I must admit, I sometimes deliberately, and probably more often unknowingly, provoke my clients to help them think differently about leadership and how they can help their organizations adapt to the challenges of the 21st century. Recently, it was my turn to be provoked when I started reading the book Fatal Management (original Danish title: Livsfarlig Ledelse) by Christian Ørsted (@orsted).

In this bestselling book, Christian challenges some of the myths surrounding performance management, motivation, coaching, and personal development. Using several horrifying examples (including the Enron scandal and the Japanese Kamikaze pilot selection process during the second World War), Christian argues that modern management dogmas can have a fatal impact on people’s health and wellbeing.

Can Coaching be Fatal?

A modern management practice examined in Fatal Management is coaching. Coaching has swept across the business landscape like wildfire for the past 10-15 years and for good reasons. Coaching, when done right, can be a very powerful way to provide positive support, feedback, and advice to help an individual increase personal effectiveness. However, what if coaching is done wrong or for the wrong reasons? Can coaching then be lethal? According to Christian, it can.

This happens when managers, and/or coaches, cross the line between professional work-related coaching and personal coaching. When a manager, starts asking questions like: “Would you be happy with what you have accomplished in life, if you died today?”, “Have you accomplished what you dreamed of?”, or “What is your excuse for not giving it your fullest?” Questions like these can make the person being coached feel guilty, ashamed, and bad about themselves. Such coaching is manipulative and dangerous because it builds on an assumption that the problem is with the person being coached. This form of coaching often motivates the person being coached to try even harder and work more. However, what if the problem is unsolvable on an individual level in the first place? What if the problem, and thus the solution, is with the system and not the individual?

Beyond Fatal Management

Most importantly, I think managers need to understand how the systems of the organization impact the potential performance of the individual employee.  One of the titans of modern management thinking, W. Edwards Deming, said:

Everyone is already doing their best; the problems are with the system … only management can change the system.

On a general scale, I deeply believe this is true. Sure, you can find a slacker or two out there, but I believe most disengaged employees are a product of the system. Think about new graduates just entering the workforce as an example. They start out full of ambitions, drive, and dreams about changing the world and making an impactful contribution. The old guards often roll their eyes overbearingly and label them as naïve or cocky. Surely, for each no they get or obstacle they run into, they lick their wounds and adapt to comply with the “corporate life”. Surely, it doesn’t have to be like that? Yes, you can call me naïve too.

Specifically, on coaching, managers and coaches need to be aware of how powerful a psychological tool coaching can be and stick strictly to coaching on professional matters. They also need to understand how their position of authority can influence the person being coached. Where you can walk out on a professional coach you have selected and is paying for personally, it’s much harder to tell a boss that he has crossed the boundaries between professional and personal life.

Final Thoughts

Having the very popular title of ‘coach’ on my business card and with a career in leadership positions, it was hard not to feel slightly provoked when I first picked up Fatal Management. Now, having read the book, I find myself largely agreeing with Christian.

The book is an easy read with great and “entertaining” examples. As of this writing, it’s unfortunately only available in Danish, which is a shame, because it provides food for thought on management issues that, unfortunately, are universalAs always, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Have you experienced fatal management? Have you escaped it?

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