“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?

 

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

GCI

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!

GCI