away.
Debbie carefully peeled away yet another layer of not so subtle symptoms, and reviewed all the performance appraisals herself.  Barb was correct.  These are all vanilla.  Tom was lying to me, Debbie thought to herself.
When Tom came in Barbs office, he could see the reviews stacked on Debbie’s desk.  He knew the topic of the hour.  Debbie began her questions.  but this time she was prepared.  She had peeled enough layers of the onion away to be near the truth.  After the normal course of who, what, where, when, and how questions, Tom was as worn out as Grandpa was from Mason.
Debbie told me how pleased she was to have continued to probe, peeling the onion to discover the truth about Tom’s failing performance.  Now, she wanted advice about what to do next with Tom.  She was prepared to fire him.
I asked her to peel the onion even further.  After peeling away the final layers, and taking a closer look, and Debbie summarized she discovered Tom had supervised people before, but not such a diverse work force as this.  At his previous employer, the culture was quite easy going and laid back, while here, we are driven and accountable to metrics and goals.  And, when finally arriving at a place of personal trust with Tom, he confided, that he had an aversion to conflict.  
Debbie had now found the core of the onion.  If Tom could receive some help understanding the rules of engagement within this culture of accountability, and learn to use the available tools to manage conflict, he just might be come a better manager.  
So it really wasn’t about Tom failing to document performance.  It was about her own failure to assess and recognize the culture differences and conflict aversion issues Tom has had all along in his career.  She had focused on the last of the “C”’s (Craft), and missed the Core and Character “C”’s in the hiring process.  [see “Hiring Up” http://bit.ly/gdPQvG from March 22, 2010]
The Rare Leader™ today must accept the Ambiguity of the workplace.  Knowing when and how to peel back the onion at the same time as juggling lots of balls while maintaining focus, will help to view micro and macro details fitting into the big picture.  
And sometimes, when we peel back the onion, we need to realize we find ourselves at the core.
  1. Who is at the core of the onion in your conflict?
  2. What can you do to make certain you have peeled away every layer of the onion?
  3. Where can you discover the onion in an issue facing you?
  4. When will you begin to peeling the onion to discover core issues?
  5. How can you learn the skill of peeling the onion?
If you want to learn more about the Rare Leader™ in you, 
or if you are interested in retaining Steve as your Executive Coach, 
Contact Steve Riege via: twitter, or his website.

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