“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:

Join us in Portland, Oregon, for our ICF accredited Coach Training Intensive!

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What’s the Difference Between Therapy and Coaching?

As regular readers know, a significant number of our coaching students are psychologists, social workers or therapists expanding their service offering to coaching.

But what exactly is the difference?  It’s important to us in the industry to make this clear.  At GCI. we work intensively with therapists, many of whom are at the top of their game, and equally committed to becoming highly skilled coaches.  This gives us a wonderful opportunity to study that question.  We’ve partnered with our students to gain an acute understanding of what is different between therapy and coaching, as well as what is similar.

Here are some points we’ve discovered:

1.  Goal Orientation

  • The goal orientation is much stronger in coaching than in therapy and counselling.
  • It is common for individuals to present to counselling with an immediate desire to alleviate pain and anxiety. Therefore the relief of distress is the goal.  Depending upon the counselling approach, there may be little exploration of what the alternative or desired experience looks like at the outset.  Rather, that alternative state is something achieved as an outcome. It is a destination point, discovered over time under the guidance of the treating practitioner.
  • In long term psychotherapy, there is often a drive for greater awareness and personal growth.  This opens up exploration of the individual’s inner landscape, their motivations and desires.
  • While in therapy there may be a stated goal, in coaching it is typical to spend significantly more time unpacking and clarifying this goal.  The coach and coachee will determine measures of success and establish how to recognise when the goal is acheived.  The burden of responsibility for goal achievement is not left with the treating practitioner, but sits very clearly with the client.
  • In coaching, the client’s goal is the focal point which directs the conversation.  It guides the coach’s decisions about how to work with the client and what questions to ask.

2. The Client Is Capable

A core assumption in coaching is that the client is whole, capable and resourceful.  This creates many powerful differences in the role and approach of the practitioner.  The coach knows the client has a rich reservoir of tacit knowledge about their situation, as well as what they need to achieve their goal. The coach regards the client as the expert on their own life.  While this is consistent with a strengths-based approach to psychology, the emphasis on the client’s agency results in profound practice changes.

To operate within this paradigm the coach must be able to let go of any attachment to being the expert.

3.  Letting Go Of The Need To Know

Coaches often work with individuals on goals and issues that lie well outside the sphere of their therapeutic expertise.  You may work with a client who is launching a new business, who is negotiating a corporate take-over or endeavouring to change organisational culture.  These are things most therapists know nothing about.

This ability to work with clients independent of content expertise, expands a therapist’s potential client market. Once they learn to let go, doors begin to open for them.

We can do this as coaches because sense making and decision making lie with the client, not us. We merely guide their thinking through methods that are applicable without specific content knowledge.

Coaching requires a shift in mindset, most apparent in new coaches developing their skills.  Until they fully understand and internalize not needing to know, the coach can get in the way of the client’s process.  Numerous fact-finding questions, that do not extend the clients thinking, can take up session time and merely educate the coach about content they don’t need to understand.

It isn’t necessary for the coach to understand the content, and is in fact more helpful when they don’t because then they can focus solely on supporting the client’s processing skills.  In short, the coach’s job is to support the client to reach their goal, not to do the work for them.

Questions for Reflection

How familiar are you with that “not needing to know” state?

How do you feel differently about your role as a coach, versus therapist?

Interested in learning more about transitioning from Therapist to Coach?  Take a look at our upcoming Coach Trianing Intensive in Portland, Oregon.  We’d love to see you there!

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Coaching With Emergence & A Systems Perspective

At GCI  we are all about working with emergence, but what exactly do we mean by that?

Emergence is a characteristic of nature

It’s about what is beginning to happen. Emergence is about new growth, as well as what has had its time and is beginning to die back.  Sometimes these tendencies are so subtle or unexpected, it’s easy to miss them.

To see this principle in action, take a few minutes to sit in a garden and watch nature going about her business.  Pay attention to the leaves and flowers and insects and birds.  Things are happening all around you, right?  They didn’t start only when you arrived, and they won’t stop when you leave.  Just as there’s no moment when a flower begins to bloom, there is no point you can name where an event begins to happen.

Within the activity in the garden is an incredible momentum toward growth and there is also die back; letting go of what’s no longer useful or cannot be sustained.

Coaching with emergence includes a commitment to support conscious leadership that harnesses these deep principles.

