WE CAN’T FIX OTHER PEOPLE

There are a series of dramatic and powerful scenes in the movie “When a Man Loves a Woman” in which a wife played by Meg Ryan, having just returned from an alcoholic rehab program, is struggling to work through the road ahead with her airline pilot husband played by Andy Garcia.

During years of his wife’s alcoholic binges, Andy’s character has had to frequently pick up the pieces, cover for her miss-steps, and struggle to hold the family together.  It is a role that gives him a sense of value and so he has done his level best as a family provider and loving husband, to fix things. Old habits die hard, yet now — post rehab –it is the last thing his wife needs him to do. How angry and frustrated he feels when his wife informs him that every time he attempts to fix things and clean up a mess, it only makes her feel more worthless, less able to cope, and ever more depressed.  She must now find her own way to emotional health even if it means their marriage.

I will let you watch the movie for yourself — assuming you haven’t seen it — to discover the ending.  The painful point of the entire movie, however, is that people have to fix themselves, regardless of the well-meaning, often loving attempts of others to do it for them.

All of us who have managed can probably recall a time when we felt that irresistible urge to jump right into someone else’s problem in an attempt to provide them with a solution. Perhaps, based upon our own experience, we were absolutely confident that we knew what was best and were only trying to help.  But the hard truth remains that what we think is only relevant if others are open to our suggestions and not inclined to interpret our interventions as a sign of their own inadequacy.  Our views will represent a potential fix, only if they are willing to adopt our advice as their own.

Still I believe every manager can play three critical roles in helping a subordinate, colleague, or superior fix something that work demands necessitate be fixed.

First, the best managers are those who can help a colleague — subordinate or otherwise — acknowledge, confront, and own a problem or issue that is demonstrably impeding their successful performance at work. This may involve a difficult and emotional conversation but the first step in the fixing process is always the acknowledgement that “I have something that must be fixed”. And since it is often true that no good deed goes unpunished, it is wise to reflect on the wisdom of Mother Teresa who noted  that “people who really need your help may attack you if you help them; help them anyway,” she advised.

Second, a manager’s experience and organizational knowledge can often be highly valuable in providing a road map of steps, sources of assistance, and other resources available to assist a colleague in addressing a problem or issue once acknowledged.  Here it is important to avoid the temptation to prescribe, in favor of providing a menu of choices and options for your colleague to adopt.  The emotional difficulty involved for many in simply acknowledging the need to confront a problem, often clouds the thinking process needed for taking corrective steps.  A road map of resources, options, and choices can serve as vital information and a catalyst for action.

Finally, Rome indeed wasn’t built-in a day.  As a manager and authority figure, demonstrating patience and showing support for a subordinate or colleague who is actively addressing a problem or issue can provide vital encouragement, especially when the process of change will be a lengthy and difficult one,  The best managers understand the importance of standing by and assisting someone who has the maturity and willingness to confront a problem and do something about it.  Your support is a sign of your confidence that their efforts will succeed and can make a big difference.

Now if you have not seen “When a Man Loves a Woman”, you might want to find out how Andy Garcia’ s character coped with his challenge.

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