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Coaching Can Work, But Doesn’t Always

By Richard Boyatzis, Case Western Reserve University; Brigette Rapisarda, Star Alliance; Anita Howard and Scott Taylor

While sitting on the long flight to Samoa, Roger Selden was nervous. It was not the flying, nor the challenge of building a schoolhouse with friends from his church. He was about to try being sensitive to others and a compassionate leader. For 30 years, Roger had refined and used his gruff style. He built and sold two companies and was now co-founder and CEO of United Health Services, a $1 billion dollar a year health care company. His fast-paced, hard- nosed style and relentless drive had served him well over the years. But lately he had been worried. They had recently lost their CFO and VP of Sales. The turnover was becoming costly. The culture reflected Roger’s style- it had become cut-throat and survival oriented. It had always worked, but he had begun to wonder if there was a better way.

Fortunately for Roger and United, the COO decided to begin a leadership development program. A key feature of the program was to work with an executive coach. A few months later, Roger found himself on the flight to Samoa considering experimenting with a dramatically different leadership style.

Roger’s experience is typical of a new wave of an old practice- the use of coaching for development. In the past, people in these roles have been called mentors, guides, trainers, therapists, and sometimes friends. The articles appearing in the Wall Street Journal and Economist about coaching signal the arrival of a practice that used to be relegated to the athletic field. It is likely that if Roger had not begun working with a coach, his style would have remained the same. Or more accurately, he might have tried, but it either would not have worked or only lasted a few days.

Enter the Coach
People change. Recent research has established that people can change in desired ways- and the changes can be sustained over years. But the research has revealed an old axiom- we need others to develop. Enter the coaches. Professionals in these roles range from consultants who add a “consigliere” (i.e., trusted advisor) aspect to their practice, to social workers and therapists deciding to use their skills with people facing work challenges instead of anxiety attacks or eating disorders. The ranks of coaches are growing at a prodigious rate all over the world. The personal attention is both attractive and private. It does not require disclosing one’s foibles or vulnerabilities in front of others. In many countries and cultures in which the “boss” is to be respected, feared, and not addressed with informality, executive coaches provide a convenient and safe way to explore development and change. Or for those whose style is not accessible to others, like Roger.

Scott Taylor was his coach as part of the company sponsored program. His first challenge was to ask Roger what he wanted out of life, what he wanted for his and the company’s future. Roger, like many crusty executives did not often talk openly about their own future and might not even consider what life and work may be in ten or more years. Roger had announced his intention to hand over the CEO role to the current COO in a year or two. So Scott asked what he looked forward to doing after that, what kind of life he wanted to lead, and what he hoped his legacy in the company would be. Roger did not hesitate in his answer. He wanted to be seen as a great leader of the company but without the additional excuses about his intimidating style and Machiavellian tactics. He hoped his family would enjoy spending more time with him, but even that would involve his family seeing him as a different person than they did.

Finding Your Personal Vision- Your ideal Self
In workshops, courses, and lectures on coaching over the past three years, a group of us from Case Western Reserve University have made several discoveries about when it is and is not effective. This follows 17 years of longitudinal studies showing adults can change their habits and develop competencies (both cognitive and emotional intelligence competencies). When adults change their behavior, they follow a series of epiphanies, or discoveries that Richard Boyatzis has called the Intentional Change Model.

When [If?] the first discovery does not occur, people don’t change. That is the reason most people think leaders are born not made. On the whole, we are lousy at developing people. Despite well-intentioned, sensitive, thoughtful people, most education and training does not produce sustainable changes in behavior. To explore why this occurs, let us suggest an exercise. Take a moment and do the reflective exercise suggested in the side box.

When managers, executives, and advanced professionals do this exercise, they have warm, emotional reactions to the memories of the people who helped them. The feelings come back strongly as they remember moments that may have been tender or challenging, but had a lasting impact. When we recorded these reflections and coded them for which aspect of the change process was primarily involved, we discovered that 80% of the moments people recalled someone helping them extend their dreams, reach for new aspirations, consider what it means to be successful or a good person. In other words, these people help us recreate a new Ideal Self (i.e., Personal Vision) or endorse our Strengths and capability in a way we doubted or never considered.