One challenge of this commitment is accepting that we, as individuals, are not the center of the universe.  We have important contributions to make, but we are part of a larger system.  When we see ourselves as either central to or separate from our organisational or social system, we are in trouble.  Looking at the world stage right now, we see the consequences of this myopia.  Leadership based on narcissism wreaks havoc.

We build the acuity of our coaches.

Our coaches take a systems view of leadership and organizations.  We work with leaders to better understand what is emerging in their organizations, what growth needs to be supported and what needs to be cut back.

These principles are so important to us they underpin our E1ME2RGE3 Model of Coaching.

Catching the early indicators and flickering signals of what is to come requires mindful attention.  At GCI  we train our coaching students to discover and track these signals.  They learn to follow not just the content of their clients’ narratives, but also these subtle signs of emerging change.  This awareness is akin to the clarity that comes when you sit in stillness in the garden, observing the life teeming within it.

Invaluable Skills for Leadership

For leaders, this skill set brings access to rich and current information.  Being alert to the earliest signposts of change is invaluable.  It enables leaders to support the natural initiative and momentum within their workforce.  In an time of disruption, it alerts them to new trends and helps avoid nasty surprises.

Of course to recognize what is emerging, we must learn to look in often-overlooked places and also confront our own blindspots on occasions.  The coach’s role is to guide and hold the client in this enquiry.

In the mean time, why not pop out into a garden and become a student of nature again …

 

For more information on our accredited training workshops and online group mentoring program, visit our upcoming events page.

 

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?

Taking Coaching to the Streets

Since the Women’s Marches in cities across the USA and around the world I have been heartened and inspired by all the women and men taking to the streets to advocate for their vision of a just and inclusive world.  The images on social media brought me to tears.  The spirit and resilience of those who came out despite rain and freezing conditions gives me hope.  Above all I was reminded of how important it is to reach out in times of adversity.

The latest estimate is that 1 in 100 people in the US joined the marches (http://www.popsugar.com/news/How-Many-People-Attended-Women-March-43032901#photo-43032901).  I feel solidarity with them all.

The incredible organizing, fundraising and networking behind these protests began with one woman inviting her friends to protest.  It has grown to become a stunning global movement.

While I wasn’t able to join the marches here in Australia the photos of friends and strangers boarding planes and taking to the streets, reminded me of times I’ve gone out with other coaches to speak with complete strangers about their hopes for the world.

Coaches as Social Change Agents

The first time I did that was in a Fran Peavey workshop in 1990, when she sent 20 of us coaching students out into the local mall.  Fran instructed us to go up to people we’d never met, who were just going about their business, and ask them coaching questions.  We got their permission, and just started  asking their views on world events.  The first Gulf War had just begun.  There was a lot happening on the world stage to talk about.

Firstly I was blown away by how willing people – total strangers – are to speak about these things.  I suspect people want to talk more than they do, and all they need is for someone to be interested in them.  Two young men I remember in particular began their answers saying, “I don’t know.”  For many, that would be an end to the conversation, but I asked them more questions.

·         What matters to you right now?  

·         What have you noticed about world events?  

·         What is it you don’t know about?  

·         What would you like to know more about?”  

… then back to those critical questions ….

·         ”What do you really care about?”  

·         “How can you help make that a reality, even in a small way?

When I hit on the right way to ask about their world, those young men suddenly lit up, saying “Hey, we do know something!”

Those simple coaching questions had momentarily changed their image of themselves.  Suddenly they had understanding and input to give.  This is a key aspect to a functioning democracy.  If the people on the street feel they don’t understand and no one cares what they think, they are easier to manipulate.  When people realize they are capable and important as citizens, they begin to be empowered.

How about it coaches?  Let’s start developing the role we play in social change.

Being Our Role Models

Who are your role models? What do you love most about them? How have they inspired you?

One of my role models is my former high school principal, John Tindley, an approachable and progressive leader who was out and about in the school yard chatting with us on a regular basis.  However, what comes to mind as I think of him today is that he threw his job in at the height of his career and became a truck driver.  What do I love about that?  I feel inspired and somehow stronger knowing that he wasn’t caught by the trappings of status but that he followed a path that while unconventional, was uniquely his.  When I heard, many years after the fact, about my principal’s career change it didn’t surprise me.  He brought that same sense of freedom to his role when he was in the job.

