Untangle and grow

A blog by Alison Maxwell

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Coaching as 're-storying'

Fascinating and very inspiring day yesterday. I spend it in the company of Dr David Drake, an expert on 'Narrative Coaching'. David was speaking at an EMCC sponsored workshop held in the lovely surrounding of Regents Park College in central London.

The premise of 'Narrative Coaching' is very straight forward - we live our lives as and through stories. According to David, we construct narratives about our past (and our future) to help us make sense of a complex and confusing world. However our self stories are always part fiction in that we select and remember fragments of our experience, interpreting events so we can make sense of what is going on around us. We therefore get in to trouble when we confuse our self story with objective truth. We end up hanging on to our version of events even when it has stopped serving us - the narrative 'grip' as David calls it.

This perspective is helpful in coaching in that it allows for the possibility of  new stories to be told. Thus a client's old/habitual story might be: "I am not the sort of person who is confident - I've never been able to present well". This could be plausibly retold as "I once has a bad experience of giving presentations, but I've learnt a lot since" allowing the client the possibility of looking forward to and even enjoying their next speaking opportunity. From this perspective we are all work in progress - I find that thought reassuring rather than limiting.

Here's a link to David's Narrative Coaching website

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

The slopey shouldered 'coach'

One of the big pay-off's for managers learning to coach, is the idea of using their new found skills to keep responsibility for tasks with their teams. Most leaders I've worked with recognise their tendency to pick up their subordinates tasks - especially when under time pressure - and end up doing not only their own job but everyone else's job. Coaching can seem like a god send for getting those jobs back where they belong.

However, I've seen this taken too far. Only this morning I was talking to a manager who's boss has just been on a 'coaching' course. The boss now habitually pings back a reply of "What have you done so far?" to all requests for help , irrespective of  need or urgency. This as you can imagine is driving his team mad, and the good name of coaching is getting sullied.

Coaching is not about being slopey shouldered, deflecting all requests with a deft clever question. Coaching is first and foremost about being in service of the coachee, and helping them to perform/learn/grow. Constant deflection may serve the interests of the manager, but is annoying and counter-productive very quickly.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Finding your Mojo


I've just finished speaking to Philip (not his real name) -he's a manager in his late 50's and you might be forgiven for assuming that he was more worried about retirement at his stage of his working life than putting his energies into his job. For years he has been 'banging on' about staff morale and the importance of listening to staff and, guess what, nobody had been listening to him. Net result -  a demotivated Philip with little engagement in the business he is supposed to be part of leading. He's been counting down the days until he can collect his pension.

That all changed last week, somebody listened to Philip and what is more, tasked him with finding some solutions. Someone took him seriously. Philip couldn't be more excited, his enthusiasm for his new project was palpable. Philip has just found his 'mojo' again and is unstoppable.

Something amazing happens when people connect back with what they really care about. Instead of settling for things, Philip is now on the path to shaping a significant part of his organisation. Philip has just remembered what leadership is all about.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Power up your questions

We all know that questions are a core tool of the coach. However novice coaches struggle with two aspects of questioning - firstly knowing which question to ask and secondly keeping their questions genuinely open  i.e. avoiding leading. Finding the 'right' question is an art in itself and something that only comes with practice and not a few mistakes along the way.

Not all questions are equal - different questions have different purposes and impacts. Really powerful questions feel like blows to the chest and just have you speechless while you try to collect an answer. Try on Peter Hawkins powerful question for size -- "What can you uniquely do that the world of tomorrow needs?". See what I mean.. a very powerful question and not one that is easily or glibly answered.

So here is a way of thinking about the power of questions:
  • Level 1 Non-questions - these are typically leading/closed questions or questions where the coach already knows the answer.  "Don't you think you should take that new job"  ... and the implied answer is of course "yes". These questions are really statements dressed up as questions
  • Level 2 Questions of Inquiry. These sorts of questions are asked from a place of genuine curiosity and are used to gather facts and feelings about the issue the coachee brings. "What sort of job are you interested in?" . These sorts of questions are of course vital for establishing the parameters of the coachees issue but doesn't usually move them forward
  • Level 3 Questions of Ignition. This is where the Peter Hawkins type question comes into play. These sorts of questions push the coachee to think broader/wider/differently and played right can be the key to unlocking a stuck situation. 
If you want to know more about 'Powerful Questions' try the following article

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Perfectionism - playing to win or playing to avoid losing?

Interesting snippet on the radio today talking about perfectionism . Apparently it is not universally bad nor simple!

Recent studies* suggest that 'perfectionism' comes in (at least) two flavours, and has very different personal impact. The 'self-oriented perfectionist' is the sort of person who set themselves high standards, and get a buzz from pulling off a difficult task and doing it well. This in turn seems to enhance their sense of self-esteem and personal motivation, which spurs them on to continue striving to be their best.

By contrast the 'social-oriented perfectionist' has (real or imaginary) standards set for them by others.  They get much less pleasure from their efforts and tend to view their work as inadequate or inferior and report experiencing external pressure or coercion to accomplish tasks. This sort of person is driven not from an internally felt desire to be their best, but more from a fear of failure . A very different place to operate from!

So what sort of perfectionist are you? Psychology Today have a nice quiz if you are interested! Click here for a link to their questionnaire.

*Kilbert, J.J., Langhinrichsen-Rohling, J., & Saito, M. (2005). Adaptive and maladaptive aspects of self-oriented versus socially prescribed perfectionismJournal of College Student Development, 46, 141-156.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Out growing the boss

At some point along the way, I remember being told by a very sage person that "Ultimately, charismatic leaders are disempowering". I remember this being quite a shocking thought - I'd had a few charismatic bosses I'd happily have walked on hot coals for, and the idea of them being disempowering was at the time something I wasn't ready to take on board.

Over the years, however this thought has stuck with me and increasingly strikes me as true. It's not just the charismatic types though. I've been working with a coaching client over the course of the year, bridging a period when a much loved boss moved on to pastures new. What has been striking is the growth in my client since her apparently nurturing and supportive boss left the organisation. She has been forced to stand on her own two feet, fight her own battles, rather than fall back on the all too available 'mother hen'. Her confidence has blossomed, and she is performing beyond recognition.