When we examined the moments people recalled of others trying to help them in the last year or two, most of them (over 50%) involved someone giving us feedback and focusing on what we needed to do to improve; that is, focusing on our weaknesses. The application of the business practice of “gap analysis” was rampant as the tactic most used to help someone else work on their “development or performance improvement plan.”

No wonder many people do not change. We are often doing the wrong things to encourage and support the exploration of a change. In fact, we are often doing the opposite to what has worked so well for most of us.

This is what happened to Roger Selden. Scott asked him about his desired future and what kind of person he wanted to be. Using several exercises and tests; Roger began to develop an image about his future. He smiled as he thought about it. “Wouldn’t it be great if I could do that?” he asked Scott. But then quickly followed, “But it’s too hard and I’m too old for this. Besides, no one would believe me if I started acting that differently.” Scott pointed out that developing the desired image was the first step. Then he had to consider his strengths before attacking a weakness. Roger kept getting caught in what was likely and began to conclude it was impractical.

The Positive versus Negative Emotional Attractor
Roger got excited and then, almost as quickly began to dampen his enthusiasm He was setting in motion an orientation that would inhibit any change or limit its sustainability. As he worried about the feasibility of the change, he emotionally focused on his weaknesses. His smile dropped as he began to frown. You could see him becoming tense and worried. He had entered the realm of the Negative Emotional Attractor. Research on neuroendocrine processes and their relationship to psychological and behavioral patterns shows that people can find themselves involved in moving toward the Positive or the Negative Emotional Attractor. The Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA) involves arousing the parasympathetic nervous system, neural circuits predominantly emanating through the left prefrontal cortex. When one considers their dreams, hopes and desired vision for the future, your breathing slows, your blood pressure drops, your immune system increases, and you feel calm, elated, happy, amused, optimistic, and hopeful. This appears to also occur when we consider our strengths.

In contrast, when you invoke the Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA), you focus on weaknesses, fear, being “realistic,” or dwell on what happened in the past and what went wrong.. You feel nervous, anxious, depressed, pessimistic, or filled with despair. It arouses and is aroused by your sympathetic nervous system and neural circuits emanating predominantly through your right prefrontal cortex. Your blood pressure increases, as does your breathing. Your facial muscles tighten. Your body prepares for stress or injury, and in doing so elicits the stress response. You get set to defend yourself. In eliciting the stress response, you prepare for “fight or flight” and send blood to large muscle groups as well as closing off neural circuits not necessary to survival.

The PEA allows you to open yourself to new possibilities. The NEA pushes you to fix things that are wrong. Did you ever wonder why it is so hard to loose weight? We believe it is because it is a negatively conceived goal. It is different if you wanted to feel vibrant and look good—and losing weight was part of the way to get there. So the PEA allows you to move toward your aspirations. The NEA inhibits forward movement- it, quite literally, turns you off.

To make a sustainable change in your habits or behavior, a person needs to start with the PEA and move through the NEA. Roger did this with the help of his coach. After soliciting a refined image of Roger’s desired future from him, his personal vision, Scott then felt he was ready to look at some feedback. Roger’s feedback from the Emotional Competence Inventory (ECI) was not surprising to him. He had heard it before. His direct reports stated in the verbatim comments that Roger is a stubborn man, bullies people with his strong opinions, dominates discussions, constantly makes decisions lower level employees are charged to make, and rarely appears to listen to others opinions. He had tried to change before but was always afraid that if he got “soft” results would fall and he with them.

Scott had to redirect Roger during the discussion. Roger wanted to focus on and explain his weaknesses. This is a common mistake. Once a person becomes embedded in analyzing their weaknesses, they are solidly arousing the NEA and have a hard time keeping the context hopeful and part of the PEA. Scott reminded Roger that he yearned to leave a legacy of doing something important and doing it the right way. He asked Roger to describe the person that acted the way Roger had said he always wanted to act. His ideal was someone people felt close to; someone whom others felt valued their ideas; a leader who was able to help people achieve their potential and incredible results because of the confidence and impact he had on them. Once they summarized his strengths of determination, initiative, influencing others, and adaptability, they turned to the “bad news.” An image of using his strengths to build a new style began to appear to Roger. But he was cynical about pulling it off.


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