Reclaiming Our Potential

Whilst role models inspire us, we don’t always make the most of our attraction to them.

Buddhist scholars describe the process of splitting off from the world around us and our own potential as separation.  When we stay split off from the traits that we admire in our role models and think our interest in their lives is about them, more than us, we miss the point. We fail to capture and act on the power of their inspiration in our own lives.

In Coaching, Flea Markets and Identity I spoke of the challenges our own identities can present.  I argued that as a consequence of our identities we start to think of qualities, characteristics and traits as ‘me’ and ‘not me’.

We are usually drawn to our role models because they possess qualities that we admire, but don’t fully recognise in ourselves.  Often they are qualities we think of as not-quite, not-yet or simply not-me.  By paying attention to the people we admire, we can start to reclaim some of those attributes we think of as not-me.

Our role models provide a chance to reflect on our own lives.  My former headmaster’s story is a reminder to think about whether status holds an undue influence in my own life.  It’s a prompt to question whether and where I am seduced by the trappings of success. It’s also a chance to get honest with myself about who I am and what I want in life and to develop a plan for working on any attachments or things that hold me back from pursuing my genuine goals.

Of course, it’s easy to falsely elevate the achievements of others, seeing the success without the sweat.  We can admire people who’ve made courageous decisions, assuming that they have done so without doubts or anxieties.  The problem is that we don’t know their backstory.  We project our own ideals and fantasies onto others.  What’s interesting is that we are drawn to those fantasies in the first place.

The Traps of Comparison

Throughout my life, I’ve set myself various stretch assignments. I’ve looked at other’s achievements as a way to spur myself on.  While there have been benefits, there are distinct disadvantages to this approach.

A deficit-based approach to thinking about our role models relies on comparisons that can make us feel smaller.  It focuses our attention on areas we believe we’re not doing as well as we might.  Rather than drawing on our role models as resources, we can measure ourselves against them as illustrations of our own inadequacy.  Can’t you just picture it?  There’s my former headmaster (the ultimate free spirit) or Anita Roddick or Martin Luther King and well … then there’s … me.

Comparison is a risky strategy.  To the extent that your self-esteem is strong and your confidence robust, you’ll probably make steady progress.  However if you’re having a bad day and lack inner support it may not be the most effective approach to take.   If your self-critic gets hold of you, it’s an invitation for them to have a field-day.

We can draw on our role models in a ways that either motivate or discourage us, and that learn from or idealise them.  It’s important to notice the impact your way of thinking about your role models has on you.  Does it elevate you or put you down?  Do you feel closer to their attributes and achievements or further away?  It’s not so much the role model that’s healthy or unhealthy as the way you relate to them.

It is You  

Another approach when thinking about role models is to start with the assumption that you already possess the qualities you admire.  Perhaps it is only your identity that needs to catch up – to reboot itself, so to speak.

Viewed from this perspective our role models become invitations to appreciate the occasions, both large and small, when we’ve acted in ways similar to them.  When I hone in on times I’ve responded to a deeper calling, I remember leaving a specialised role in neuroscience to become a consultant; something I knew very little about at the time.  This approach immediately connects me to my own inner resources, such as my courage and resilience. It activates important capabilities that will make a difference to the way I tackle today’s challenges. Reflecting on our role models is a chance to appreciate characteristics in ourselves that we usually take for granted, underestimate or forget.

It’s interesting to contemplate why certain role models come to mind at certain times.  Ask yourself: what part of me needs to hear their message?

Why did I think about my former headmaster today?  He ranks as a lesser deity in the world of my role models than say the Dalai Lama or Nelson Mandela.  What might having a sense of adventure and willingness to take risks allow me to do in my life right now?   I have an idea, I’m not quite ready to share it with you yet … but I will, soon.

Here’s a short exercise that invites you to reclaim attributes that might be valuable but overlooked in your life now.

Exercise:

  • Think of someone who is a role model for you
  • What is it in particular that you admire about them?
  • In what ways do you possess this attribute?  Think of specific examples.
  • When do they emerge?  What supports them?  How can you get to know this part of yourself more?
  • Why did you think of that role model today?
  • How might these attributes be of value in your own life right now?  How can you activate them?

Reflection

I’ll be interested to see what you discover – write and tell me. Who are your role models?  How have they influenced and inspired you?  What do they reveal to you about yourself?

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?