I am quite convinced that one of the prime role of leaders is to grow others as leaders. And this means letting them out grow us if necessary, and being comfortable with that. Tough one!

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Managing the gap between intent and impact

Giving negative feedback is never easy for most of us. It takes a big man (or woman) to hear bad news about ourselves and take it on the chin. The fact is most of us find negative feedback a subtle form of attack and up go the defences. It doesn't make any difference if the feedback is right or wrong - our primordial selves are programmed for fight or flight if we perceive incoming.

One of the most common defences is the 'Intent Defence', for example  "I didn't mean to upset the team", or "Its not what I was trying to do..." or even "I was trying to help her". All these are defences of intent vs impact. We didn't mean to upset someone else but somehow we ended up doing so. Most (all?) of us have hugely positive intent but somehow our impact was different on our off days.

When we are giving feedback therefore, the territory to operate on is impact rather than intent. While we can acknowledge and even understand the positive intent in someone's actions, its the gap between this and their actual impact that we need to focus on. Otherwise we are setting up our feedback sessions for stalemate and stand-off's.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Is it time to bin the praise sandwich?

Many moon ago, when I was first taught about giving feedback the 'praise sandwich' was drummed into me as the way to do it.  You know the one - first say something nice, then deliver the bad news and then end on some good news. And I, like many managers and leaders, dutifully tried to apply this in practise.

The trouble was most of the recipients caught on fast. Rather than hearing the good news as genuinely intended, they saw it as inauthentic and unnecessary window dressing. "Why can't you cut to the chase?" was the legitimate response. Often our honest attempts at giving balanced and useful feedback backfired.

So what to do instead?  Rather than leaning on formulaic processes, wouldn't it be better if we can be straight and honest and say what we need to say.. without all the trimmings. I don't mean being brutal - the honest truth is not the same as the brutal truth - just straight and direct.

So here's my tests for giving effective feedback:

  1. Has it landed? - feedback is worthless if the recipient rejects or defends against the message.
  2. Will it lead to change? - the recipient has to be able to act on the message
  3. Has it built/maintained the relationship? - has it been done in a way that enhances the relationship and builds self-esteem.



Friday, 12 October 2012

Objections to Growth

I spent 3  days this week with a leadership group looking at how they could show up as even better leaders. While the conversation for the first 2.5 days had been flowing and open, as soon as we started on the conversation of how they needed to change the conversation ran aground.

Three objections were bandied around:

Objection no 1: "It is them that has to do the changing. " These folk clung to the idea that change is for other people - usually their bosses or their subordinates ...obviously they were not required to change and had no responsibility to do so.

Objection no 2: "I'm not that sort of leader". This group carried a notion that leaders are some sort of mythic heroic figure, blessed with extraordinary characteristics and abilities that they weren't lucky enough to have. Leadership was therefore something remote and extraordinary rather than the everyday stuff of getting people to follow you.

Objection no 3: "I can't help it - this is the way I've always been"  This group believed that behaviour was not a choice, and that their behaviour was a fixed part of their personality which they obviously couldn't change or address. 

Net result ... the status quo unless these beliefs are challenged. Anyone else seen these in action?


Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Delegation and the art of kite flying

I met a man a couple of weeks ago who just didn't get delegation. While he understood the need to push work down into his teams he was very reluctant to do so - "After all I am responsible and accountable - if anything goes wrong it is me that is going to get kicked, isn't it!" However his reluctance was more than this - he saw delegation as synonymous with abdication, and, I suspect, at the heart of it wasn't sure what value he added if he wasn't doing all the work. Unfortunately, he's not alone in this, I meet many leaders who fail to tap into the full capacities of their teams and whilst simultaneously bemoaning their overloaded schedules.

I think reluctance to delegate is partly to do with how we talk about. The language of delegation is often all about 'turning over' and 'letting go', empowerment of teams sounds a lot like a loss of control. What sane leader would want to 'let go' of something mission critical?  A refreshing alternative metaphor - suggested by an inspired course delegate - is kite flying. As a leader you learn to pay out more 'string' to your team as they get more adept and confident, reeling it back in if needs be. The kite never flies entirely freely, even if it is on a long, long line. The leader always retains a level of control even if it rarely applied.

I wonder if that thought would help my reluctant delegator...

Here's a link to a useful Harvard Business Review article "Why aren't you delegating ?"


Saturday, 22 September 2012

Blackberry frenzy

I've just spent a very happy week running a 5 day leadership programme. It's one of my favourite programme to run and always gets great feedback. It is also one of the most full on, and delegates and tutors alike are kept pretty busy.

As with many companies the use of blackberries is rife, no sooner do we have a break then they are out and dealing with stuff back at the office/plant. Some of the tutors get most indignant about this - others wearily shake their heads saddened that our delegates can't abstract themselves from work sufficiently to get most value from what we are doing together. I am worried when I find many of the attendees will be working the weekend to catch up from a week away from work.

Organisations make huge investments in learning and it is more than a shame if attendees are distracted by work pressures. However organisations also expect the wheels to keep turning and it is the rare delegate that can free their diary completely.  How do we help participants on our programme to be fully in the 'here and now' when we have them with us, and avoid the email back log they dread on their return?

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Strangers to ourselves?

Don' t you love it when you find a really fascinating book that manages to offer some really challenging stuff in a palatable and informed way?  I've been reading 'Strangers to ourselves' by Timothy Wilson, which does exactly that.

As the title implies, Wilson makes the case that we often don't know our own minds, and that actually most of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are the product of our unconscious rather than our conscious minds - even if we experience it differently. Startlingly he argues that others can often read us better than we can read ourselves - ever seen a friend go head over heals for someone totally unsuitable and only realise it months after everyone else?

Wilson (unlike Freud) believes that it is impossible to know our unconscious mind arguing that its a bit like the software in say a CD player -  we can hear the output (conscious thought) but we have no direct access to the processes that produced it. 

If you  buy his theory - and some of his evidence is pretty intriguing - this has huge implications for any of us working in the people development field. Discuss...

