“Why Can’t They Think More Strategically?” – Power and Goal Orientation

Have you ever complained that your staff aren’t strategic enough? Have you ever wondered why those who report to you seem slow to see the bigger picture or unable to cut through the minutiae and constant operational demands?

People in positions of power tend to be goal oriented. Research confirms that people with high power demonstrate greater initiative than individuals with low power, attempting multiple courses of action to realise their goals. They persist in their efforts to achieve their goals even in the face of obstacles. Empowered individuals tend to address obstacles and challenges directly.

Observing this we might conclude that individuals who have more structural or social power, have earned their position and its associated power because they are more committed, intelligent or resourceful. Makes sense, right?

The gap between how executives approach an issue and how their staff think about the same issue can be anathema to many leaders. Managers can also find themselves frustrated. “Why can’t they get it?” they ask themselves.

Several recent psychological studies suggest that high power individuals demonstrate a strategic perspective and behaviours because they are empowered, rather than vice versa.

Typically these research studies test individuals’ performance on a specific task before randomly assigning them to positions of high and low power and then measuring differences in goal-oriented and other behaviours. Any differences in behaviour are deemed to be a reflection of the power randomly assigned to individuals rather than individual attributes.

In a review of contemporary research, Pamela Smith and her colleagues conclude that “low power fundamentally alters an individual’s mental world.”

Let’s think for a moment about the practical implications of having or not having power.

Having Control

Common sense tells us that leaders have greater control over their decisions. They have a level of authority that allows them to exercise discretion. They can largely determine their own priorities. If you’re in a position of high power you don’t have to seek the approval of your manager as often and are probably less susceptible to someone else’s changes in priorities. This helps leaders and those with high power or independent resources to focus their attention and pursue their goals relentlessly.

In contrast, individuals with lower power are usually expected to be more responsive, to multi-task and shift attention to any new tasks assigned to them. Subordinate employees need to bear in mind what others think of their work. This means more of their energy is committed to maintaining an active radar on the peripheral environment.

This is consistent with findings that people with low power demonstrate higher levels of vigilance. They have difficulty filtering out distracting information unrelated to their goal. Studies show they attend to specific details at the expense of the bigger picture. Hence an apparent failure to think strategically and get above the detail.

Power and The Consequence of Our Decisions

For staff who report to a superior, the consequences of making the right or wrong decision are greater than for those who experience comparative autonomy. While those in leadership positions can attribute their failures to learning experiences, staff with lower structural rank are likely to be held accountable for their mistakes.

It’s hardly surprising that studies now confirm that people with low power spend longer making decisions.

And the pressure doesn’t stop there. Even when they do make decisions, they tend to demonstrate more ambivalence and uncertainty.

Impacts of Brain Functioning

Having or not having power actually has an impact on the brain’s executive functions. Impaired working memory, difficulty managing distractions and worse performance during complex tasks have been linked to having low power. Serotonin levels are also linked to an individual’s perceptions of their own power.

Being less flexible

Findings that having low power leads to being less flexible cognitively are interesting. How are we to interpret this? Perhaps people with low power are required to be so flexible already that they’ve used their flexibility quotient up! With so many resources committed to screening all available data, managing risks and responding to changes in other people’s priorities, it’s plausible that people with low power just don’t have the mental energy left to be even more flexible.

Smith suggests that individuals with low power are more likely to believe they are at the mercy of “situational constraints and circumstances, rather than their own goals and values, and view themselves as the means for other people’s goals.” In other words they don’t feel empowered when it comes to thinking and acting strategically.

The Impact of Social Heirarchies

Of course these studies have implications beyond hierarchical power. They illustrate some of the pressures that members of low status social groups operate under.

Take for example the pressures of relating inter-racially. It’s been shown that interracial interactions elicit stress levels that result in diminished performance. Members of stigmatized groups have been shown to demonstrate worse self-control in testing.

Failure to focus on goals and achieve high results may be a consequence of social marginalisation, rather than lack of individual commitment or effort.

Take the comparatively poor representation of indigenous people in mainstream employment for example. Low social status has a major bearing on how empowered these individuals feel to solve problems, tackle impediments and meet organisational expectations (and that’s before we even contemplate the impact of stereotypes, harassment and bullying in the workpace).

As I engage with the research on power and its influence on performance, it makes me think about how much I take for granted. As a coach, these insights are invaluable in working with executives and teams or members of the mainstream population who don’t struggle in the same way others might.

