Dave was a director of a division in a large IT company.  Young and ambitious, he had a reputation for being brilliant but impetuous and unpredictable.  He certainly didn’t suffer fools gladly and quickly became exasperated if anyone was slow to grasp the point – a frequent occurrence since he threw out his points with inadequate explanation or context.

The CEO of the company, Dave’s boss, decided that his directors should be better at chairing meetings and he arranged for an external consultant to observe some meetings run by directors and give instant feedback.  The unfortunate Dave was chosen as one of the guinea pigs and it was agreed that the consultant would attend one of his regular team meetings.

When the day came to visit Dave, the consultant arrived early to say hello, explain his mission and receive a briefing on the meeting he was about to watch.  The consultant was delighted to learn that they were facing a tricky situation with a trade union and had decided to abandon their customary team meeting and instead use the occasion to examine their options and agree their negotiating strategy.  This sounded far more interesting than observing Dave’s team going through their routine agenda.

The consultant took up position in a corner of the room, behind a handy rubber plant.  The meeting began, with Dave doing most of the talking.  After a while, he grabbed a pencil and thrust it into the jaws of a battery-driven pencil sharpener and held it there until it had all but disappeared.  The consultant thought this an odd behaviour, noted the time, and entered it in his log.  Three minutes later Dave threw a tantrum.  As he ranted and raved (about lack of progress, that no one was helping him, that he was having to think up all the ideas himself, that everyone was spineless etc) his colleagues kept quiet and waited for him to calm down.  After a short while, the storm blew over and the meeting went on as if nothing had happened.

This pattern – grind a pencil to destruction, wait three minutes, go berserk – repeated itself three times before it was time to adjourn for lunch.

A couple of the participants took the consultant to lunch in the staff canteen where they regaled him with stories about Dave’s unpredictable outbursts.  The consultant was suitably circumspect and remained noncommittal. At last, however, he ventured an observation. He said he thought there was a link between a pencil being sharpened and, three minutes later, an outburst of ranting and raving. The consultant’s theory was that the pencil sharpening was an outward sign that Dave’s frustration was building up; in effect, a three-minute warning.  The consultant was pleased when his two lunchtime colleagues marvelled at this striking insight!

The meeting reconvened after the lunch break and after a while (you’ve guessed, haven’t you?) Dave seized a pencil and ground it down into a pile of shavings.  Unfortunately the two managers who had lunched with the consultant turned towards his rubber plant and one winked knowingly and the other gave the consultant a quick grin.  Dave saw this and didn’t wait the customary three minutes before exploding.  He demanded an instant explanation.  Heads went down and no explanation was forthcoming.  So the consultant gallantly admitted that it was his fault and explained that over lunch he had advanced the theory that pencil sharpening was an early indication of frustration with the lack of progress.

Everyone went pale at the consultant’s audacity (no one had ever dared to broach so sensitive a subject with Dave).  Dave looked livid and asked the consultant to wait behind afterwards.  Naturally, the consultant feared that his career was at an end.

When the meeting finished and the last person had left, Dave closed the door and said, ‘That was a very interesting observation.  Having watched me in action, what other feedback can you offer me?’   For the next hour Dave lapped up all the feedback the consultant could offer and thanked him profusely for his candour and help.

Many weeks later the consultant saw Dave in passing and asked him if he was still sharpening pencils.  ‘Yes’, he said cheerfully, ‘but now I know why I’m doing it’.

Unfortunately, feedback does not always result in behaviour change!

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