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Getting perspective - issues in coaching.

Just got back from holiday, feeling well rested and ready for the Autumn fray. I wish I could bottle it!

I've also come back with a renewed sense of perspective - what's really important and what is just 'sweating the small stuff'. I've also surprised myself with how easily solutions for some supposedly intractable problems have appeared by just giving myself a break from thinking about them. I've noticed the same in stressed out  coaching clients who finally get around to giving themselves a break.

I recently read an appalling statistic that fewer of us are taking proper breaks from work, and some of us even do as much as 3 hours a day work when we are supposedly on holiday. Apart from issues of physical and mental health and family relationships,  how are you supposed to get a real sense of perspective if you are always nose deep in the detail. If we never disconnect from the hamster wheel we never stand a chance of reinventing the hamster wheel.

So here's some tips about ways to stop working while on holiday...

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

A bad case of binary thinking?

I spend a lot of my time teaching managers and leaders core coaching skills. They bit they most consistently struggle with is being non-directive - asking rather than telling. You can clearly see that this does not compute for many of them. "Isn't leadership about setting direction and providing clarity for others" is the direct or indirect challenge. "Why shouldn't I give them the answers if I know them?".

I think they have a point... up to a point. Leadership is indeed directive; its about providing others with a sense of where they are going, and it is about providing clarity. However leadership is also about bringing out the best in others, and developing autonomous contributors independent of the boss.

So I don't see this as either/or binary argument. Leadership has to be about asking and telling - and often all in the same conversation. Its just that many managers are much more skilled and familiar with the directive end of the spectrum than asking genuinely open questions, listening fully or delivering skilful feedback. Great leaders know when people need certainty and clarity, and when its best for them to figure it out for themselves.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Playing your own game or someone else's?

I had the pleasure of talking to a highly successful project leader today - the sort of guy who takes multi-million pound projects of frightening complexity in his stride and still looks around for a challenge. He'd found exactly that in his new appointment - taking over the leadership of a global transformation team - but to his surprise was finding it harder going than he expected and not a lot of fun.

Inventing your own game?
"I'm so used to playing on my own pitch" he mused " I was so familiar with how things were with my old team but now I'm having to fit in with this new lot". He was right at the start of his own change process, feeling the discomfort and uncertainty of change.

This got me thinking about what it takes to be playing your own game rather than someone else's. For some it is about picking their own team, for others it is about throwing out the existing agenda and bringing in their own. Others never get there and are forever dancing to someone else's tune... never a great place to operate from.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Niceness - an over rated virtue? Issues in Coaching

Is it possible to be too nice? I am lucky enough to work with some really nice people but sometimes wonder if it is a trait that some people take too far. Take Peter - he's a very successful senior manager on the brink of joining the executive ranks of his organisation. He delivers the results, has great relationships at work but his Achilles heel ... well... he's just too nice.

To Peter this is not a problem at all. He has very strong values about courtesy at work and will move heaven and earth to make sure everyone around him is happy and feathers remain unruffled. In short, he likes to be liked and probably, as a consequence, works too many hours and takes on too much. He's a nice guy to be around.

However, from his bosses perspective, Peter's niceness is the only question mark hovering over his further promotion. Does his niceness mean a lack of 'grit' and a reluctance to face into the difficult conversation or make the unpopular decision? Does he spend too much time trying to keep everyone happy? Peter in turn is adamant that his niceness doesn't mean he can't handle tricky situations... he just doesn't want to do it like Genghis Khan.

So is niceness for you a handicap or a sign of an evolved leader?

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Talking strengths

I came across an amazing statistic yesterday - it was hidden in a paper by the Corporate Leadership Council on what drives individual performance... a subject dear to the heart of most learning and development professionals. The 2006 CLC's survey of 28,000 people, had distilled out what organisational 'levers'  impact individual performance and found that the vast majority of performance management practices make minimal positive difference. Shocking indeed!

However, stunningly, what did make a big difference was talking performance strengths - that's the conversation that helps employees to know what their strengths are in the first place and and secondly help them figure out how to use them. Conversations that emphasized performance strengths drove a 36.4% improvement in performance, a particularly amazing figure when the same data showed that conversations that emphasized weaknesses  lead to a 26.8% decline in employee performance.

Now I think this is big news for all of us involved in learning and growth in organisations and real affirmation for the positive psychology movement. Many managers and leaders I meet seem to have an assumption that development = fixing our weaknesses, and therefore performance management conversations must be about identifying our gaps and plugging them. This data would suggest that this approach is not only unhelpful but potentially detrimental. So are we teaching managers how to have strengths-based conversations or are we perpetuating the 'fix the fault' approach to development?

Corporate Leadership Council (2006) From Performance Management to Performance Improvement: leveraging key drivers of individual performance. For a copy of the paper click here.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

From armour plating to string vest .

Fascinating conversation this morning about our relationship with feedback.

I was talking to George, a newly appointed sales coach, who had been on something of a roller-coaster of self-discovery and we were talking about his journey from loathing feedback to loving it.. well at least being more acceptant of it.

"Every time I went into the boss's office I'd be expecting a rollicking so I'd put on my armour plating and anything he said would just ping off me". For George, the relationship with his boss was too similar to his relationship with his headmaster and it came as a bit of revelation that he might be transferring the associations and feelings of this old relationship onto his relationship with his boss. "I was going in there expecting to be 'told off' and made to feel like a schoolboy again - actually, when I opened up a bit, my boss had some really useful things to say, and even the critical bits didn't smart too much".

While George had make great strides to opening up to feedback he still felt there would always be a bit of him that he would need to protect "It's a bit like string vest now - there are holes to let the arrows through, but I am still covered up".

So how do you receive feedback - armour plated or string vest?


Tuesday, 24 July 2012

"I'm not confident" - issues in coaching

When people tell me they are not confident I'm never quite sure how to take it. It strikes me that people use this phrase in two very different ways - situationally or personally.

