I had a thought provoking coaching session today, with one of my executive Clients.

First, some background:

This Client is an extremely intelligent, competent and business-savvy man. Throughout his international career he has collected a string of successes that allowed him to climb the hierarchical ladder at one of the most competitive multinationals in the world.

He is both kind and challenging with his team, has demonstrated integrity, ownership and accountability on every assignment and continues to strive to learn more. He is wise, humble and has a good sense of humour; he speaks several languages, has a nice family that he deeply cares for and strives to dedicate as much time as he can to, in between numerous business travels and long days in the office.

Until today, we had been working on fine tuning his coaching leadership style; he wanted to explore how to better help his team members grow, specifically how to resist the temptation to give an immediate answer when they ask for help. He told me that in some situations he goes onto “automatic pilot” and “may help too much”.

“I tend to assume that when people tell me they are stuck or ask for my help they really have no idea how to go about their challenge; I immediately feel compelled to guide, teach, pass along my experience, tell them what to do” he told me at the very first coaching session “but I am not sure that I really help; I find it difficult to know when to help right away and when to let them try a bit by themselves. How can I know what is the best way to help?” My simple reaction: “Have you asked them?”

After a few moments of confusion (what should I ask?) and after searching his mind, he admitted something that he had never seen so clearly before “Actually, sometimes when I start to give them my solution they may nod and confirm that they were already thinking more or less in the same direction, but they were not sure … maybe they do have a clue, but they prefer to ask me, looking for a confirmation that makes the task of choosing their own path less daunting! So what I am not asking them – but I could – is whether they already have some ideas and where the doubts are, then I can find out whether they are really as clueless as I initially assumed or simply need coaching help to work step by step through the challenge”

This was an AhHa moment for the Client and he enthusiastically started to experiment. At every subsequent coaching session he was proud to share some successes and also quite humble in bringing up some “missed opportunities”. What he gradually learnt about himself was that when the person is junior or female, he feels more compelled to teach and solve things on their behalf; while he is more likely to challenge a more senior male. He discovered that when an experienced man asks for his help, he is more often able to ask questions like: “What is it that you are specifically struggling with? What are the alternatives here? What else could you try? What are your concerns? What are the possibilities? Is there a specific point that you need to brainstorm with me about? Have you engaged your team in it? What are their inputs? How can I help?” On the other side, when a young female asks for help, his automatic “protective hero pilot” kicks in; the unconscious perception – that started to surface to consciousness during our session – was that “this person” is like a helpless little child that needs “dad” to tell her what to do. Having a good sense of humor, he was able to quickly spot his own bias, deeply rooted in traditional family habits and cultural norms; he was able to laugh about it; and was therefore able to start adjusting his behaviour. Gradually, by keeping focus on respectfully coaching everyone, he became better able to have adult-to-adult conversations with everyone irrespective of age, rank, gender or experience in the current role.

Let’s now fast forward to today.

Today we stumbled into a new challenge, a discovery that was as surprising for him as it was for me: he finds it difficult to have adult-to-adult relationships with his own hierarchical seniors. As it turns out, not only does he pride himself of never asking for help, he is also struggling to bring about his ideas with his own line to have an open conversation about it.

OK: the first part, not asking for help, was actually not that surprising; he knew it and I could have guessed. His initial bias being “those who ask for help are clueless” makes him hesitate to go to his boss or a senior stakeholder without a final conclusion, an achievement or a solution. He prides himself of striving to find solutions “They trust me to sort things out, they do not want to be bothered by my struggles”. A bit of an extreme assumption, maybe, underlining a certain fear of vulnerability, but kind of understandable in a fast pace competitive environment.

The main surprise was the incredible amount of stress, anxiety and sheer fear that he is experiencing whenever he has an idea or a new proposal to present to higher ranks.

It is OK for him to diligently go through status reports on projects and activities that he is handling, even though at times some of his conclusions might be challenged or even criticised; he is used to that and accepts that he may not always have thought of everything, but at least he has the feeling of having done his best and can “defend” his choices with thorough reasons, plus he is not ashamed of learning some new angles.

But a new idea? a proposal that is just an opportunity and only exists in his own mind? not yet verified because not yet tried? how can one “defend” that? THAT IS SCARY!

Actually, I should have not been surprised, this happens often enough. I know he sounds very knowledgeable and holds a respected high position in the hierarchy, but I also know that everybody is afraid of uncertainties; we all – mostly unconsciously – go to great lengths to try and control outcomes of our actions, even when they are totally outside of our control. We all wish we could know in advance what to expect when we go into unchartered territories.

