Peek Below The Water Line


By Dr. Hans Finzel

I thought everything was fine between Brian and me. We had been on the same leadership team for years, and I thought he respected my leadership. But lately, he had become an iceman. When we talked, his answers were very short. When I probed him about whether something was wrong, he gave the great answer that we so often use, “No, everything is fine.” There was something going on under the waterline that I had to figure out.

When you talk to people about big issues that affect them, things around them that are going to change, you have to look below the waterline. Both the conscious and the subconscious are simultaneously at work in people’s minds, processing what’s going on. It’s not only in their minds; it’s in their hearts. Often, what you don’t see and what you don’t hear and what you don’t pick up from them is what will kick you in the rear.

An old farmer once said, “Go slow. People are a lot like horses. They don’t like to be startled or surprised. It causes deviant behavior.” You can almost picture the weathered face of the man saying that, can’t you? He’s probably chuckling at the thought of a vicious kick he once took from an old mare he startled. As many old-timers are, he was right: go slow, because people don’t like to be startled, and that obviously applies to the issue of bringing about change. There is never a time when communication is more important than when you are in a process of implementing big changes. I sat down face-to-face with each of my senior-level leaders, as I was going about a reorganization of our leadership structure. Brian had been in our organization for decades, and I spent considerable time with him sharing some of the major changes going on and how they would affect him.

When I started as CEO, I had fourteen people reporting to me. That is way too many for any leader. As we were growing and expanding around the world, my board said to me, “Hans, you’ve got too many people reporting to you; you’ve got to cut it down to be effective.” So I had to go through a painful process of selecting who would stay on my team and who would go—who would still be at the table and who would be invited to leave. I had to break the news to Brian that he was no longer going to have a chair with the top leadership team. He was actually going to report to one of the people who, up to that point, had been his peer. I eventually got my direct reports down to seven.In such highly charged, vulnerable moments, when there are big issues going on, there is no substitute for face time. I knew this would be a delicate situation for Brian because these changes involved his moving into a totally different place in the organization. I knew that many circumstances surrounding the decision would be difficult for him. I knew that he would feel demoted. I also knew it was best for him, because I knew what he really liked to do and I realized that, whether he knew it or not, this would free him up to pursue his passion. I might have seen that clearly, but it was extremely hard for him to grasp.

In a commitment to clear personal communication with Brian, I carefully explained the decisions and why I had made them. I allowed plenty of time for feedback and questions. When the conversation was over, I was surprised at Brian’s reaction. He took it very well, calmly, almost stoically. I remember thinking to myself, “This doesn’t add up. Either this guy is a lot more mature than anybody I’ve ever met or something else is going on.” In fact, I was so bewildered that I told him to go home and think about it and asked to meet with him again in a couple of days. I was convinced that a whole minefield of issues was under the waterline—issues that would soon erupt onto the surface. Brian assured me, “It’s fine. I got it. No problem. We don’t need to meet again.”

I forced that second meeting a couple of days later. And my gut was right. Brian went home that night and barely slept. Sure enough, issues exploded from under the surface within twenty-four hours. As he was mulling over the implications of my decision in his heart, the ramifications came: “What are people going to think? What am I going to do? I’m no longer as important as I was. I have been demoted.” He was reeling with emotional confusion. He told me he got up at 3:00 a.m. and wandered the streets of his neighborhood, extremely upset about what I had shared with him. To say the least, he was very angry with me.

It’s always a good idea to follow your gut perceptions about the people you work with.

Fortunately, I followed up on my intuition. It’s always a good idea to follow your gut perceptions about the people you work with. Leaving things alone in hopes that they will resolve themselves is never a good idea. We scheduled the follow-up meeting and finally got to the real issues at hand. I learned a valuable lesson from that episode: don’t assume people are going to take what you tell them at face value. Brian did feel devalued. He said, “Gosh, I’m just not as important as I used to be; this is the end of my career. My colleagues are more valued than I am. I’m supposed to go forward, not backward.”

The story of Brian has a happy ending. Years later, he is in charge of a major area of the world for the ministry, and this has given him the opportunity to spend more time in that part of the world. He finally appreciated the fact that he didn’t have to waste time at the home office in all those long meetings that we leaders have to do. He circled back around and said to me, “You know, Hans, that was a great decision—the right decision. It hurt me at the time, but you actually launched me toward my heart and passion. Today, I love what I am doing, and I am doing what I’m best at. Thank you.” Pretty cool, huh? Did you hear about the rebellious little girl who was forced to have a time-out and sit in the corner for an hour? She told her mommy, “I might be sitting down on the outside, but I am standing up on the inside.” If you as the leader ignore below-the-waterline issues, it almost always comes back to hit you. Regarding Brian, what would have happened if I’d never had that follow-up meeting? I would have wrongly concluded that everything was fine, checked that off the list, and moved on to the next problem. Somewhere down the road, there would have been an explosion. Something very negative would have happened. It could have been an obvious, in-my-face blowup or a quiet, subversive, passive-aggressive reaction, which people often have when they don’t agree with their leaders. If there’s no follow-up conversation, then there’s no healing. They might look like they are sitting down in submission, but inside they are standing up. Sooner or later, that inner wound is going to cause great damage to the unity of your team.

Dr. Hans Finzel is a successful author, teacher, podcaster and trusted authority in the field of leadership. He has trained leaders internationally on five continents. Hans recently completed twenty years as President and CEO of international non-profit WorldVenture. Today he and his wife Donna oversee a new ministry, HDLeaders.