Archive for the ‘Coaching’ Category

Adrift, But Not Sinking

December 16, 2016 Leave a comment

Retirement stunned my psychiatrist friend.


Rowboat Adrift, Jeff Marks, 2010. CC BY 2.0

Accustomed to being a provider, teacher, administrator, and therapist, he was suddenly adrift. It was as though the sails, oars, and motor that had energized his boat had disappeared. He didn’t know what to do with himself. “Who am I?” he asked daily, hoping for an answer. “What is my purpose?” “How do I fit in?”

I have heard his earnest lament during lunches over the past several years. At last I have caught the universal implications of Mark’s three questions. They are like a proof from my high school geometry days: Given (Who am I?), To Prove (What is my purpose?), and Proof (How do I fit in?) Similarly, they are like construction plans: raw materials (Who am I?), plans (What is my purpose?), and nailing it all together (How do I fit in?).

These three questions form a catechism for personal change. Not just retirement leaves people adrift. Divorce, moving one’s household, caring for a disabled family member, changing cities or countries, changing jobs, marriage, having a baby(ies)… After every such change, I suggest we would benefit from asking ourselves early on how the answers to these three questions are different. Here is a guide to addressing the three issues in the catechism for change, for finding new energy and direction for your boat—adrift after a major change.

  1. Who am I now? Fortunately, even under major, cataclysmic change, the answer to this question doesn’t change appreciably. We are our personality traits—sociable or solitary, casual or perfectionistic, skeptical or trusting. They are strongly based on genetics and are resistant to change. We are our mental abilities—verbal skill, visual/spatial skill, auditory acuity, kinesthetic prowess, strong (or weak) memory, critical thinking, creativity—and they don’t change. We are our values—spirituality, power, relationships, and they are not changed easily. We are our physical characteristics—allergies, hand-eye coordination, motion sickness proneness, and they seldom change. We are our memories—from growing up, from college days, from former jobs, from military service, from our travels and vacations, and those memories don’t change—we just add to them. So the answer to Mark’s first question is the easiest: Who am I? I am essentially who I’ve always been. Whether my change is retirement, divorce, or moving to Canada, I maintain my traits, abilities, values, physical characteristics, and memories. Change cannot take those away from me. But the answer to the next two questions can change immensely.
  2. What is my purpose now? This soul-searching question is about one’s goals, and goals can change dramatically when one’s life undergoes major change. In divorce, the former goal of building a quality relationship changes to building a strong sense of self, and then to perhaps finding a new partner. In retirement, the former goal of providing for my family changes to something else, perhaps something self-indulgent (I want to write a novel!) or socially beneficial (like volunteering at a school, hospital, or homeless shelter). We set new goals to express our changing purpose following major change. Goals for health, learning, spirituality, family. Stephen Covey called such goal-setting “sharpening the saw.”
  3. How do I fit in? This is the question about execution: What do I do with myself? It is about roles. Based on who I am and what my new purpose is, what roles do I need to play in order to be true to myself and to accomplish my goals? Teacher, grandparent, volunteer, scientist, friend, mechanic, tinkerer, chef, storyteller, housecleaner, musician, artist, writer, comedian, scholar, discussion group leader, soldier, politician, social activist, hobbyist, gardener, counselor, lover, organizer, consultant, manager, researcher, athlete, entertainer. Some of my roles will continue regardless of how my life changes (musician, chef, scholar), while other roles can come to a dramatic end with some kinds of change (spouse, at death of a partner; manager, at retirement; gardener, at a move to the inner city), and roles can be thrust upon us as the result of change (parent, upon the birth of a child; soldier, upon an act of war; health activist, upon suffering one’s first heart attack).

This is the time of year that many people take time to be introspective. That is the spirit of the New Year’s Resolution. That is the spirit of the Jewish high holy days, when they figuratively open the book of life on Rosh Hashanah, reflect on questions such as Mark’s catechism, and then close the book of life on Yom Kippur. For me, that time is between Christmas and New Year’s—a time of self-evaluation and personal accounting. What if we committed to beginning a journal in which we revisit Mark’s catechism both once a year and after a major change? That would certainly make for an interesting autobiography. I think I will begin a new file on my computer after finishing this draft, and I will enter an unending, recurring appointment in my Outlook calendar for December 26-31 of every year to update my answers to Mark’s three soul-searching questions.

Oh, one more thing. Mark has answered his questions and is comfortable in his new skin. Who he is hasn’t changed—outgoing intellect with a passion for people. His overarching purpose remains the same: to make the world a better place, with some attendant subgoals that are new. What has changed is how he fits in. His roles as gardener, musician, husband, parent, grandparent, and scholar have continued in retirement, but he has added volunteer, homeowner advocate, mentor to young’uns like me, and great grandparent.