As it turns out, he admitted to be totally and hopelessly trapped inside his mental rumination, getting tired and even fatigued with a spiral of unproductive thoughts that go something like this: “I know that what I propose can be more expensive than what we do today, I believe that in the long run it will bring additional value, but I do not know that the company will be willing to invest in it, I do not know what resources we can put behind it, I do not know how to tell without sounding idealistic or irrational, I may risk my reputation, they will think that this is above my pay grade, I will look stupid, maybe I have not collected enough data to prove that this makes sense, but how can I have proof in we do not try, I have lots of indications, but it is all very fragmented, I am not able to communicate it in a concise way, I am not sure that this is right …” and so on … often losing sleep in the intricacy of dying to off “the right way”.

This is no simple issue to address, of course, we all know it, because let’s face it, we have all been there; we wish we could read minds and know in advance what will be the reaction of our audience, we try to second-guess their reaction and we continue to rework our presentation based on various assumptions or hypotheses of what others might think or perceive … in a never ending of pros and cons, without resolution … and the simple truth is that we just cannot anticipate other people’s reactions; we just have to assume the risk and be honest.

Not easy of course.

What can be done?

I decided to offer him a provocation in the form of a metaphor: “Think about a situation at home when you offer some sweets to your guests; you do not know what to expect; they may like the sweets and accept one, or they may not like (those) sweets and decline; they maybe on a diet; who knows? Anyhow, most people would normally appreciate your offer even if they decline. Of course there is always the risk that some people may get offended for your not remembering or knowing their preference or dietary requirements, or may suspect mean motives behind your offer. Still, you would not stop offering sweets to your guests because of a few, more or less polite, rejections. You would most likely continue to make your offer to guests, because this is who you are and you know that your intentions are honestly kind and generous.”

There was a long silence and then I asked: do you see a parallel with your business predicament?

He did, sort of, but he asked me to expand the concept (this was progress, he asked for my help!). So I went on: “You have this nice business idea; it is a point of view, an opinion, a guess; of course it is neither right nor wrong, it is just a possibility; it could be interesting for the company or not, so why not generously offer it? maybe someone is interested, someone else not; chances are that the offer it is not only appreciated, but since ideas tend to be a lot more valuable than a sweet, it will probably be welcome and generate some interesting discussions. Most of the time, at least; and if someone should get belligerent about it, well, it probably is more their problem than yours, isn’t it? The key point here is not whether your idea is right or not, your communication effective or not, the opportunity realistically feasible or not. The key point is that you have something to offer, you feel the urge to generously share, and you do not honesty act upon your urge. What does it tell you about yourself?”

The interesting answer: “I guess it is part of my cultural norms to offer sweets to guests, but it has not yet dawned on me – yet – that the cultural norm of leadership is to offer ideas; I guess I have kept myself small believing that all I am expected to do is to deliver; I guess I was still thinking of myself like a diligent schoolboy that needs to show a completed homework; I know this is another bias; I know that there is more that I can and want to do; I also realise why after making it to a middle-high level in the organisation, I have started to stagnate a bit; I have been given hints that I am more of a manager than a leader and I have not fully understood these comments. I have been focusing of being a better coaching leader with my team, but I have completely ignored my possibilities and abilities to influence and mobilise the rest of the organisation!”

“So what do you want to do now?”

“I want to get out of my box and offer my sweet ideas with a smile!”

Conclusion

I was of course very happy to hear his shift in energy. The Client sounded really excited about his new realisation and eager to try out some new behaviours.

So we started to work on some practical techniques to help him remember to stay out of his “mental rumination trap”.

The first step is always to notice and recognise the “red flags” like the rigid defensive posture, the spiral of escalating unproductive thoughts, the exaggerations of the threat, the “illusion of invulnerability” and the “illusion of universal truths in subjective matters”

Then we looked into his deep intentions and started to play devil’s advocate with his self-deceiving thoughts (do I really belie that I can anticipate every reaction? am I we really going to loose professional credibility because someone does not like my ideas?)

Then we identified specific strategies to tackle each and everyone of the red flags.

If you are interested to learn more about this subject, would like to be coached or trained to becoming more confident and skilled in dealing with difficult conversations or creating a more open and productive dialogue, do not hesitate to get in contact!

laura@grooa.dev-projects.tech

At Grooa, we design and deliver innovative and fun Leadership Development Training programs, that we conduct both at our own Grooa Inspiria Learning Centre (inNL) and at European Clients’ sites. We also have international business-savvy certified coaches that can assist you with virtual coaching. You can also find some free videos with some useful tips on our site www.grooa.com

We love to challenge and learn together with our Clients, under our motto:

“Leading with a Smile”