An understanding of power and rank dynamics is important for any organisation committed to a truly diverse workplace. In addition to understanding barriers to employment in the first place, an understanding of comparative power goes a long way to creating the conditions in which individuals can perform at their best. When employers understand the barriers that individuals in low power roles or from socially marginalised populations experience they can actively work to counter the legacy of low power and create the conditions that allow individuals to focus on the task at hand.

Reflection:

How would you rate your own power in the workplace?

How does this influence your capacity to focus on and achieve your goals?

What steps can you take to address some of the challenges or barriers that individuals with low power experience in attempting to achieve their goals?

 

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Stay Awake To The Sub-text

Listening as a coach isn’t always about taking everything your client tells you as verbatim.  In adopting a process oriented approach to coaching, we are called to pay attention to what is happening in the moment.  It’s not just the content of the client’s narrative that is rich, but also the subtext.

The client may not even be aware of some important aspects of their communication.  To reveal the client’s subtext, we can ask ourselves:  What else is the client saying?  What words do they choose?  What strikes us about their tone of voice or their body language?

Edgar Schein, whose work I’ve referenced before, turns his focus not only to the hard data of the client and their organisation, but also to the micro-elements of each interaction, such as how the client engages with the coach or consultant.

What Are They Really Looking For?

Schein asks:  What is the client looking for?  Is she seeking an expert?  Is he seeking a sounding board?  Is he in search of an ally, someone who will have his back? Or is she looking for someone who will challenge her?

Rather than being taken at face value, the client’s initial take on what they need is a starting point for a deeper understanding.  As coaches, we need to read into the subtext and find what else the client is asking for.  What do they want that they are not quite aware of yet?  When we stay alert to what else the client is saying, we find what informs their conscious preference.  Do they experience isolation?  Do they trust their own judgment?  Do they congruently believe their stated goal, or is it a response to some external pressure?

I often ask my clients how they would like me to work with them.  I’m always excited when a client says they want to be challenged.  I have a rigorous and sometimes challenging style as a coach, so this is both an invitation and a trap for me, if I don’t pause and enquire a little further.

Is What They Believe Really What They Need?

Does the client genuinely want or need to be challenged?  Or are they relentlessly driving themself because of a pressured belief system?  Do they assume challenge is the best path to growth when they would actually benefit from more space to take a breath?  Are they already pushing too hard, and if this is the case, how do they approach their staff?  Is their workforce feeling too driven?

Then I consider what other options might be of value.  The answer usually is found in the subtext; the less-known aspects of what the client is saying.  Maybe they need me to coach them in how to relax more.  Or maybe their path is to relate more to their staff and allow time for flow of ideas and creativity.

I hold these ideas as hypotheses in my mind, as I reflect on the next question to ask my client.  Ultimately the client and I must embark on this discovery together.

What I understand from Schein, is that the coaching client’s initial brief, their definition of what they need, is information rather than a fixed prescription for what we should give them.  So don’t follow it without question!  Become curious about it.  Interrogate it.  Dance with it.  Unpack it, and deepen both your own and the client’s understanding.

Learn To Read Your Client’s Subtext:

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Taking the Next Steps

Do you have a dream you would like to bring into the world?  Do you have an idea you want to make real?

Recently I was asked to speak and demonstrate coaching at an International Processwork Online Community meeting.  I was delighted to coach Catharine MacDonald on her vision: to support IT sector organisations realise the potential of individuals on the Asberger’s or Autism spectrum.  With years of hands on experience as an IT manager, Catharine understands first hand that these employees can be star designers and developers – when managers create the conditions for their success.

I bet your own aspirations are equally as compelling.

Coaching The Gap

I want to thank Catharine for permission to share her story.  She was so close to her vision, in truth only a little tweaking was needed for her to reach out and take the next steps.  While they may seem small, minor adjustments can make all the difference between frustration and success.

Translating your skills into a new context can be a challenge.  To really believe in your own capability, to back your ideas and go for it, can seem impossible from your usual perspective.  Sometimes this means working with others who hold an important piece of the puzzle or approaching others for support.

At times our visions can be both close to the surface and tantalizingly elusive.  That’s where coaching comes in.  We coach the gap.  We look for what’s almost but not quite happening, and build the insight and action needed to achieve results.

Sometimes this means finding the right words to describe what you do.  At other times it’s about building confidence, recognising who your audience is, or tweaking your strategy.

