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Inspiring Leadership Effectiveness and Sustainable Performance

August 13, 2010
Richard Boyatzis
Richard Boyatzis

Although he was Vice President of Information technology at a mid-sized company, James  was confused about his future. He was doing quite well. Or at least it appeared he was. Having grown up in a poor neighborhood in a Midwest city, he did much better than most of his friends. He went to college and was about to complete an Executive MBA Program. James loved his daughters and had a significant investment account ready to pay for their college. He was divorced, but on amiable terms with his ex-wife and had a girl friend. He was devout in his faith, contributed his time eagerly to church projects. So what was wrong?
When James looked into his future, beyond a few months, it was a blank wall. It did not worry him, consciously. Like heartburn, he ignored his lack of an image for his future and hoped the discomfort would go away. His personal vision was devoted entirely to his family and his faith.  I asked him, “James, you didn’t mention anything about work in your essay about your future. Do you have trust funds that you didn’t mention?” He laughed, “No, I just thought I’d keep doing what I have been doing.” Trying to invoke his passion about the future, his coached probed, “What would you love to do?”

After a long silence, he shrugged his shoulders. It seemed incongruous, a well-dressed, effective executive acting like a teenager who does not know what they want to have as a major in college. I pushed, “If you won the Lottery, say $80 million dollars after tax, what would you do?” He told him that maybe he would drive a truck cross-country. This seemed more like an escape fantasy than a dream. A few minutes later, in response to a question as to what would make him feel truly happy that he was fulfilling his purpose in life, he said, “Teaching high school kids, in the inner city, that computers can be their instruments to freedom.”

Possibilities then opened up for James. He shared his dream that he could teach IT workshops on Fridays or Saturdays at local high schools. He talked about setting up IT internships for high school students. Ideas flooded his consciousness. He leaned forward and was talking faster than I’d heard him talk in months. The excitement was contagious. I felt it. James had an epiphany. His image of his “work” in the future changed him from “been there, done that” to “Wow, I can’t wait to get started.” James now had a dream. Two years later, he was actively in pursuit of his dreams. He was running computer workshops for teens while continuing his consulting firm. He got an offer as a full time administrator/faculty at a local community college coordinating an IT program. When his firm offered a buy-out package as part of their downsizing, he took it.
In these uncertain and fearful times, many people, like James, around the world are avoiding looking to their future and just trying to get by in the present, or tolerating their situation. It is a dysfunctional response to having a dream. Unfortunately, those of us in the helping professions, like teachers, trainers, and coaches, are often adding to this blocking of the future.  Managers doing performance reviews and trying to motivate a person to change and improve in the future are often committing the same act of “visionocide.” We are contributing to killing of people’s dreams and inhibiting their progress toward a more effective future. The source of the misdirected effort and less than desirable consequences lay in misunderstanding how people change.

The Positive and Negative Emotional Attractors

In his Intentional Change Theory, Boyatzis  explained that in pursuit of change, adaptation, or in response to threat, people and our human systems move toward a Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA) or a Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA).  Arousal of the NEA pulls the person into a stress-aroused state by arousing the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). This results in decreased cognitive functioning, decreasing perceptual openness, a severe drop in immune system functioning, and susceptibility to illnesses—not to mention that you feel nervous, anxious, worried, and in general not good.

In contrast, arousal of the PEA helps a person function at their best. Research in neuroscience, endocrinology, and psychology has shown that arousing a person’s hope for the future stimulates the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). This is the state in which the human mind and body is at its cognitive best, can create new neural tissue which allows for learning, engages the immune system, and enables the person to be more open to new ideas, feelings, and other people.

Coaching for Compassion

Coaching James involved arousing his Positive Emotional Attractor through eliciting his dreams about the future, about possibilities, and arousing his hope.  It was the beginning of a process of helping James to articulate his personal vision.  This is what we call coaching with compassion. When you coach someone to their PEA, you arouse their PNS with all of the enhanced cognitive and emotional functioning and ability to learn that is part of it.
Because of the contagion of emotions , coaching with compassion arouses compassion in the coach, as well as in the person being coached. The physiological and emotional renewal processes (the only non-pharmaceutical antidote to the ravages of chronic stress) then allow the person to consider possibilities of change- and allow him/her to be more open to the coach and other people around them. James had pondered these issues before, but it was the compassionate and caring relationship with the coach that allowed him to break through to a new level of insight about his dreams and future possibilities. But this does not always happen.

Coaching for Compliance

When most of us try to help someone, we often get seduced into focusing on the things that need to be fixed, like a person’s weaknesses. In the process, we invoke the NEA and the body’s stress reaction. The person being coached often feels on the defensive, feeling a need to justify or prove himself/herself. The person being coached is pushed toward the coach’s image of how he/she should behave. In this way, we often slip into coaching for compliance.
Instead of invoking the person’s Ideal Self, the coach, manager, trainer, or teacher invokes the person’s Ought Self.  That is, they stimulate the image of the person he/she ought to become. When this Ought Self is imposed and is not consistent with the person’s Ideal Self, it arouses the SNS and contributes to the person closing down their mind and willingness to change.

Coaches often utilize feedback data from an assessment center or a 360-degree feedback assessment, and then proceed to analyze the weaknesses and gaps in the person’s data. The coach then tries to get the person to identify what they can do to change. Although the opposite to the coach’s intention (that of helping the other person), the coach has aroused the NEA and diminished the person’s ability to make sustainable change.

What Next?

Life seems more exciting when we consider the possibilities and pursue them. We are actually healthier, more open, more capable of learning, and better able to cognitively function at a higher plane, when in this state. Coaching others with compassion arouses this in the coach and the person being coached. Coaching with compassion is coaching for results and sustained desired change.

(This post is excerpted from an article that appeared recently in Coaching at Work Magazine.)

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