It Takes a Village – When executive coaching becomes a systems intervention

October 28th, 2014

“I have never been like this before. My friends and colleagues in my other jobs always saw me as  nice. But here I am seen as difficult.” Allison’s manager suggested that she work with a leadership coach because people perceived her as moody, confrontational and negative.

Allison received a lot of criticism in her 360 degree feedback. But she took it in constructively and asked me how she could work more effectively with her colleagues. In our first few coaching sessions she became more aware of her behavior and how it impacted others. She then learned to become aware of her emotions and to pause to decide how, if at all, she wanted to express them.

While Allison and I were examining the situations that made her cranky, it became clear that these moods began when she would see her colleagues showing much more interest in doing science than in implementing her health and safety recommendations. She realized that much of her frustration came from being politely ignored. The fact that there had never been an accident or even an OSHA fine, gave people little incentive to support her programs. On the surface it looked like Allison’s problems were caused by her style of relating, but beneath the surface, the organizational culture put scientific discovery first, second and third, with health and safety coming in a distant fourth. She was part of a system and a culture that essentially did not value what she did. Her natural, human response to this was to become frustrated, defensive and angry, which pushed people further away from her.

Allison worked hard at changing the behaviors that contributed to the difficulties. She became less angry and frustrated, and learned to work with her colleagues in a more constructive manner. But even as her mood and her influencing style improved, the fact remained that the system did not value what she did. Her colleagues simply had other fish to fry.

Things didn’t really improve until Allison described the situation to her manager, and asked him to actively work at changing the attitudes and culture to increase the way they valued health and safety. It took months of the manager’s communicating and reinforcing this message, and months of Allison’s behavior change, for people to let down their guard and begin working with her more constructively. It took changes both in her behavior as well as the culture to improve Allison’s work relationships.

In his family systems therapy, Dr. Murray Bowen recognized that the structure and behavior of the family system influenced a person’s behavior at least as much as their inner psyche. The same principle can be used in helping individuals in organizations — especially the leaders—make important behavior changes. By focusing beyond the thoughts and emotions of the individual, and onto the behavior and beliefs of their system, the leader can make faster and longer-lasting change.

Ellen, another executive coaching client, managed an important planning function in her organization. She and the CEO would work closely together to produce detailed financial and operational plans for each quarter. Then, a few months before the start of a quarter, Ellen would meet with the firm’s operating executives to deliver and discuss these plans. Year in and year out this, schedule usually worked liked clockwork. Everyone believed in and liked this process.

Last quarter, however, the organization was facing a turbulent market. It wasn’t down like in the depths of the recession. But it certainly wasn’t up, either, like in the early 2000’s. The CEO and Ellen recognized that it would be hard to understand and predict consumer behavior. So the CEO decided to collect more data and take more time before finalizing and distributing the plans. The operating executives, however, expected their plans on time. Without these plans they wouldn’t be able to move forward to prepare do business in the next quarter.

Ellen felt in a bind. She agreed with the CEO that a lot of care needed to be taken in preparing the plans. But she also recognized that the operating executives needed their plans on time. As would be expected, she worked assiduously and patiently with the CEO on the plans. When they were delivered late, the operating executives were angry and blamed Ellen for the delay. In her 360 degree feedback they described her as: “not meeting deadlines or keeping commitments”, “not setting realistic time frames” and “not managing her time well”. Like Allison, Ellen’s behavior was not originating solely from her, but also from her response to the system she worked in.

If we had taken a purely individual approach, Ellen and I would have worked on meeting commitments and managing time. But that would have been inadequate. Instead we focused on the system and worked on communicating and negotiating with both the CEO and the operating executives to help everybody understand and adapt to the needs of the other.

Executive coaching has gained a reputation for helping leaders make valuable behavior changes. In a traditional coaching process a leader works intensively, one-on-one, with a coach to learn and develop new leadership practices. They focus on the leader’s behaviors and their impacts, and lay the foundations for change by examining and altering the leader’s mind-sets, emotions and motivations. Coaching’s track record at facilitating individual change has been impressive.

But sometimes the need for change extends beyond an individual. Sometimes the organizational culture and the behavior of others are major contributors to the leader’s actions. Often the leader’s actions, while perceived as harmful, are logical responses to the behavior of others. In these cases focusing on the behaviors of just one leader won’t make much of a difference.

It may be necessary to enlist those others: First, by asking them to provide 360 degree feedback; then by helping them understand the system’s contribution to the leader’s behavior; and finally by contracting with these stakeholders to change an aspect of their behavior as well. Together, the leader and coach can transform an individual intervention into a system intervention, thus creating a positive impact for all.

“We can’t impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.”

Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer



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