Case studies

The third path

Werner Salbach* has a degree in mechanical engineering and has been working for an international energy technology company for eight years. He has been continuously promoted over the past years, from project manager to team leader to division manager. In this position he is responsible for 23 employees.

Now his manager, who is also the majority owner of the company, has asked him for a personnel development interview and has made what he considers to be a very surprising offer: Salbach is to be appointed to the Board of Management at the beginning of next year and will be responsible for the entire Research and Development division - one of the core elements of the company. "I was totally surprised by this offer because I never thought that my boss would have such confidence in me. To be honest, I'm a bit flattered, but I don't really want this job. I would be moving further and further away from the operational side of the business. The only attractive thing about this offer is the big pay rise."

This is how Salbach describes his inner conflict to me. Since he has also received an offer from a headhunter to switch to a very young and dynamic energy supplier near his home, Salbach finds himself in a so-called decision dilemma: Which job should he take now? Which criteria should he weight more than others? Both the one and the other job have advantages and disadvantages. He feels paralyzed in the decision-making process.

The assignment to the coach

Werner Salbach urgently wants "qualified support" for his decision and clarity for his next professional step. He feels like he is at a dead end, because in his search for the right path, he is always "thinking about the same aspects and getting into a brooding state instead of gaining clarity".

The reformulation of the coaching approach

In a first joint coaching session it becomes clear that Mr. Salbach has never struggled with decisions in the past. This completely new experience, like being stuck in a decision paralysis, annoys and frightens him at the same time. After suggesting to Mr. Salbach that the rigidity of the decision could possibly have deeper motives, which are not necessarily only related to the weighing of these two alternatives, we agree to modify the coaching assignment: What are the motives behind my lack of decision?

The steps to the goal

Mr. Salbach welcomes my suggestion that we deal with his topic in an initial three 90-minute sessions. I recommend that, once his brief has been reformulated, we first look at the possible causes of the stagnation in his decision-making process. Once we have untied this knot, we will jointly work out criteria for a plan that will satisfy Mr. Salbach in terms of both content and form.

Although Werner Salbach previously considered himself a strong decision-maker and was mirrored in this way by his employees and superiors, he is now for the first time grappling with the question of which of the two job opportunities is the better one. As he experiences increasing uncertainty instead of transparency, he is unable to find a satisfactory answer. The high salary and the satisfaction of vanity in his internal promotion to the Board of Directors flatters him greatly, but his fear of giving up too much responsibility operationally stands in contrast. In addition, his boss has been giving him a feeling of subordination and heteronomy for years - a feeling he absolutely wants to get rid of in his life. The headhunter's job offer would perhaps give him a new chance to have more say and influence at roughly the same salary, as well as shorter travel distances and thus more time, but in terms of content, perhaps no new challenge.

I suggest a proven procedure to him, which I have often used very successfully in such decision-making dilemmas where my client could not decide between two alternatives. The beauty of the method is to bring movement into the standstill of a decision process. Tetralemma - the term comes from ancient Greek, where tetra four and lemma mean acceptance in mathematics - is the name of the model and comes from systemic constellation work. It resolves a dead-end situation in such a way that one breaks the two-polarity of a decision and uses the four corners of the tetralemma. For this purpose, I let the client choose the four corners of the room freely. Through physical movement, even thoughts that have become rigid are released. For if the external viewpoint changes, the chance that the inner perspectives change, the entrenched thought patterns soften, and the client gains new insights from a higher, more distant level increases.

So, we stand in the middle of the room and I give Mr. Salbach a DIN-A3 sized sheet of paper and a pencil and ask him to write "The One" on this sheet of paper and place it somewhere in the room. Then I ask him to stand exactly on this sheet of paper and to feel how he feels about this decision. Often the facts that the client has already presented while sitting down will come up again. This was also the case with Mr. Salbach. But I consciously emphasize again to refer the client to his feelings about this decision. Here the client often hears for the first time an unpleasant or pleasant feeling that opens up with this alternative. Sometimes I trigger a wave of associations which the client connects with the feelings he has just experienced. Then I ask Mr. Salbach to write "The Other" on another piece of paper just as large and clear as before. Often clients choose a place in the room for this piece of paper, far away from the first, and list the already known facts - pros and cons - here too.