For some it is seems to be simply a shorthand expression that they are moving into new territory in which they can't reliably predict the result - e.g.  "I've never done tight rope walking before so I've no idea whether I'm going to fall or not". Used in this way lack of confidence is a prediction of an uncertain outcome in a new situation, but not of a unwillingness to give it a go anyway. Coaching this group of 'unconfidents' can often be a joy as they expand what they can do by exploring into what they've never done before.

For others, "I'm not confident" is a more blanket assessment which seems to be much more personal and final - e.g. "Don't ask me to tight rope walk - I'm not the sort of person who would ever succeed at that". Used in this way "lack of confidence" is often a defence against tackling things outside the norm, and a prediction of likely failure - self-fulfilling you might argue. Coaching this group can therefore be much more challenging as the badge/label that clients have placed on themselves has first to be dislodged. Much more challenging.





Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Should's, must's and ought's - issues in coaching


How do you know when to bend and when to walk away? This has been a recent question for a coaching client who is finding it heavy going in their organisation. Despite putting in massive effort and extra hours they find themselves somehow still behind the pace, and struggling to know what is expected of them let alone deliver it. Our conversations have therefore turned to how much it is reasonable to try to adapt, and at what point does adaption actually become maladaptation, and the only sane response is to do something radically different or leave.

A tell-tale sign of maladaptation for me is when the “should’s, must’s and ought’s” become a signature of the coaching conversation – “I should try harder… I must fit in .. I ought to be able to”. Albert Ellis, founding father of Rational Emotional Behaviour Therapy (REBT), a forerunner of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), amusingly but rudely called this ‘mustabation’ – a compulsion to rationalise away our own needs in favour of someone else’s. So when I hear a crop of “should’s, must’s and ought’s” my instinct is to get curious about the assumptions my client is making and challenge their source and validity.

Of course we all have to bend a little to fit in, however its also healthy to know when not to. Watch out for your “should’s must’s and ought’s”.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Fixed mindset or Growth mindset?

I've just been reading Carol Dweck book 'Mindset'. According to Carol's research humanity come in two basic flavours - those with a 'fixed mindset' and those with a 'growth mindset'. The fixed mindset is characterised by a limiting belief that that personal abilities are finite or fixed. This shows up as an all consuming goal to prove oneself - every situation calls for a confirmation of intelligence, personality or character. Every situation is evaluated: "Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected?" In contrast the growth mindset is based on belief that your basic qualities can be cultivated with a bit of effort - everyone can change and grow given application and the right experience.
I've often wondered about this - without knowing this research - observing how people respond to being thrown into new situations in the training room. There are those seem to need to be perfect before they even try to develop their skills and reticent to just 'give it a go' in for fear of making mistakes and getting it wrong. Others seem much more able to just pitch in and take the learning, unafraid to hear feedback or reflect on their gaffs. Job one for the facilitator is therefore making it ok to 'fail' and not set expectations of perfection.
Don't you love it when you find an idea that fits observable facts?

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: how you can fulfil your potential London: Constable & Robinson Ltd.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Happy Birthday Blog!

One year and 63 posts later - its the first birthday of this blog! Rather than talking about something that has happened this week in my travels around corporate life - my usual topic for a blog - I thought I'd take a look back at which blogs have proved most popular with you, my esteemed reader in 2011-12. So roll of drums, fanfare of trumpets I can reveal the top 3 most read blogs as:

2. Abdication, delegation, interference
3. The 'imposter syndrome' - issues in coaching

What if anything does this tell me about organisational life and those of us who inhabit the corporate corridors? For me there is a theme here about 'worry'.  It worries me (!) that I meet a lot of people who worry about getting it wrong - as if there was some external standard that they have not been made privy to but will still be judged on. Organisational life strikes me as far more chaotic and messy than we give credence to, but instead we blame ourselves for our alleged inability to cope/be smart enough/be certain enough. On the odd occasion when teams get around to the subject of worry, they are usually relieved to find that others are struggling with similar issues and they are not the only one who feels like a fraud or a poor line manager.


So thanks for all the reads and comments - I still can't get my head around having a readership in Estonia, Australia and Peru but that is the global village we live in. Looking forward year two - keep the comments coming.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

The distorted self - issues in coaching

Given we walk around all day with ourselves for company you would think we would know ourselves pretty well . However the evidence would suggest otherwise - most of us seem to distort how we see ourselves, either inflating or deflating our capabilities and capacities out of line with how others see us.

Getting to know our real self is more than a bit tricky. Even systems such as 360 feedback are not infallible - we often present to different people in very variable ways and it is not uncommon for our bosses to view us differently from our peers or teams. Which one is the 'true' self? We are also skilled a selectively hearing messages from feedback, picking out those that confirm our self image and rejecting those that don't

If this were not difficult enough, many of us are disconnected from our view of our ideal self - the self we would like to be - the reputation we would like, or the difference we want to make. However, according to leadership author Richard Boyatzis, this is the self view that can drive and propel change . Boyatzis believes that the more we are connected to our ideal self the more we are likely to accurately self-assess. Tackling our weaknesses (aka development needs) therefore become palatable when the ideal self provides the imperative.

Important stuff to remember if you work in the business of developing people.

Goleman, D, Boyatzis, R and McKee, A. (2001) Primal Leadership: the hidden driver of performance, Harvard Business Review

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Defensiveness - issues in coaching

Understanding defensiveness is stock in trade for any coach who is worth their salt - being able spot  how the client can deny/ rationalise/ justify/ minimise their behaviour and impact is essential. Defensiveness keeps the conversation closed and limits the possibilities that can be discussed or discovered. It would not therefore  be unreasonable to see the defensive client as a problem... a bit of an issue.

However a more compassionate view is that the client is always doing the best they can, given the context, resources and knowledge they have. Defensiveness is therefore potentially a legitimate response given their circumstances.

This was borne when I was recently introduced to a new client. They had been told to come for coaching because they needed to fix some stuff. Not too surprisingly they entered the room bristling with indignation and highly suspicious of me and this coaching malarkey. It has taken several session to build up trust and for him to lower the barricades enough to talk about a change agenda that he is willing to buy into. The work continues...

"Defensiveness is usually someone silently screaming that they need you to value and respect them in disguise."

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Abdication, delegation, interference

How do leaders know if what they are giving their people is right?

