Moderating George's Excesses
George, a senior manager in a manufacturing company, has no blockages to getting into action. In fact, he is all action.
However, he used to think so poorly of others who did not share his drive that he would become enraged and
aggressive when they did not meet the high standards he set for them and himself. This caused colleagues and subordinates to avoid contact with him whenever they could.
Far from spurring greater action, aggressive behaviors block creativity and drain energy from those exposed to it. Although repeatedly warned to rein in his dysfunctional behaviors, George made little headway. Self-help to overcome aggressiveness rarely produces the desired results.
To capitalize on his deep knowledge and consistent execution, his company engaged me to coach George to
curtail his overbearing behaviors. Within a few weeks, colleagues began to notice and comment on how pleasurable it had become to work with George. For the first time, others could appreciate his outstanding talents and value to the company.
Although it takes a long time – we usually plan for a year – to make these changes permanent, some behavior change normally becomes evident quickly. Fortunately, once people recognize how much their behavior demotivates others and lowers their sustained output, they can change successfully through coaching. For long-term success, leaders must focus not only on achieving results but also on how they achieve those results.
Some people are so much in need of having everybody like them that they become unable to make tough decisions. Jack was a client who exhibited this characteristic.
He had been a high-level staff person reporting to the COO of a large corporation. He sought and was given a line role to launch a new career path.
In this case, I was overseeing another coach from my organization who was coaching Jack. One of the exercises we take clients through is to list those aspects of themselves they would like to change and those aspects of themselves they do not want to change.
Among those characteristics that Jack listed that he did not want to change was any aspect of his personality. We understood this because he has a most pleasing personality and we did not notice any undesired behaviors. That served him very well when he was doing staff work using the authority of the powerful COO whom he was representing.
However, we challenged Jack on his lack of desire to make a fundamental change in his personality. He was not limited by errors of the commission but rather by errors of omission. Jack was not going to succeed in his new line of responsibility if he did not transform himself beyond his uncontrollable need for having everybody like him.
One of the transformations we guided Jack through was to switch his guiding principle from having people like him to having them respect him. That transformation enabled him to go from a nice-guy staff person to a more tough-minded line executive. If you are highly respected, most people will actually like you.
However, you should not have been liked as your goal. We emphasize fairness in making tough decisions and using assertiveness as opposed to aggressiveness. With the help of his coach, Jack successfully navigated through this and other transformations with excellent results. Jack went on to a series of successful line-management roles.
Jack's Dread of Not Being Liked
Cecilia was Vice President of Supply Chain Management for a high-tech design and manufacturing company. She had worked her way up the ranks of the corporation to reach the executive level.
However, her management had become concerned that while she was a star contract negotiator, she was not getting the best out of her team. The 360° survey and interviews indicated that she lacked the leadership ability to hold members of her team accountable. Cecilia lacked the ability to give penetrating developmental performance reviews and to take strong enough actions to get the best out of her team.
The fact that Cecilia had worked alongside many of the people she now led compounded her barrier to action. The breakthrough in Cecilia's coaching came when we identified an auto-self characteristic she had developed to succeed in the purchasing world.
She could handle the most manipulative and forceful salespeople with a tenacious but calm demeanor to get good procurements for her company. What we did was to focus Cecilia on what it felt like when she trained herself to interact effectively in the difficult purchasing environment and what it felt like when she was able to withstand a contentious environment that others would try to escape.
This was an "ah-ha" experience for Cecilia. She was able to leverage her insights and experiences regarding negotiating good deals out of salespeople to "negotiate" better performance out of her team.
Cecilia's Inability to Lead Effectively
Here is a personal story of gaining insight into my automatic mode of behavior. Perhaps this will help you recognize similar internal encounters in your experiences. When I was 20, I noticed that when people cut me off in traffic, I would become enraged, scream at them, and attempt to retaliate by cutting them off as soon as I could. I grew increasingly concerned about my uncontrollable anger and my unsafe retaliatory driving. One day it could either get me an expensive ticket or cause an accident.
Finally, I decided I would no longer react that way when someone drove rudely. When the next person cut me off, how do you think I reacted?... I retaliated! After I recovered from losing control, I was flabbergasted, and I was painfully disappointed that I had not done better. This experience drove me into reality vertigo that made me wonder, "Who's in charge here?"
I had created a clear intention to behave differently, yet something "inside me" compelled me to behave badly, as if my intention did not matter. I refused to accept my inability to stop my road rage. I resolved that, no matter what, I would not attempt to reciprocate when the next impolite driver aggressively squeezed his or her car between mine and the one in front of me.
Since I commuted in city traffic during rush hour, I did not have to wait long for an opportunity to test my resolve. The next time a driver cut me off, I did not make aggressive gestures or retaliate.
