My Approach and Assumptions
1. No pathologies here: Let’s use a strengths-based approach.
Let’s not approach this as if you or your colleagues have pathologies that must be tackled, problems that must be “solved.” I believe we are all fundamentally creative, resourceful, and “okay,” and that most interpersonal issues are due to character strengths that are somewhat out of balance. This is good news, since one can do something about it! We often overuse (or underuse) strengths, and while it is sometimes interesting to go into the “why,” it’s not necessary. This is not psychotherapy. Strengths can be dialed up or down readily, and the effect of doing so is profound.
From a group leader in a small pharma company:
"It’s for their own good that I push my people so hard. They don’t seem to understand how important this project is, and if I let up, they drop the ball. Why am I the only one who’s taking this seriously? I’m the hardest-working person here.”
What strengths do you suspect this person has? And how can his greatest strengths be a liability? While he’s wielding his axe, what’s not happening? What do you imagine is going on with his group?
We often employ our strengths so automatically and naturally that they are nearly invisible to us; it's as if they're who we are. This can cause leaders to short circuit what they could actually achieve if they were aware of their strengths and could moderate them intentionally. Personally, I believe there are no weaknesses. It's a frequency thing: some strengths are enacted too frequently and cause others to move away, others too infrequently, inviting others to step in and try to compensate (think: mutiny! antileaders!) Great leaders know their strengths and how to apply the right amount of edge to the situation. And they don’t misuse their strengths or apply them to manipulate others. They don’t revert to fear-based or coercive actions because they know the cost of bad choices made in the heat of the moment.
2. Let’s not start with what others think.
Many coaching engagements begin with what’s known as a 360 assessment (or something similar) wherein colleagues are invited to evaluate (rate) you. Let’s skip that. Here’s why: First, raters are subjective and have their own issues and views. Second, why should they be in charge of what you do? Let’s not build an action plan based on raters’ opinions. Let’s focus on what you want to change. You know what that is, or will discover it. Third, no one likes feedback; frankly, it elicits fear, and while fear can produce quick results, those results aren’t usually sustainable.
Having said that, assessments can be very useful in seeing whether our experiments are working, so we may employ them in a very selective fashion later in our work. My go-to assessment tool is the Tilt365 Positive Influence Predictor, which is a simple way of measuring how much we engage a given character strength. Is the strength overused, underused, or employed appropriately for the situation? Tuning our character strengths is not hard to do and has far-reaching effects. The Tilt 365 tool is easy to use on the fly as we experiment and measure results.
3. Character vs competency.
I’ve studied which measurable leadership phenomena have been rigorously shown to correlate with a climate of success and innovation. It has been shown that there are character strengths that reliably distinguish a leader who creates performance from one who detracts from it. Yes, competencies matter, but competency without character doesn’t get you very far. My clients tend to be extremely competent and simply need some awareness and fine-tuning of their awareness to unlock their potential.
4. Coaching is personal.
Often, clients come to me with a problem that is focused “out there,” hoping to enlist my help in getting someone else to shape up, work harder, do it differently, do it better, stop hounding them, etc. For example, a research director at a pharmaceutical company once told me,
“I don’t need to get into any of my own personal stuff. I just need some help getting my group to work together. They don’t share their results with each other, and it’s gotten to the point that hardly anyone talks to anyone else.”
My response: “It’s all personal stuff. Yours included.”
To be less dramatic, sometimes there are systemic problems, and we can explore those together as the need arises; I can don my consulting hat. But I need you to know that I believe many of the most significant challenges boil down to the interpersonal realm, which is where I choose to focus most of my time and energy. Changes in that realm tend to have far-reaching results, not the least of which is your own satisfaction, self-respect, and positive influence.