When Mark read this draft, he shared some of his earlier answers to these questions. When he was a child, older brother was (in his judgment) smarter; younger sister, more beautiful. So Mark evolved his goal into being the responsible one of the family—he calls it being “Goody Two-shoes.” He would get up at dawn and work in the garden while his siblings slept in. In high school, his purpose was to “be a good student.” Goals and roles both can change upon experiencing a major life change. He recalled with a smile his niece’s glee at learning she had a new baby sister: “I’m not the baby anymore!” Indeed.

Managing Micromanagers

August 24, 2016 1 comment

“Get off my back—I can’t fly when you are weighing me down!”

Such is the lament of the underling suffering from micromanagement—the uninvited incursion by a manager into the how to’s and wherefores of a subordinate’s day. Just last week a client asked me, “How do I get her off my back? I’ve about had it.”

The problem with managing micromanagers is that their motives—the needs they are satisfying by micromanaging—vary among individuals. I call this a “multi-source behavior”—a phenomenon I did a series on recently (“Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” or, “What You See Isn’t Always What You Get”). Just as smiles don’t always convey liking, micromanaging doesn’t always convey judgment on the employee’s work. Hence, one needs to address micromanaging based on the trait, or combination of traits, that drive the manager to take over your wheel while driving.

You begin the process by understanding their trait profile. We use the WorkPlace Big Five Profile 4.0, which provides information on 23 subtraits of the Five-Factor Model. Here I highlight the traits that, in my experience, tend to lead a manager into pastures best left alone (names of the actual WorkPlace Big Five Profile 4.0 dimensions are italicized):

The Micromanager spaceship, Software Testing Club, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0,

The Micromanager Spaceship, Software Test Club, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

  • High anxiety (N1+, high worry). Some individuals live out their days in perpetual fear of less than desirable results. This was true before they were promoted into management, and it continues after their elevation. An effective way to manage one’s boss’s anxiety is through active listening—as in, “You feel doubtful that my approach will lead to the right results—is that right?” And keep listening, paraphrasing, asking narrative questions (Where, How, When, What, Who, Which…). Anxiety is often calmed by talking it out, as discovered through brain research.
  • Low trust (E5-, low trust of others). Some are born skeptical of others, and it isn’t going to change…much. The key to avoiding the crushing feeling of being mistrusted is to understand that it is not personally directed at you—micromanagers typically mistrust everyone! I know that doesn’t excuse it, and it doesn’t make it hurt any less when you hear their mistrust of you, but in your rational self you can tell yourself that you’re not being singled out for special treatment of the mistrust variety. Internally laugh it off and say (silently) to yourself, “Yeah, this is just Barb being Barb” (or Barb sending barbs!)
  • Detail orientation (O4-, low scope). Some can’t see the forest for the trees—they love to wallow in the details. And, if you don’t play that game, it can be infuriating. On the other hand, if you are a big picture person, you may find that a detail person can become a partner, whereby they help complete your where that you didn’t have the patience to dot every “I” and cross every “t” for. Often individuals are promoted into management because they were best at handling the details of their job, and now they are mishandling (or overhandling) the details.
  • Personal agenda (A1-, low others’ needs). Some are more concerned with getting their personal priorities met than addressing the priorities of their associates, subordinates, or customers. It is all about them. When this is the case, ask them what is so important about their involvement, so that you can help to shape your work in a way that helps to address their priorities. If their priorities conflict with yours, then discover their motives AND share your motives in order to negotiate an agreeable compromise.
  • Competitive aggression (A2-, low agreement). Some people just have to win, to have the last word, to perhaps even put others down. They can be real pills, a cod-liver-oil-type-of-foul-tasting-pills. Like mistrust, it is not personally directed—it is just who they are. Normally it is testerone-driven, so approach them at a time when they are lowest in testosterone (after they’ve been defeated at something. Men begin their day with high testosterone levels that gradually decrease throughout the day, with lowest levels in the evening. Work at home in the mornings and go to the office after lunch? Just kidding. Women are highest in testosterone around ovulation time, so wait a week or so after a particularly difficult incursion before approaching them again.
  • Pride (A3-, low humility). Goeth before the fall, right? Pride is associated with wanting to look good based on the sterling work of one’s team. Some micromanagers hover over subordinates because they want to shine after the work is done. Begin as assignment from them by asking what their standards are for success. Make it a joint effort for achieving star status, yet be prepared that they may take credit for your work.
  • Assertiveness (A4-, low reserve). Some managers just talk a lot. It is not that they are anxious, dubious, competitive, or any of the other traits we’ve mentioned, but that they just can’t keep their mouths shut. Talkativeness can come across as micromanaging. I once had a manager who went on and on. I tried establishing false time limits, as in “Yes, I can meet with you now, but I need to go take a call in ten minutes.” It worked.
  • Perfectionism (C1+, high perfectionism). This is probably the most common motive for micromanaging—the obsessive need for every output to be flawless. Buy the person a copy of Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice for their birthday. It is about maximizers and satisficers. Hopefully, your micromanager will learn to be less of a maximizer and more of a satisficer.