Therefore, I focus again on the feelings that Werner Salbach associates with these facts and experience emotions that are connected with the thought loops. The previously very sovereign Mr. Salbach is now really irritated and is annoyed by himself.

Therefore, I open the third corner of the tetralemma and let him write "Both" on the third sheet of paper. He arranges this opposite the first two sheets, finds the sheet "Both" "completely absurd", because it is not even possible. Correct: Not in the previous logic, but the point here is rather to use something absurd to break down the rigidity in the decision-making process and to develop fantastic ideas such as: "I'll take the job tomorrow, put myself in the future and can then see whether I really miss the operative work. Or I turn into an invisible person, look at the headhunter's offer from an unobserved position and then I know whether he is really attractive.

More and more absurd ideas and fantasies of my client come up, which even make us laugh. And at the end comes a serious proposal: Mr. Salbach wants to tell his boss that he is very attached to his operative work and wants to work out ways with him how he can find sufficient time for operative tasks in the board of directors. At the same time, he could examine the headhunter's offer even more closely by confiding in a distant acquaintance who works in the company and asking him even more precisely about the advantages and disadvantages of this employer. It becomes clear: Mr. Salbach opens his mind, he becomes more relaxed and confident again and realizes that his situation is not so unbearable at all, but that he has a very good starting position for both jobs.

Then I ask Mr. Salbach to write the word "None" on a fourth sheet of paper. At first, he is very perplexed. He is silent and silent and says nothing for a long time, and neither do I. Then I recognize a relaxation of Salbach's, and I am greeted by a smile that flits across his face. Mr. Salbach leans back and says: "That's it, actually I don't feel like doing either. Because I want 'something completely different. I want to get out of this role of eternal employee and subordinate, I want more self-determination, but I never dared to allow it." What follows is a wave of feelings and longings, wishful thinking and plans.

The realization

I memorize the most important aspects and note them down in detail after we say goodbye. In our third coaching session we work on a plan to increase Mr. Salbach's desire to have more say and influence in his profession. We work out a new goal, which was not the least visible at the beginning of our coaching session: Mr. Salbach is looking for a way to give him more self-determination and influence in his job. To achieve this, we work out the following strategy in the next meeting: Mr. Salbach does not take the job of headhunter, he opens up a plan to his boss: In principle, he would very much like to continue working for the company, but not on the board of directors, but in the operational area. Instead of promotion and a significant increase in salary, he asks for a part-time MBA training that will enable him to take over a subsidiary of the company after two years with the necessary business management know-how. In this way, Mr. Salbach achieves his goal of gaining more management influence and at the same time being able to work in the operative business.

He does without money, but in return receives a very recognized additional qualification in business administration, which he has long wished for, but could not have funded himself. In the long term, this training gives him more leadership responsibility and self-determination. His boss in turn invests in the qualification of his company by training an experienced, motivated top performer instead of just motivating him with a higher salary. In this way he retains this employee instead of losing him to an external company. Handing over the management of a subsidiary to Mr. Salbach is much less risky than handing over the management to an external employee. After all, he has known what he had in him for eight years. A classic win-win situation - both sides benefit from the solution and have a high incentive to seriously achieve this goal.

When we end our collaboration, Mr. Salbach is very optimistic and thanks me for accompanying him, after I had "initially completely turned his head", through an important process of discovery: his need for more freedom and co-determination in his profession. He now also understands why he could not make his decision, because neither one nor the other would have helped him on his way. But to find the third - that was the way for him.

* Name changed for privacy reasons.

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