However, what happened internally astonished me. An almost overwhelming impulse to strike back surged through me. I still felt the driver had trespassed on my rightful territory, and I needed to teach him a lesson. That was the first time I experienced so vividly a struggle between my intentions and my automatic thoughts and actions. It felt like a bewildering internal war over control of my behavior.
This traumatic internal conflict launched an epiphany for me. I suddenly realized I had two distinct aspects of myself competing for control of my thoughts and actions, and "I" didn't have a clue how to control which competitor won.
I learned another valuable lesson during the following months. I continued my determination to avoid retaliatory driving behavior. My internal struggle persisted as my compulsion relentlessly challenged my commitment, but I persevered. After a while the urge to seek revenge receded.
After a few months, it became comfortable to avoid agitation and to resist retaliation. I overcame my need to strike back by telling myself stories, which was fortuitous because I was decades away from understanding the automatic, uncontrollable mode and its properties.
I told myself that I was not responsible for reforming rude drivers and that my emotional health, my safety, and the safety of other drivers were more important than avenging someone else's inconsiderate behavior.
Finally, avoiding retaliation became easy for me. In my current terminology, I transformed myself – I became different by reprogramming my auto-self (i.e., my auto-behavior and the auto-context that drove it). My new automatic behavior was consistent with my intentions. I no longer had to focus my attention on the problem, and avoiding retaliation no longer required the greatest willpower I could muster. That transformation as stayed with me throughout my life.
Road Rage – A Powerful Insight into Our Auto-Self "Who's in charge here?"
Note: We strongly value confidentiality, so the names used here were not the real names of my clients.
Maria was a director of software development whom I coached. She had strong technical abilities and was a good project manager.
However, she was not able to get the best out of her team. One of her intentions for a new behavior was to give balanced performance reviews to her direct reports that noted their strengths but also pinpointed their weaknesses and identified actions to improve their performance. Maria previously had sugarcoated the reviews of her team members.
I worked with Maria to develop balanced reviews on her next round. When she kept postponing delivering the reviews, I got her to commit to doing two of them before our next coaching session.
At our next coaching session, Maria admitted she had not given the performance reviews. I started with an open question, "Maria, why didn't you conduct those two performance reviews as you intended?" As expected, Maria replied, "I really wanted to do them, but the week was just so hectic I couldn't hold the schedules."
I could have just told her that sounded like an excuse and not a reason to me, but I knew she was struggling to give the developmental feedback and I wanted to create some stronger feelings to counteract her discomfort with the performance reviews.
I started with what I assumed would be a series of evocative questions as she tried to avoid facing her barrier to action. "What happened to make you so much busier than you thought you would be when you committed to doing the performance reviews?" Maria rattled off a list of activities that she had not anticipated when she committed. I continued, "How does that number of interruptions compare to a typical week?" Maria answered by repeating the interruptions that kept her from conducting the performance reviews.
I pressed on. "I realize that each week you get interrupted on different issues, but I want you to notice how your interruptions this week corresponded to the amount you should have expected." Maria was starting to get the point.
She finally admitted, "Yes, the number of interruptions was about normal." Maria was now running out of wiggle room as I continued to press her. "I assume you plan for your normal amount of interruptions when you schedule important tasks, so tell me again why you didn't do the two performance reviews this week."
This is the crucial point that transformation coaches must embrace. Most people find the delay uncomfortable and interrupt the process by asking further questions while the client is still struggling with the previous question. Maria went silent while she tried to think up a way to escape the reality war into which I had led her. I stayed silent and let her grapple with her dilemma.
Maria finally confessed, "Yes, I could have done those interviews.
I guess I was just looking for an excuse because I know they will both get upset when I point out their weaknesses." As frequently happens with coaching clients, Maria found herself pretending that she wasn’t carrying out her intentions because she was worried about creating discomfort for the people she needed to review. However, she also was well aware that they needed that feedback to improve their performance to an acceptable level. The actual underlying reason she kept failing to perform her reviews was because it was uncomfortable for her.
I now pushed forward to the conclusion of the evocative questions. "Now that you realize what happened last week, what are you going to do differently this week?"
Maria thought a little longer and said she would schedule specific times for the reviews and hold them. This type of evocative questioning usually gets the desired result. Maria completed the reviews and they went better than she had feared.
If I had just suggested that she was offering up excuses, she may have disagreed and not changed her behavior. However, after a series of evocative open questions, most people find it preferable to execute their intended behavior than to take another stroll down Evocative Questioning Lane with their coach. Another powerful use of evocative open questions to change behavior is to apply them while holding someone accountable who has missed a commitment.