Human brain made ​​with hands © Angelo Cordeschi

Managers are facing similar challenges but in different realities: they use different solutions

The HR governance meeting was taking place six weeks after Maria was promoted HR director of the local subsidiary of a global software company. She was confronted with a major challenge: prepare a reorganization of some HR functions, with local HR headcount reduction, imposed by central HR. It was a rather effective action meeting: all agenda points of changes in roles/responsibilities between the different HR departments were covered quite rapidly with short-term actions, except one! But a big one: Central HR had rolled out changes to HR systems to increase the degree of “self-service”, (and help reduce local HR headcount) but the risks of serious errors and rework due to insufficient input validation seemed high. So the 3 concerned HR departments decided to look further into this potential challenge before deciding how to change the impacted HR processes to reduce the headcount. Maria was worried because it was the key agenda point for implementing the imposed HR headcount reduction and despite 3 preparation meetings, the HR management team did not seem to be able to make serious progress.

“More results with less resources” is one of these challenges all managers do face regularly. But each manager is immersed in a different reality! To progress in the example above, Maria has little to expect from management recipes which are based on the principle that similar challenges should lead to similar solutions with similar implementation paths. This principle is deeply embedded into the western management psyche because we tend to overestimate the impact of management action on outcomes versus the impact of the context, the reality around a management challenge. But we do all know from our concrete work experience as managers that this principle is often an illusion. Yes, we do have similar challenges, but good solutions to my current management challenge are a mix between:

  1. the good practices I can access via Internet/books/trainings/videos…

  2. the practical experiences of other managers faced with a similar challenge

  3. the specificities of my reality around this challenge

  4. my capacity to think creatively at the moment when I am designing a solution to this challenge

As managers, we have easy access to information/support for point 1 above, but we rarely have access to the 3 other dimensions at the same time: collective intelligence!

To benefit from collective intelligence requires deep listening

Maria was fighting the mild frustration invading her while she was listening to her peers discussing between them her HR headcount reduction challenge. She only had a few minutes to explain the challenge to the other directors and answer their questions when the facilitator asked her to turn her back and listen to them without a word or gesture. And now they were exploring her challenge and possible solutions, but there was nothing new for her, nothing really interesting! She wanted to intervene to help them, guide them but she was forced to listen. After a few minutes she began to mentally accept the process: could she learn something by hearing the other directors in the country management team: her “internal clients”? This question slowly eclipsed her thoughts and judgments about the perceived short-term value of their solutions. Now she was openly and deeply listening to their viewpoints, logic and intentions.

To progress as a junior/middle manager, we are generally faced with “technical” (in our field) challenges and evaluated on our capacity:

  • to decide
  • to persuade our teams to act accordingly
  • to take corrective actions when needed

As we reach the middle/senior manager levels, the complexity and the human dimension of the challenges grows and we need to master new skills:

  • to help (direct) reports take the right decisions
  • to influence peers, bosses and (direct) reports to cooperate towards common goals
  • to anticipate corrective action before it is needed

And deep or active listening is a great foundation for these skills1.

And their conversation turned slowly but surely from HR resource reduction to HR service portfolio change: the HR service needs of the directors and of middle management, the current HR service issues/gaps/“easy” improvements, the opportunities and risks of HR management “self-service”, the process HR should follow to mobilize the line managers to design a better and leaner HR service portfolio… And even how each of them was ready to help her and her team succeed this HR service portfolio change! By now, the frustration was replaced by deep curiosity and the emergence of a sense of direction for dealing with her challenge.

So how can we develop deep listening while finding creative solutions to our management challenges?

The Peer support group process creates collective intelligence and mutual support

Peer support group is a process which you can use at any time to gain new insights, perspectives and suggestions from your peers for a challenge you are facing. It is particularly helpful when you feel ‘stuck’ or that you are struggling to find new ways to deal with a challenge.


Challenge: this must be a real, pressing, current and concrete challenge for the challenge owner

Challenge owner: the person ultimately responsible for progressing the challenge and bringing it to resolution..

Group: a group of 4-7 peers who are prepared to invest time to help the challenge owner with this process.

Facilitator: Peer support group is a process. It works best when there is a designated facilitator who will ensure that the steps and time lines are followed by the participants. The facilitator can be a member of the group.

Participants: group members (excluding the challenge owner and the facilitator) who focus on helping the challenge owner to broaden his/her perspectives on the challenge. The participants use open questions and suggestions: they do NOT insist that their perspective or recommendation(s) would be “right” ! The participants contribute to the collective progress by:

  • using active listening and open question
  • using concise answers: if other participants need more information, they will ask (open) questions!
  • building on each other arguments instead of frequently changing subjects

Open Question: a question we cannot answer just with yes or no (or one word / number): which allows to develop its opinion as a response. Example:

  • “What have you already tried to solve this challenge?” Is an open question
  • “Have you ever tried the technique X to solve this challenge?” Is a closed question

The process

It takes +/- 40 minutes. Allow between 5 and 10 minutes for the introduction of the process with a new group.

. Description of step Length (total)
0 If an introduction to the Peer support group process is needed: the facilitator ensures that each step is understood and that the roles of facilitator and participant are clear to group (you could provide each participant with a copy of this document). The facilitator then helps the participants to follow the steps and to respect the suggested timings. 5-10
1 The challenge owner introduces his / her challenge to the participants in a maximum of 2 minutes. 2 (02)
2 The participants ask open questions to clarify the challenge, its context, what the challenge owner has already done… The facilitator ensures that the participants do not discuss the challenge or offer any suggestions / recommendations at this time. 5 (07)
3 The challenge owner turns his/her back to the group and listens while the participants hold a conversation about the challenge. At no point does the challenge owner become involved in the conversation or respond to any aspect of the conversation. The *challenge owner*’s only role in this step is to listen. The facilitator helps the participants to have an effective conversation to explore the challenge context, the position of the challenge owner and then possible approaches. The facilitator ensures that they use as many open questions as possible and they listen to each other without allowing any individual to monopolise the conversation. 20(27)
4 The challenge owner turns back to face the group. Each participant in turn offers a suggestion to the challenge owner relating to the specific challenge. The challenge owner listens, may takes notes and can only ask clarifying questions. No discussion of any suggestions is permitted at this time. 4 (31)
5 The challenge owner may (if desired) take up to 2 minutes of quiet reflection time to absorb the suggestions from the participants and to choose an approach for the challenge. 2 (33)
6 The challenge owner shares with the participants the approach which (s)he has decided to take 4 (37)
7 Each participant in turn offers a final suggestion to the challenge owner on how to refine and improve the effectiveness of the approach which (s)he / she has decided to take. 3 (40)

  1. Rock David (2006). Quiet Leadership. HarperCollins [return]