This was the question that was exercising a leader I met last week. He was very aware of the strengths and weaknesses of his team and the challenges they had on . He was also very clear about his own management style and was well aware that he loved 'doing the doing'  and was in danger of getting overly involved and potentially becoming an interference and a nuisance to his team

He'd also experimented with more delegation and talked fondly of a happy couple of weeks when he'd been able to go home at 5pm after off loading his project backlog. This had backfired slightly when he discovered his team straining to complete tasks and he'd  concluded that his 'delegation' had actually become abdication.

This delicate balance is of course the stuff of 'situational leadership' - the fine art of judging the right degree of empowerment and autonomy. And art is is ... if there was rule book on how to do this perfectly it would be a best seller. My leader was more than half way there as he understood that getting it wrong was normal and was willing to have conversations with his team about what he needed to provide them. How refreshing!





Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The elephant and the rider

I've recently finished reading Jonathan Haidt's fascinating book the 'happiness hypothesis'. Don't let the title put you off - this is not pop self-help psychology but a well crafted and stimulating book about who we are and what makes us tick based on a mound of sound research.

Throughout the book Haidt uses an intriguing metaphor - the 'elephant and the rider' - making the case that we are not as rationally determined as we might like to think.  Haidt argues that most of our functioning is governed by our instinctual, habituated and largely unconscious self (the elephant). Our rational conscious self is just like the rider on a elephant - allegedly in control but ultimately not ... if our elephant wants to go a particular direction that is the way we go.

This has some interesting potential implications for change and personal development. If the elephant and the rider both want the same thing change is likely to be rapid and sustained. However if the two are at odds then change might be resisted or at best temporary. Think about all the times you (rider) have promised yourself (elephant) that you are going to get fitter/loose weight/cut back on red wine but failed to do so ... that is the rider/elephant in action.

Some interesting implications for coaching ... to be discussed!

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Feeling in control - issues in coaching

It occurs to me that 'feeling in control' is another of those things that you can have too much of or too little. When I meet a coaching client that feels too little in control there is usually a sense of being overwhelmed, coupled with anxiety and powerlessness. Almost without fail, if I can encourage them to take back a bit of control in their lives  -- often in a very small symbolic way -- this can be amazingly liberating and will often prove a turning point. One recent client gave himself permission to take a short lunch break and get out of the office -- a simple act that did wonders for his sense of personal control and proved a springboard later on for greater changes in his life.


However, sometimes the problem is holding on to too much control... the client who won't delegate or micro-manages their team to within an inch of their life to name two examples. I find this a tougher pattern to work with as there is often a bigger investment in existing behaviour. It is often a slow process of encouraging the client to progressively let go of whatever they are holding on to too tightly and test whether the sky actually does fall in. As one client said' It's a bit like a kite string ... you let go of control a bit at a time'.

So how are things today - too much or too little control in your life?

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Too much of a good thing - issues in coaching

Much of the development literature is fixated on uncovering weaknesses and finding fixes for them. "Do you lack assertiveness/ confidence/ the ability to delegate? " the book titles cry and offer their pat solutions for overcoming such 'deficits'. While important, in recent times I've become more convinced that it is our over-strengths that cause us as much problem in our dealings with others, as our weaknesses.

Daniel Ofman has an interesting take on this subject of 'too much of a good thing'. He describes how our core qualities (our natural gifts) can tip in into becoming our pitfalls when used to excess. Thus helping can become meddling, decisiveness can become dogmatic, and assertiveness can become aggressiveness etc.

Taking this further Ofman suggests that we need to develop the positive opposite of our over strengths to counter balance our core qualities, rather than necessarily eliminate our over-strengths. Thus the assertive individual would do well to develop some responsiveness to others rather than attempt to eliminate their aggressiveness. Ofman believes that this form of compensation is likely to be more successful and productive ... unless of course this too is taken to excess.

Here's a short clip of Daniel Ofman introducing his ideas...sorry the image isn't great


Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Newbies and cynics

What a refreshing week - working with a brand new team who oozed 'can do' and 'get up and go'. Not that they were a bunch of Polyanna's - far from it - they were very clear about the size of the challenge they faced and the difficulties of making headway. But somehow this didn't seem to daunt them, and despite the complexities of their labyrinthine organisation they were up for making a difference.

Will this group be as positive in a year's time? I hope so but wouldn't be surprised if it were otherwise. So often weariness, negativity and scepticism seems to creep in, and before you know it today's enthusiastic newbie is tomorrow's down trodden cynic.  Perhaps its the path of least resistance - when you've hit your head on the organisational wall too many times cynicism starts to look like the sane response. However, given most of us spend most of our waking hours at work we owe it to ourselves to remember occasionally the difference we too once wanted to make in the world.



Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Negativity in groups - issues in team coaching

We'd had  a great day - the group were humming with creativity and the outputs from their discussions covered the walls. I was bringing it to close when a voice piped up from the back. "What's the point?" he asked, "Nobody's going to listen us-  even if they did, what we've come up with is never going to work!". The mood in the room plummeted and several members of the group rounded on the dissenter - why hadn't he raised his concerns earlier in the day, why was he being so negative? Some of the group even made fun of him "Trust you to see the dark side, keep us grounded why don't you!"

Dealing with negativity can be a real challenge as a group facilitator. You want all perspectives to be represented and know that sometimes it is the 'marginal voice' that brings fresh perspective and guards against group think. However the negative voice often isn't interested in solutions so much as proving to others that their pessimistic views are right and realistic - " We're all doomed and I predicted it". Its therefore sometimes a fine line between supporting difference and keeping productive work flowing. All in a days work...

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Cycling with the brakes on


Working with a coaching client recently I had the privilege of watching what happens when someone gets fully 'behind themselves'. Instead of putting his mental energies into what might go wrong in the future and how he might fail, my client started to articulate, with clarity and passion, what he wanted to lead for and the changes he wanted to see in the world. The problems and pitfalls were still there, but he had crossed a threshold and there would be no turning back and certainly no stopping him. Very exciting!

