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13 April 2023



I’ve experienced the same niggling sense of uncertainty time and again with all projects I’ve been involved in, most recently at a large logistics company where I had been brought in to help them review corporate strategy and find a new, innovative direction. At an initial workshop with eight managers from across the company, agreement was reached on how to proceed and on a number of preparatory tasks for the next meeting.

In addition to evaluating a number of business areas on the basis of a five-point scheme outlined in the meeting, each participant was asked to imagine two future scenarios of how the general operating conditions and the competition might develop over the next five years: firstly, a positive scenario, in which everything goes wonderfully for the company’s own development; and secondly, a horror scenario, which represents the worst case. As is customary practice for all of us, I agreed with everyone present the date on which the respective input was to be submitted.


As there are few things that I consider to be a greater waste of time than participants presenting their preparatory work to each other in the context of a workshop, I asked all of them to ensure that they would read through each other’s results thoroughly before the next meeting and make a note of what they did not understand in their colleagues’ market analyses and scenarios or of what they saw completely differently. I further made it clear that, at the next meeting, we would be focusing only on these questions or uncertainties. Maximum preparation was required in order to be as efficient as possible. Everyone claimed to like the clarity and the stringency of this approach, with its solemn agreement to abide by the deadline. There were three weeks to go until the next meeting.

At this point, I asked an important question, looking each of the eight participants in the eye: “So we have an agreement that ...” and briefly repeated the points we had discussed. Some participants nodded at me in irritation, others nodded as if it were a matter of course. There were no objections and no further conditions were imposed.

At the end of the meeting, the CEO asked me who was going to ensure that each of the participants did the required preparatory work on time? My answer: “Nobody! I assume that I’m dealing with adults who stick to what’s agreed.” The CEO replied that he was interested to see what happened in the meantime, because that expectation was highly unusual.


The head of department, who had also attended the meeting, was the central point of contact for handing in the preparatory work. After a week had passed and the deadline for the submission of the first business area analyses had passed, he asked me uncertainly whether he shouldn’t perhaps send a reminder to his colleagues?

I had forbidden him to do so from the outset – and it stayed that way – because it is one of those unfortunate things in mediocre organizations that individual employees have to waste their time chasing after others. They have to act the role of a nanny who has to make sure that all the children have done their homework on time. Where are we supposed to be? In a kindergarten?

Image: AdobeStock deagrez


When the second week after the workshop had passed and two of the eight participants had neither handed in the agreed tasks, nor had a message been received to the effect that they would unfortunately not be able to fulfill their side of the agreement, the head of department started to get nervous: “How are we supposed to hold a productive workshop next week if we don’t have these contributions?” Should he perhaps give some thought to the business areas and their possible scenarios himself? “That’s the last thing we need!” I told him.

This abomination of people compensating for the shortcomings of unreliable colleagues by doing their jobs is also a typical sign of a mediocre organization in which you cannot rely on each other. People get used to such bad behavior extremely quickly. And as far as the workshop was concerned, I told him: “Yes, the meeting won’t go perfectly. We won’t achieve the desired result either, and we’ll fall behind in the overall schedule.”

It’s always the same people – usually a minority – who don’t stick to what you’ve agreed, who you’re constantly chasing after and who keep leaving the project and colleagues hanging in the air. In most cases, this is not due to bad intentions, but to a lack of commitment, of consideration for others and of general reliability. However, if you want to ensure productivity – a gear train that meshes smoothly – such behavior is not acceptable, no matter how credible the excuses given later may be.

So, the preparatory package was distributed a few days before the next workshop, and the papers of the two colleagues in question were missing. On the day of the workshop, after the usual greetings and social warm-up, I began by reiterating the roadmap for the day and then delivered a rebuke intended to have an educational effect. As it is always the same situation at the beginning of any project I am overseeing, my heart is no longer in my throat. I have established a clear understanding for myself of what the following terms mean:

The acid test for the maturity and robustness of one’s own understanding of values is always when it comes to educating oneself and others in accordance with this understanding of values. And that means being unambiguous about what constitutes “negative value”, in this case unreliability.
So, I proceeded as I always do in such cases and said to the two colleagues:

“I find your conduct unreliable. With your understanding of commitment and reliability, we will not be able to complete the project successfully, or at least not as productively.”


Such a rebuke always gives rise to an unpleasant but psychologically normal cocktail of feelings of shame and guilt. I then conveyed my understanding of values regarding commitment, agreements and reliability to the participants and asked them to adopt them. As what I was asking for was neither cruel nor illogical, they could hardly have demurred. Because I know very well that we humans never act out of logical considerations, but only out of emotions, it was important not only to explain this, but to consciously bring out these feelings of shame and guilt, which we all prefer to avoid.

The next agreements were adhered to or renegotiated in good time, and working together became thoroughly productive.

It takes courage to address colleagues in this way, and it is by no means easy. In my experience, however, we in management need to educate ourselves in this regard, as a culture of reliability has such high productivity potential that it has the same impact as a whole series of efficiency improvement programs.

Matthias Kolbusa

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