“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.


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?


Want to Learn More About Our Process-Oriented Approach to Coaching?


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.


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?

What Lens are You Looking Through?

Have you ever considered your origins and the way they’ve influenced your approach to life and your work?

I began my professional life as an Occupational Therapist, so when I connected this morning with a group of OTs who have all become coaches it was like coming home. We spoke a language we all immediately recognised.

Eventually the conversation came around to something OTs are famous for, problem solving. My colleagues work in a range of contexts: executive coaching, business development, health care delivery and designing new models of service delivery. They all recognise the benefits of their “can do” attitude, whatever setting they find themselves in.

My own training no doubt enhanced the pragmatic approach I’d developed growing up on a farm. Working then with people who were taking up their roles in life after having major accidents or strokes taught me about unimaginable change and resilience. For OTs nothing is impossible; challenges are merely a provocation to go in search of solutions.

While this problem solving capacity is a real asset, it also has its limitations. Problem solving is a lens, but like all lenses, it operates at a specific focal length.

A problem solving mindset comes with certain assumptions….most obviously that life experiences are problems to be managed, rather than simply experienced or perhaps viewed with curiosity.

Unpack the problem before trying to solve it

At the Global Coaching Institute we think a little differently about the challenges clients sometimes bring to coaching.   As I’ve written previously, events that initially seem like disturbances can be a valuable stimulus for our growth.  Restlessness prompts us to think about what’s important to us in life and to look further afield for new career prospects.   The inability to win support for an idea can signal that we’re missing something important.  Even body symptoms and illness can tell us its time to readjust our lifestyle. When caught early enough these cues prove invaluable.  That’s why we welcome and become curious about them.

Rather than trying to immediately solve personal and organisational challenges it’s important to unpack them and to fully understand the feedback and meaning they hold for us.

Einstein famously said you cannot solve problems with the same thinking that created them. Yet that’s exactly what we are doing when we jump into a problem solving mindset without getting upstream of an issue to understand what causes and contributes to it.  But more often than not the immediate and presenting problem is not the core issue.

In conversations with leaders I notice that they too can fall into this trap. They sometimes think about the challenges facing their organisations in ways that are immediate and reactionary.  When they do this, it’s a little like trying to drive a car with your nose pressed up against the windscreen.  They miss the bigger picture.  Having a strategic perspective that is a hallmark of effective leadership.

Coaches too risk getting bogged down in detail and adopting a problem oriented perspective.  When training people to become coaches I encourage them to ask questions from the perspective of someone in a helicopter.  Anyone who has worked with me will recognise the terms:

  • Hover above the issue.
  • Don’t get caught in the detail.
  • Look for the patterns.
  • Understand the landscape.
  • Map the territory.
  • Avoid getting caught in the mud.

Step back before you respond
When we take a few moments to step back before we respond, we can discover the core issue or even the benefits of the situation we find ourselves in.  And then, if problem solving is required we can apply these skills knowing we are tackling the real problem, not just the the surface issue that presents itself.

Of course all professions lend themselves to a particular way of viewing the world.  Surgeons develop precision, insurers learn to analyse risk, marketers learn how to differentiate themselves and their products, sales people learn to turn relationship into a sale.

My colleagues this morning had learnt the value of a coaching mindset. It allows them to explore issues from a strategic perspective. They have an ability to adjust the lens through which they view the world.

Questions to ask yourself

  • What mindsets and paradigms did your early training cultivate in you?
  • What are the strengths and potential limitations of your professional practice?
  • How have you buillt on and extended your initial skillset?

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, Flea Markets and Identity

Recently I went to the Camberwell market in Melbourne.  It’s a fabulous place, full of old discarded bric-a-brac, furniture, records and clothing deemed to be of little value to the original owner.   The same items can prove to be treasure for those who discover them.  All it takes is a little imagination and know-how to put them to good use.

As I wandered down the aisles, rummaging through trestle tables and peering into car boots, it struck me that coaching in many ways is like going to a jumble sale.  A good coach has the knack of helping people to spot what’s needed in a situation.  Sometimes that involves reclaiming talents, traits and characteristics we abandoned years ago.

As a child, developing a sense of who you are differentiates you from the people and environment around you.  It’s how you know you are ‘you’ and I am ‘me’.

Yet as surely as we form an identity that embraces certain characteristics, qualities, values and beliefs, there will be things we don’t identify with – things outside our sphere of experience or interest.  We come to think of these things as ‘not me’.1

Our identities are shaped by our life experiences.  In the course of our early development some traits and behaviours are rewarded more than others.  Our family, ethnic and social cultures have a way of filtering our understanding of the world.  They reinforce certain ideas and beliefs, while frowning on others.  As a result we tend to focus on and master specific skills.  We learn to act in certain ways and avoid other behaviours like the plague.

The process continues as we enter our chosen professions and are influenced by the expectations of our bosses and the cultural norms of the organisations we join.  We can carry these influences from one job to the next, forgetting to re-examine the validity or usefulness of these internalised expectations.

In the process, we marginalise and fail to cultivate important capabilities.

Have you ever noticed that you feel nervous about displaying certain characteristics or taking on specific challenges at work?

In my practice as a coach I’ve noticed that managers who value getting along with others, can be reluctant to provide corrective feedback. Though situations may escalate they put off difficult conversations.  If their identity as a peacekeeper has the upper hand, they might avoid assignments that require them to assert themselves.  Often a member of their team becomes a de-facto leader challenging their authority, becoming excessively demanding of others or forming coalitions with the manager’s own manager, in an effort to fill the void.
Others who have a strong task and outcome focus may find they can’t manage situations that require diplomacy.

I personally find I get impatient with indecision, even though I struggle with tough decisions myself.  I don’t find ambivalence in myself or others easy, I prefer to know where I stand.
Leaning on our strengths, we can avoid situations that challenge us.  We tend to gravitate to situations that validate and reinforce our identity.  When our identity becomes too fixed we can struggle to adapt to, or even notice the unique demands of new roles.

Our identities cast a shadows in which certain ways of behaving become hidden or temporarily unavailable to us.2  While under-developed, these capacities are rarely lost or beyond our reach.  That’s where a good supervisor, mentor or coach comes in.  They help us to rediscover and develop our latent and forgotten potential. An important coaching contribution lies in helping individuals and teams to explore beyond the limits of what is usually thought of as ‘me’.  Once coach and client are in the territory of ‘not-me’, or what might be described as ‘Not how I usually approach these things’ new possibilities are discovered.

At the edge, or the boundary between the territories of ‘me and ‘not-me’, the coach and client discover subtle influences that shape choices and behaviour.   Growth occurs as we learn to cross the unmarked border between what is known and what is less well known.

Like bargain hunters at a market we can try on different attitudes and ways of being, in search of a better fit.   We can ask ourselves what’s suited to a given situation or how we need to engage a specific individual.

Periodically throughout your career you might find yourself sorting like a rag-picker through the beliefs and potential you regarded as unimportant in your life, to reclaiming the latent potential hidden there.  I hope you discover real treasures.

Here are a few questions that might help you in your search:

  • How do you think of yourself?  How do you want others to see you?
  • In what ways does your identity influence your choices and the actions you take?
  • How does it limit you?  What are the consequences?
  • How can you expand your sense of who you are and what you’re capable of?

I’d love to hear your strategies or stories of stepping beyond your usual identity.

1Arnold Mindell, River’s Way: The Process Science of the Dreambody. Arkana, London, 1989.

2Carl Jung, The Undiscovered Self. New American Library, USA, Printing, 2006.