I reckon I have a choice as a coach - exploring the negative or exploring the positive. Do I spend my time helping my client to face their fears and dismantling their blocks, or connecting my clients with what is fundamental and core to them, and let their own energy take hold. Both are legitimate conversations but I do find that while people are often very skilled at defending their anxieties and maintaining their worries, they are less adept at  trusting themselves and committing all their resources to their aspirations. Its like they're riding a bicycle with the brakes on.

'As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live' - my second favourite von Goethe quote.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The too helpful leader

We've all heard of the 'micro-manager' - the guy/gal who is always hovering on your shoulder and deep down doesn't really trust us to get on. However just as common, but less acknowledged, is the 'too helpful manager'. These are the well-intentioned folk who can't help taking other people's problems on themselves, and define leadership in terms of the number of issues they've managed to fix in the day. Throw in a soup├žon of control freakery and you've got a wonderful recipe for dis-empowerment.

For these managers coaching is often a struggle, as they see their role as the expert who has to provide all the answers. Coaching someone else to learn for themselves can therefore come as a bit of a shock, and more than the odd  leading question is known to creep into the dialogue. 

While of course problems must be fixed, the too helpful manager  deprives their team of the opportunity to find their own way and make their own mistakes ie. grow and develop. Net result - the too helpful boss perpetually has to keep helping out and becomes a bottleneck on their own team performance.

Perhaps time for a redefinition of what is helpful?

Thanks to Jock McNeish for the wonderful cartoon.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Selective hearing - issues in coaching

Having delivered a lot of 360 feedback to people over the years I've noticed how often people seem to selectively pick out the messages they want to hear and reject or rationalise away the rest. Not too surprising at one level, but given the intent of 360 feedback is (in part) to puncture our self-delusions not reinforce them, this form of selective hearing seems worth paying attention to.

William Swann*, US psychologist, talks about two competing motives that tend to preserve and reinforce our view of ourselves: the self-consistency and self-enhancement motives. Those with a stronger self-consistency drive need to see themselves as essentially unchanging - even if it means clinging to a poor self-image. So when faced with good feedback they will often diminish or minimise it, whilst lapping up the bad news. A stronger self-enhancement motive shows up as people wanting to enhance their view of themselves - so guess what - the good news gets heard and the bad news gets rejected. This makes it tough work for the coach trying to increase a client's self-awareness but understanding these motives does help.

So what do you find harder - the good new or the bad news?

* Swann,W.B. et al (1999) The cognitive-affective crossfire: when self-consistency confronts self-enhancement, in: Roy F. Baumeister (Ed.), The self in social psychology, Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press. Click here for a link

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Coaching vs Therapy - issues in coaching

When I'm asked by new coaches about the differences between coaching and therapy, I'm often tempted to ask them whether they want the two minute explanation or the two hour version. The two minute version goes something like this - coaching is about the future, its about work performance, its about people who are functioning well but who could function better, its about finding solutions not fixing history. Therapy isn't any of these.

The two hour version points out the generalisations in these statements, the impossibility of compartmentalising ourselves, and the similarity in skills. Experienced business coaches know that the whole human shows up for coaching - and that, often,  the roots of present day performance issues lies in the past. Like it or not we are dealing with human psychology when we coach... and that includes our own not just the client's.

Like learning to swim, we need to be clear about when we are getting into 'deep water' as a coach and either head for the 'shallows' or learn to improve our technique. We do our clients no service if we take them into waters where we are out of our depth. Equally perpetually swimming in the shallow end is unlikely to make a real difference in the lives of our clients.  OK enough watery metaphors.


Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Playing the 'Inner Game'

I was recently reminded of Tim Gallwey's  ** performance equation : Performance equals Potential minus Interference. 

Although a tad pseudo-scientific, Gallwey's equation succinctly expresses the notion that most of our battles are not 'out there' but in our own heads - how we play our 'Inner Game'. The issue is not what we can do, so much as what we talk ourselves out of doing. Just listen to your own self-talk next time you face a difficult or challenging task and you will probably hear self-doubt, negative forecasting and other forms of self-limiting beliefs - all examples of  'mental interference' in Gallwey's terms.

This simple equation has spawned a whole approach to coaching. Rather than building skills or knowledge (ie maximising the potential component of the equation), the 'Inner Game' coach works on 'interference' element by finding causes of low self-confidence, challenges self-limiting beliefs and assumptions and recasting self-defeating or destructive patterns of behaviour. This means the coach is more likely to ask questions and listen, rather than tell, instruct or teach.

"It's not what they can do, it's what they tell themselves they can't do, that brings them to coaching" said an old colleague of mine. Too true!

Here's a short clip of Tim Gallwey talking about how he stumbled on the 'Inner Game' approach. 

**Gallwey, T. (2000) The Inner Game of Work: overcoming mental obstacles for maximum performance. London: Orion Books, pp17

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Thinking together

I'm fascinated by how groups of people talk, listen and think together. So often the experience is dispiriting - something about the sum of the parts adding up to less than they should. So it always of interest to observe, and be part of, a group in which the quality of collective thinking outweighs what seems possible individually.

What makes the difference? William Isaacs ** reckons it is often down to the quality of dialogue and some apparently very simple, very teachable behaviours:
  • Listen - like a peer
  • Suspend - your certainties
  • Respect - others views
  • Speak - your true voice

Easy .. no not at all . We, by and large, don't 'get' the difference between debate and dialogue. We've all be trained in a 'debating' culture and have few really positive role models of group collaboration and skilled dialogue.  It takes time and patience to learn these apparently simple skills, and get the balance of advocacy and inquiry consistently right. 

Watch next time  you are in a group that's going round in circles - which of these behaviours is being overplayed and which undercooked? Always illuminating.

**Isaacs, W. (1999), Dialogue and the art of thinking together, New York: Doubleday.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Choosing change - issues in coaching

I've recently started work with two new coaching clients - one who has fought tooth and nail for a coach and another who has been told come. As you'd expect the contrast between them is stark: client 1 is very clear about what they want to work on and very motivated, whilst client 2 is every so slightly resentful and more than a bit fuzzy about 'their' goals . As you can imagine this impacts the work hugely and I'm working hard to find an agenda that client 2 can call their own ... and still aligns with the organisational need that sent them to me in the first place.

