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  • Writer's pictureHelen Frewin

Between a Rock & Hard Place

I keep seeing reference to this FT article on Linkedin – it certainly seems to have struck a chord for many managers and the HR teams supporting them.

Between a rock and a hard place.

I’m stuck in the middle.

I’m feeling pressure from all sides.

These are common phrases we say and hear, and the feeling is of being stuck, perhaps a victim of circumstance.

I remember working in a company where I had pressure from four different brands to focus on competing priorities. What could I say to my team about the direction we should take given all that confusion? Who could I ask for clarity? And as the team pushed back to me on how ridiculous the situation was, what could I do about it?

What is helpful thinking in such situations? What can we do to think differently and find a way through the fog?

This is where taking a moment to stop and think makes all the difference. Rising above the fog for a moment to look at the situation and see what ways through there may be.

If you’re facing a situation like this, have a play with the following questions and see what ideas come to mind…

What is it exactly that I’m finding difficult?

Clarifying this can both help you see what the issues are, and help create some distance between you and those challenges. This is more helpful than asking “why am I finding this so hard?” as that drives into justifying, or worst, criticising ourselves for finding the situation difficult.

What else is going on?

Taking a step out of the detail and looking at the broader context can help us see the bigger picture, which can sometimes reveal immediate ideas for making things better. For example, in my situation with the four brands and their competing priorities, when I took that step back and looked at the context, each brand was facing similar challenges. Could I help them see their common ground?

What are we aiming for?

Similar to the point above, this question takes us out of problem mode and more towards goal-setting and getting back to the root of why we’re doing all this stuff anyway. Maybe it’s business objectives you look at, or maybe a broader piece about delivering results, keeping a team engaged and keeping customers happy. Again this focus on common ground with more senior leaders who are putting the pressure on, can be helpful for influencing them. We could talk to those senior stakeholders about what we are all aiming for, and what might be the best ways to achieve it.

I’m seeing a common trend across so many businesses of expecting the momentum and pace of change that was critical at the start of the pandemic, to continue endlessly. That is not possible. Crisis responses are not sustainable. We do them in a crisis, then we have a time to breathe, reassess and choose how we continue.

How might the questions above help you challenge ways of working and influence stakeholders to consider what needs to change? Of course the natural follow-on questions to all of that thinking are:

Given all of that, what are some things I personally can change, that could help me? Focusing on what we control is always a powerful starting point, because we start to feel less like a victim.

What could I influence my stakeholders on? How might I start that conversation? Realising this will probably not be one conversation, but a series of them is helpful in reducing the pressure. You are trying to change everything in one conversation, but begin the journey.

All of these are of course classic coaching questions, so if you are coaching middle managers struggling with the pressures described in the FT article, have a go with these questions too. And if you’d like any support with coaching yourself, or training your team to build their coaching skills, let’s have a chat.

All the best,



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