Here at GCI, we have a passion for helping therapists, entrepreneurs, leaders, facilitators and social activists draw on their skills and experience and take the next steps to make their dreams a reality.

Thanks to Catharine, for connecting us with a core part of our own mission.

Our Group Coaching Offer

For more on coaching the gap and to support you in taking your next steps, please join us in our group coaching series, June 6 – July 26.

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History is Not in the Past

As coaches, being aware of the many influences that shape our clients’ lives is critical.  These influences include social and historical experiences that aren’t apparent at first glance.  Along with several of our graduates, Vicki and I are preparing for a trip to Greece for a process-oriented seminar called Worldwork.  These seminars are organized every couple of years in different parts of the world, and involve hundreds of participants working on global and historical issues.

As I prepare for the trip, I recall a piece I wrote at the last Worldwork I attended, in Poland, in 2014.  Here it is.

Warsaw, 2014

For the last week I’ve been in Warsaw, on the facilitation team for an event known as Worldwork.  Delegates from twenty-eight countries gathered to discuss, understand and address current and historic global conflicts.

Before I left home, many colleagues were curious about my commitment to this event. They asked me, why open the painful wounds of history? why put yourself through all that trauma?

For me the answer is simple. To address global conflict we need to study in depth  the lessons that both history and unfolding events reveal.

Few conflicts develop overnight.  Many ignite against a background of centuries of struggle.  The pain is buried as soldiers come home from war and civilians try to piece their lives together.  In the wake of unbearable trauma, when peace is tentative, it can be too much to talk about what has happened.  While we have new models for addressing the impact of atrocities, such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it also falls to later generations to pick up and continue the dialogue.  The hidden trauma of conflict and war carries on across generations.

The forces of conflict are intense.  Making smart decisions in the midst of turmoil is hard.  I suspect it’s impossible unless we understand – before we’re in a crisis situation – how rage and fear can collectively overcome us.  Behind these intense emotions is often the dream of something better, a deep yearning for change in our communities and the world.

Though we think of wars as part of history, the past is not only in the past.  The circumstances that shaped history continue to play out right now in our present world.  Oppressed communities dream of freedom and self-direction, while others experience the struggle for identity, for land or enough food to support themselves and their children.

Most of us not directly affected go about our ordinary lives believing we are immune to the pain of intense global conflict.   However, history has repeatedly shown that seemingly peaceful societies can find themselves in the midst of war or civil war at frightening speed.  Take the former Yugoslavia for example.

The Greek Delegates

History also shows us how dangerous it is when a group of people experiences being downed and unheard by the international community.  It creates a pressure cooker effect.  Greek delegates at Worldwork in Poland spoke about unemployment, hunger, and the worrying rise of neo-facism in their own country.  Rather than accepting growing violence as inevitable, their team will bring Worldwork to Greece in their continuing effort to engage and work out some of the tension and pain building in their country.

Of course conflict doesn’t just play out on the world stage.  It’s present in our individual lives.  We learn to persevere, despite tensions and conflicts in our communities, workplaces and families.  We get on with life.  One of the costs of not working these things out is we become desensitized to tensions or levels of suffering we’ve come to take for granted.

Yet it’s those tensions that are swept under the carpet, often in the name of momentary peace, that give rise to future conflict.  They smoulder, just waiting for the right moment to ignite.  Think about your own life.  What resentments are you carrying?  Who do you blame?  Who have you stopped speaking with?

If we’re to learn new ways of managing conflict, including the potential for violent conflict, we need to build that muscle in small ways.  I encourage you to be more like the Greek women from Worldwork.  Pay attention to the nagging or mounting tensions around you and address them if you can.

Reflections:

What nagging tensions do you ignore?

How does the past live on in your life?

Is there anything you need to re-visit in order to achieve greater peace in your world?

The Drive to Become a Coach: A Personal Story

Lately Vicki and I have had requests to share more about how we entered the world of coaching. Here’s the path I took, and Vicki’s story will follow shortly.

My own trajectory into coaching began as an occupational therapist specialising in psychological injury in the workplace. You could say fate positioned me at the intersection of therapeutic and organisational life.

My role was to rehabilitate individuals who had suffered serious psychological injuries and support their return to work.

In that role I engaged regularly with the workplace, which helped me to develop a strong systems perspective. I viewed the individual in context. I reflected not only on their personal psychology, but assessed the demands of their role and their environment. I understood that the needs and pressures of the workforce had to be encompassed, as well as the needs of the individual, in order to achieve robust outcomes.