I believe we have to choose change - especially personal change - and that it is nigh on impossible to coach someone in directions they don't buy-in to or pay only lip service to. I don't think this necessarily renders them uncoachable so much as uncoachable on an imposed agenda. The 'trick' (if trick it is) is to connect to what people really care about, the reputation they want and the changes they are trying to make in the world... and then see if it aligns with the organisational paymaster.

So I'm with Peter Senge when he says "We don't resist change. We resist  being changed". Coaches are on dangerous territory if they see themselves as changing other people - we can only hope to help people change themselves in the directions they choose for themselves.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

In praise of confusion and uncertainty

I got off the phone this morning with  my mentor thoroughly confused, and feeling grumpy as a result. I'd gone from a surety that  "I've got my ducks in a row" to feeling that the whole duck pond had been unexpected emptied. However I also know that this will be to the good eventually as a better plan will emerge once I've have time to stew.

This experience got me to thinking about the value of feeling confused. Isn't a good shake up of one's certainties and assumptions actually the stuff of learning and growth? Like most of us, I'm not keen on the feeling of confusion and can rush on in an attempt to get back to the comfort of  'certainty' rather than tolerate the discomfort of confusion and not knowing. However, I know from experience that the 'not knowing' place is often the place where I find genuinely fresh perspectives ... if I am prepared to give it the time it needs.

I notice when I work with novice coaches they are often very keen for their clients to reach clarity and are often dismayed if a way forward doesn't emerge quickly. Consequently the work can become a rushed problem-solving session rather than a thoughtful and considerate examination of the assumptions and beliefs underlying an issue. Result - a superficial quick-fix that doesn't stick... perhaps tolerance of confusion and uncertainty is a muscle more coaches could usefully develop.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Creating our own glass ceiling - issues in coaching

I've recently come back to an old favourite of mine - the 'Let Go, Preserve, Add On'  model * and found myself having some interesting and useful leadership coaching conversations on the back of it. Arthur Freedman's simple model suggests that the mix of skills, abilities, beliefs and knowledge (etc.) that got us to where we are today not only won't get us further up the organisational ladder but actually might be holding us back - our own glass ceiling if you like. The trick is to know what we should ditch, what we should preserve and what we need to add into the mix. The problem is we tend to be comfortable with the repertoire that got us to today and the idea of shaking it up can feel scary .. particularly behaviours that have served us well in the past.

This was born out in a conversation I had with Martin last week. Martin is a promoted expert in his company and is struggling with the fact that he now being asked to lead experts instead of being one. "I just love the work" he confided in me, "...so much so that I've been know to repeat my team's work just so I can feel connected again". Worse still, he was struggling to value working strategically and was in danger of doing neither his new or old role well.

Freedman talks about a series of 'crossroads' that leaders must navigate as they move upward through the organisation. At each of these turning points, a fundamental reappraisal of our 'leadership map' is called for if we are not to be trapped by a glass ceiling of our own making.

*Freedman, A. (1998) , Pathways and Crossroads to Institutional Leadership, Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, Vol. 50, No. 3,131-151  - click here for a copy

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Do we live in separate universes?

I never cease to be amazed at the difference in perspective that two people can hold - its almost as if we live in completely separate universes. Its happened to me twice this week - I am talking to a coaching client about their take on the world and separately talking to their boss about how they see things. Apart from the odd coincidence of facts - dates, places, people - the interpretation of events is completely different, and equally compelling. This makes finding the ground of coaching extremely difficult and I find myself working to find out where views coincide enough so the work can begin.

This is particularly the case when the coaching assignment is around the behaviours of the individual and too often the debate becomes a clash of perspectives. One man's assertiveness is another man's aggression. One woman's planning is another woman's over controlling. This gets particularly tricky when both parties claim the 'truth' of the situation as their own perspective and it is easy to get drawn in believing one party over another.

A productive way out of this I've found is to focus on impact rather than intent. I've rarely met anyone who intends to show up badly at work, and will defend tooth and nail the positive intent behind their actions - " I was only trying to get him to hear all the facts". Shifting the ground to the impact they have on others - "I can see how I spoke upset him" -  and the perceptions they create is often more fertile and less defended ground.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The 'pink and fluffy' stuff.

OK I've going to use the 'F' word - feelings - I know it is not fashionable but there you go I've done it now. While the value of emotional intelligence is not new news, what is it about the very hint of an emotion that make many of us head for the hills? Worse still, how come we have to deride 'feelings' as the 'pink and fluffy' stuff when often they are the most challenging part of our relationships ...  or is it because they are the most challenging part of our relationships?

Daniel Goleman reckons that all conversations - including hard headed business conversations - have an emotional content which we can choose to pay attention to, as well as a factual content. It could be as 'in your face' as fear, sadness or anger, or more subtle and lower key such as resentment, amusement or boredom. Whatever is present, all emotions have an impact whether we admit it or not and colours what becomes possible or impossible. When we ignore or suppress the feeling content of a situation we cut ourselves off from an important source of data about what is going on for both parties. I've often found in my coaching practice, for example, that the emotional content has been a more accurate predictor of intent rather than the sophisticated rationalisations and justifications we often show up with.

Here's a link to Daniel Goleman talking (55 min) at the Google University about the productive use of the 'pink and fluffy' stuff  and the emotional subtext of our conversations.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Contracting for the internal coach - issues in coaching

The complexity of the role of the internal coach hit home to me again last week. I was talking to Derek --not his real name -- a newly appointed internal coach who was struggling with the many competing demands on his time and the conflicting 'pulls' he was experiencing from different stakeholders.

To me this all came back to contracting - the practice of clarifying upfront what can be expected of the coach and the coaching relationship. Rightly, this is given emphasis in the external coaching world, with subsequent problems often tracked back to a failure to contract adequately. However contracting can often be underplayed in the organisational context where it can be assumed that roles are clear or conversations about 'ways of working' unnecessary.

