Using the Stoics for more productive manager/employee conversations
Coaching employees is often about reconsidering perspectives, instead of acting on problems. But that can be challenging. You most likely have found yourself in a situation were a team member:
- Was confident someone else didn’t care not care about quality/speed/something
- Was convinced someone else was trying to undermine their work or position
- Was frustrated because of what seemed like incompetence in the part of others
- Was sure they should be promoted, but expected it to happen to them, instead of doing the work
They may have been right. But most of the time, they probably weren’t seeing the full picture, or were barking at a wall that wouldn’t move, which may have been challenging to you to coach through.
In any case, even if your situations don’t sound exactly like this, manager-employee conversations often involve the process of:
- Parsing through frustrations
- Contextualizing them
- Working on solutions.
In contexts like these, I’ve found help in some old Greek and Roman dudes: the Stoics.
Classical Philosophy in 1:1s?
Stoicism is a philosophy school (quite literally, its name comes from Stoa, the porch outside Athens where Zeno, the first Stoic, set up his school) from classical Greek and Roman times. It had an emphasis on personal ethics through a very rationalistic approach. But you don’t have to care about that — or agree with the core tenets of Stoicism — to leverage of their wisdom.
What matters is that over a couple of centuries, Stoic philosophers developed very useful frameworks to deal with the challenges people face in life, especially at the intersection of the outside world and how we experience it. It’s fairly popular in some tech circles (Ryan Holiday and Tim Ferris have a hand in that), but mostly with an emphasis on self-improvement.
I’ve found though that a couple these frameworks can be super helpful in coaching others, and I’d love to walk you through them.
Nothing is, it’s all perceptions
Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and striving stoic, wrote a diary full of valuable reflections, including:
Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact.
Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.
In other words: we aren’t able to objectively know what happens in the world, because we engage with it through our senses. Since our experience — the events we’ve lived, upbringing, culture, struggles, etc — biases our senses, they change how we perceive the world.
Helping others see this goes a long way. You can use this by asking: how much of what you’re experiencing is objective reality and how much of it you think could be tinted by your own perspectives? What was really said and what did you interpret? What was clearly intentional and to what did you attribute intention
Mind you that this is not about questioning the legitimacy of people’s feelings — those are always legitimate. Or doubting that there could be malice in the world. It’s instead about helping individuals notice the lenses that they wear in perceiving events and interactions, which is pivotal to help them assess and potentially reconsider their perspective.
The things you can control, the things you can’t
Epictetus, a Greek philosopher who started as a slave and earned his freedom to later on live an ascetic life, thought intensely about an idea:
Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not.
In fact, he was even more assertive:
We have no power over external things, and the good that ought to be the object of our earnest pursuit, is to be found only within ourselves.
It could be tempting to read this as a defeatist, individualist stance in regards to challenges (“I can’t do anything about it, it’s not in my control”), but it’s quite the opposite: discerning between what you can control and you can’t is quite empowering, and can really help you focus your efforts. By trying to identify what you control, you find new ways to act on challenges. Clarity over what you can change is priceless.
You can use this by helping team members explore how much they could actually do to improve a situation — when previously perceiving it as something happening to them.
You can also help them minimize frustrations by identifying things they in fact could not improve, reducing stress and focusing their energy on factors they could actually act upon.
Put it in practice
Stoic philosophy¹ is a lot about practice, and I encourage you to try these frameworks out when the need arises. And while I’m sharing these ideas from their Stoic perspective, you don’t need to explain where they come from to put it in practice. You don’t even have to subscribe to any other Stoic notions!²
I actually find that one of the most beautiful aspects of philosophy: you can incorporate lessons into your life, even the lives of others around you, without having to align to an ideology: just be sensible, empathetic and use whatever works for you.
² Other lines of thinking also got to similar conclusions. For example, the idea that That idea was formalized in a clinical/empirical way by Aaron Beck in the Cognitive Behavioral model, which is very effective in treating a set of mental health issues (depression particularly prominent example). And the power of discerning between what you can and cannot control is the core of the Serenity Prayer, popularized by AA’s 12-step program.