Looking for a Preventive Model

Whilst I gained great insight into these systems, I felt like a paramedic, always responding after a crisis. Though I knew I’d done some great work with individuals, it would have been ideal if my services were no longer needed.  So, I was drawn to a preventive approach, but my brief did not authorize me to address underpinning dynamics – such as poor leadership and management practices or excessive workloads – that so often resulted in injury.

It was my desire to get ahead of the game, to prevent crises before they happened, that ultimately led me to coaching. The path was initially unclear, but I followed its scent. We all have moments like this; a knowing that arises within us, that there must be a better way.

With the understanding I now have as a coach, I see my commitment to the goal drew me forward into unfamiliar territory. Having travelled that path myself, I have a deep confidence that when an individual lets go and follows their deepest knowing or instinct, the information, support and resources they need will show up. I knew I could be having a greater impact and over time this proved itself to be true.

My journey saw me drawing on my knowledge of personal development to teach in leadership development programs. Through my clients I learned more and more about the challenges they faced. I developed an ear for the different patterns underlying common organisational challenges, diverse ways to respond and the consequences. These were skills I had learned in my early training as a therapist, and they transferred to this new field. I was also fortunate to work with some great Action Learning pioneers, on methods of enquiry that tap individuals’ tacit knowledge.

Supporting the Client to be Their Own Expert

However, it was when I discovered coaching that I truly learned to work beyond the limits of my own expertise. In coaching, I learned to resist the compulsion to be an expert. I learned to collaborate with my clients and facilitate their own enquiry.

Coaching opened new doors. These days as I coach executive teams in strategic planning and decision making contexts, coach individuals and groups embroiled in conflicts and pursue my fascination with leadership development, I am grateful for these expanded horizons.

I know I am supporting the creation of healthy workplace cultures, using my skills to their fullest.   As a bonus for myself, I also get to travel much more as a coach.  Since a lot of sessions can be done online, I can now do my work from the beach!

Reflections

What is the vision that draws you into unfamiliar territory?

What do you sense even before it has taken form?

The DNA of Organisations

Edgar Schein, author of the ground-breaking text Organisational Culture and Leadership is fondly known as the grandfather of organisational development. Over the years Schein has begun to think and speak in terms of the DNA of an organisation, or its cultural genome.

Schein argues that we can’t simply transplant notions of how to improve culture from one setting to another. Instead we need to engage deeply with the inherent nature of the organisation. Not only do we need to know the organization’s structure, but also how it works psychologically and relationally. Coaches and consultants need to understand the process of an organisation.

Schein’s view makes absolute sense to process-oriented coaches. Our art is to engage with leaders in the midst of their transformational journey. We know it is fundamental to coaching effectiveness that we find out a leader’s mental models and uncover what is taken for granted within the organization.

Schein asks, “What are the things that, when we try to change cultures, turn out to be huge barriers?”

The Organization’s Growing Edge

As process-oriented coaches and organisational development practitioners we think of this as a great point of potential and growth. We call it the edge. This is a place where many leaders and teams may falter, but process-oriented coaches are like rock climbers highly adept at scaling the edge.

The edge is where our coaches come alive. They are skilled at exploringe edges from every angle; from within the moment when a leader is gripped by fear or from the mindful distance that offers a new perspective and insight. We climb with our clients, helping them gain new insights, as they prepare their organisation to cross into new and uncharted territory.

It is through the exploration of edges and other dynamic phenomena that the unique DNA of an organisation is revealed.

Yet edges are easily missed. Avoiding what is over the edge is so much part of an organization’s culture, people are usually unaware the edge is even there. In their efforts to maintain the status quo, leaders and teams tend to avoid edges, in favour of better known behavior.

A coach’s skill lies in their capacity to recognize and work with edges. We must catch the typical signs, such as sudden changes of topic, deflecting humor, nervous laughter, or just plain drawing a blank.

Despite their well-practiced avoidance strategies, we must hold our clients at this point of growth and enquiry. At the edge there will be resistance, in one of its many forms.

In our forthcoming Coaching with the E1ME2RGE3 Model and GCI Coaching Roadmap programs we will explore these ideas in greater depth. but for now let me ask you …

  • What are the common edges you encounter in working with clients on cultural change initiatives?
  • What have you discovered as unique to different organisations?
  • How do you hold these moments of discovery and potential?