Derek's life would have been simpler if it were just one client he had to worry about - his problem was that he had not one but multiple clients - his coachees, his boss, his divisional Director, the HRD etc... you get the picture. None of these agreed or indeed were very clear about what they needed of Derek and his role was in danger of becoming confused with the line manager or worse...some sort of organisational stealth police. Not good and can be avoided with some honest conversations upfront.

Here's some 'how to' advice on contracting - click here for more info.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Response-ability: developing the pause 'muscle'

Driving home the other night I witnessed a hilarious and simultaneously alarming instance of road rage. Cut up by another driver, I watched an aggrieved motorist get out of his car and beat the bonnet* of his persecutor's car with his hat, whilst roaring his displeasure.  A very 'Basil Fawlty' moment - spleen was vented but not a lot else was accomplished.
This reminded me about the value of the pause - the ability to stop, take stock and choose our response to a given situation - response-ability if you like. Instead of operating on 'automatic pilot' triggered by an event or situation we can engage the rational part of our mind long enough to make a more considered response. We may still choose to beat the bonnet but at least we are choosing not reacting.

The 'pause' is therefore central to our EQ and is a muscle we need to develop especially for stressful times. Peter Senge** has a very useful exercise called 'Moments of Awareness' which you can use to build your 'pause' muscle. It goes like this:

  •  Pause and ask yourself: 
    • What is happening right now? 
    • What do I want right now?
    • What am I doing right now to stop me getting what I want?
  • Make a choice.
  • Take a breath ..... move on  


Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Trust - the new engagement?

What creates engagement? This seems to be the Holy Grail question at the moment, as business and industry search for ever more creative ways to improve the scores on the annual engagement survey.

What we do know is that the relationship between manager and subordinate is key. If you don't get on with your boss then the chances are you won't be as engaged as you could be at work. All the sophisticated reward and recognition schemes devised by HR are fighting an uphill battle in their attempt to win over the hearts and minds of the workforce if the leader-team relationship has gone sour.

Key to the manager- subordinate relationship to me is 'Trust' -  does the manager display genuine trust in their team or are they merely waiting to catch their team doing something wrong? Is the team member hanging on to ancient grievances about their boss, waiting for the moment when they can re-enact them, and prove to themselves once more that the manager is out to get them.

Trust is not something we typically talk about at work - but like all relationships is the bed rock of how we get on with folks. So maybe we should talk less about engagement at work and find the courage to do something about trust.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Support and Challenge - issues in coaching

I work with a lot of leaders to help them develop and hone their coaching skills. A common misapprehension amongst them, especially in the early days, is that coaching is some sort of cosy supportive relationship -- usually involving a lot of open ended questions and not a lot else. The phrase 'pink and fluffy' comes to mind.

Daloz's Support & Challenge model
While I do believe part of the role of a Coaching-Manager is to support their team, I also believe that they are there to challenge them to do more and continuously raising the bar. The balance of support and challenge is therefore crucial to effective coaching - too much support and coaching becomes a cosy chat, too much challenge and the team will head for the hills. This is a case of 'and' not 'either/or'. When the balance is right, coaching is both fun and stretching, working right at the edge of what is possible.

Coaches and Coaching Managers therefore need to know which they find most challenging  - being supportive or being challenging - and learn ways to ensure they bring both into their work in the right quantities and at the right time. No challenge there then!

Source: Daloz,L. (1986), Effective teaching and mentoring: realising the transformational power of adult learning experiences.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

"You give me confidence" - issues in coaching

So I'm sitting in a workshop and one of my delegates leans over and says "You give me confidence!" My first reaction is to blush  and my second is puzzlement - how on earth could I do that? I understand that positive encouragement and support from others bolsters people but does it build self-confidence? What happens when nobody is around to encourage us or affirm our actions -- what do we draw on then? Surely self-confidence is exactly that - our positive belief in our own efficacy -- and not someone else's good opinion.
We only grow our confidence by taking risks in life - having a go at the things we find a tad scary or uncomfortable. "Feel the fear and do it anyway" as Susan Jeffers used to say. That's why great coaches include an element of experimentation and graduated risk taking in their work with clients. Only by doing more do we learn to become more.

Self-confidence by definition is a positive belief we form about ourselves. While we expect others to 'give us confidence' we are going to have to wait a long time to feel good about ourselves. Dependency on outside sources, including well meaning coaches, does us no good in the long run.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

The ‘imposter syndrome’ – issues in coaching

If I had to name one single issue that appears time and again in coaching assignments it would have to be self-esteem and confidence issues. Whether people have too much or too little, it just seems to be an issue that keeps on coming up.

Take a recent client – a high-flying senior executive who by just about every possible measure could be considered successful - she even had the work/life balance thing licked. However she perpetually carried a lurking suspicion that the next role/ project was going to be the one that caught her out and she would be revealed for the 'imposter' she really thought she was. In her case mercifully this wasn’t debilitating - perhaps it was just her way of not getting complacent - but for others I’ve met and worked with this sort of lingering self-doubt can be crippling.

Nathaniel Brandon said that ‘self-esteem is the reputation we acquire with our self’,
 and that reputation can be surprisingly tough to shift even if it is a reputation that no longer serves us or has little basis in fact. Coaching is often about a fundamental reappraisal - a stock taking if you like - which leads to a more balanced and realistic sense of self. 

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Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Small goals for big change in 2012

I'm really interested in our relationship with goal setting - while having goals is universally deemed a 'good thing' we seem to spend much of our time either ignoring them or worse, self-sabotaging. This is the time of year for New Year's resolutions but how many of us will still be on the diet in February or getting value from the gym in March? So what is it about setting ourselves a goal that then sets up a parallel mechanism to subvert it ?

Robert Maurer, author of 'One Small Step Can Change Your Life', reckons that it is something to do with the size of our aspirations - ambitious goals, particularly the big hairy audacious sort, he claims, actually sets up resistance in ourselves, channelling our energy into fighting success rather than achieving it. He recommends persistent small goals and small steps as the way to get traction on the changes we want to make in life and work. A sort of 'Kaizen' approach to life coaching?

So I'm not setting any resolutions for 2012 but I am going to loose 1lb in the next week.. and the week after.

Happy New Year!