Addressing the Amygdala Hijack

During my early career as a therapist rehabilitating people after brain injuries and stroke, I became fascinated by the workings of the brain. These years taught me a lot about what happens when things start going haywire. It’s an understanding I still value as a coach…

Leaders need to be able to think clearly. We expect them to make decisions based on sound reasoning. We also expect leaders to engage proactively. But too often this is not the case. Many leadership decisions are reactive, occurring when people are at the mercy of what neuroscientists refer to as an amygdala hijack.

When we are triggered by a problem that is overwhelming, when someone who challenges our identity or we encounter perceived threats, the amygdala kicks in. We become reactive. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for our fight and flight response.

People typically behave defensively when they are caught in an amygdala hijack. Their decisions can be driven by self-interest rather than organisational priorities or their deepest vision. Under pressure many leaders’ focus narrows and they overlook critical information. Sometimes their staff learn to recognise the signs of an amygdala attack and avoid their boss when they’re in these states, aggravating the loss of crucial organisational intelligence.

Under amygdala hijack a leader’s capacity to lead diminishes, as does their ability to add real value to individuals and teams. But what exactly is going on – and how can coaching make a difference?

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for executive decision making. During an amygdala hijack, activity within this region is reduced. The information superhighways leading to the prefrontal cortex are effectively jammed due to the frenetic activity taking place within the more primitive emotional brain. Our thinking typically goes round and round in circles, and we make little real progress.

Coaching helps people move from a state of reactivity to a more resourced mental state. A skilled coach’s questions act as signposts that help individuals escape a reactive mindset and start to make better choices.

The questions used by the coach redirect attention away from habitual emotions to the search for new insights and perspectives. This is particularly so in conflict management coaching, when emotions are usually running high.

Coaching questions prime neural circuits to look for novel information, rather than defaulting to overused (and ineffective) thought patterns. Well-crafted coaching questions shift a leader or employee’s attention (and brain activity) from their amygdala based reactions to the prefrontal cortex where reliable thought is possible.

Here are a few of my favorite coaching questions:

  • What outcomes are you hoping to achieve? What impact has this had on you?
  • How are you approaching this situation?
  • How does your approach fit with your desired outcome?
  • What do you know for sure and what are you surmising?
  • What options are available to you?

 

Coaching For Change

Building coaching cultures in organisations is increasingly being recognised as a way to optimise staff engagement and buy-in. Over the past few years we’ve been training leaders and managers to use a coaching approach to help their staff adjust and navigate rapidly changing environments.

Rather than endlessly explaining organisational change or blindly reassuring staff, program participants find it more effective to pose questions that help to surface what’s important for each staff member. Once that’s clarified, managers can help employees to explore the potential impacts and benefits of the organisational change. They engage staff as active stakeholders as they collaboratively work through their concerns. In general, the solutions that staff members develop themselves are far more effective than anything the manager themselves might offer.

Coaching helps to empower individuals in an environment of uncertainty. Coaching conversations build their understanding of the drivers of change and support confidence in the skills needed to operate in the new landscape.

From a management perspective it surfaces the common concerns and sticking points for staff adjusting to new reporting structures, policies, priorities or radically new ways of envisioning business. As one participant recently reported, “I now feel better prepared for challenging conversations and I am able to empower others through open questions and conversations.”

Here are a few of our favourite questions. Try them out and see how they work for you.

  • What do you understand about the proposed changes?
  • What is driving these changes? Why are they important?
  • What do they mean for you?
  • What will you be doing differently?
  • What will remain unchanged?
  • What aspect of the change do you welcome?
  • What aspects concern you? (What specifically?)
  • Who or what can help you deal with these worries/ fears/ beliefs?
  • What assumptions are you making?
  • Are there any ways you’re clinging to the status quo?
  • What do you need to let go of?
  • What is this situation asking you to master or do differently?
  • What prevents you from moving forward?
  • What options are available to you?
  • What are your next step? 

Coaching conversations are powerful and dynamic.  They support change at the individual and cultural level.

If you want to explore your individual context, give us a call to see how we can support your organisational change initiative.

And in the meantime, experiment, have fun!  Do let us know how you go.

Reflections

How do you usually approach change conversations?

What aspect of them do you find most challenging?

Have you ever adopted a coaching approach in a change environment?

If so, what difference did you notice?