All of these traits have the potential to appear in micromanagers. At CentACS (Center for Applied Cognitive Studies), we especially track Low Trust of Others, Low Scope, and High Perfectionism in our Consultant’s Report.


Leaders Can Be Made, If Not Born

August 17, 2016 1 comment

One can be born to be a 7-foot NBA center, but one cannot be made into one. Or? Look at the Dutch, who have an unusually tall population and who also are known for their unusually heavy consumption of calcium (milk, cheese, and their kin). Clearly most human behavior has a largely genetic component, but there is always, well, almost always, room for the environment to play a small part.

Research reveals ideal Big Five trait levels for leadership. Across all leadership situations, followers need their leaders to be calm in a crisis (low Need for Stability), an active communicator (high Extraversion), strategically visionary (high Originality/Openness), sufficiently tough to say no when necessary (low to mid Accommodation/Agreeableness), and focused on the objective (high Consolidation/Consciousness). For short, I refer to this profile as N-E+O+A-/=C+. Tennyson’s “Ulysses” exemplifies these qualities. Here the poet summarizes the qualities of his leader:

One equal temper (N-) of heroic hearts (E+),
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will (C+)
To strive (A-), to seek (O+), to find (O+), and not to yield (A-).
Ulysses Nick Thompson CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.jpg

Ulysses, by Nick Thompson, from early Roman sarcophagus. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

But here’s the rub: Few of us are born with this temperament. Consider the odds: 1 in 3 are born N- (the bottom third of the normal distribution), 1/3 are born E+, 1/3 O+, 1/3 A-/+ (upper half of the low range of A plus the bottom half of the midrange of A), and 1/3 are born C+. The probability of being born with all five of these trait levels in one person is 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3 x 1/3, or one in 243. You would be correct to infer from this that, in a company of 200+ employees, there are many leader/managers who are misfits for their role. What are they to do?

I recently discussed this dilemma with an associate in Thailand. He was wondering whether our ideal leader formula might be too stringent a criterion for leader identification. He had received pushback from his clients, questioning the validity of the formula.

Here’s my explanation. Few people are ideally suited for their roles. Everyone must compensate, or adapt, in some way that is not totally natural for them. For example, in my role as research and development officer, I must be attentive to details. However, my temperament is not detail-oriented. I prefer the big ideas. But I must attend to details if I am to do my job, just as the introverted mad scientist must adapt and act extraverted at parties in order to schmooze with deep pockets and land funding for projects. We must all adapt in some way, except for the few, the 1 in 243, who are natural fits.

Leaders who are missing one or more of the ideal trait levels have three options. All are based on 1) self-awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses (gained through an assessment process), and 2) a willingness to find ways to compensate for one’s weaknesses.

  1. Choose the context. Not all leadership demands are equal. Some followers require more communication (E+) than others, as in sales teams needing more chat than a laboratory of research chemists. Put an E+ in a research lab and you have a bull in a china shop. The point: Find a context that needs what you offer, trait-wise. If you are prone to stress (N+), and you really want (or need) to lead, then find a context that is relatively stress-free (e.g., managing a gift shop rather than managing a hospital emergency room). The ideal leader trait levels are averages, and that means that in many situations more extreme levels—both higher and lower—can be effective.
  1. Embrace interdependence. Self-awareness is critical for this option. Interdependence means leaning on one another by acknowledging that others’ strengths can compensate for my weaknesses. My company is a team of ten. Not one of us exhibits all five of the ideal leader trait levels. However, on our leadership team of three, all five trait levels are present—distributed among the three of us. Jane has the N-, O+, and A-, Lisa has the O+,E+, A-, and C+, and I have the O+ (that’s about all, I fear—I’m not very leaderly!). In our meetings, I tend to brainstorm, while Lisa serves as evaluator. Lisa provides hard data for tough decisions, while Jane finds ways to circumvent constraints. Lisa and I both worry about doomsday, while Jane is as calm as a hibernating bear. We all value our differences and acknowledge that we each bring something necessary to the table, like proteins, fats, and carbs. You bring the tomatoes, you over there bring the mayo, and I’ll bring the white bread.
  1. Retain a coach. A coach in the leadership world is someone who can offer the leader suggestions on how to achieve one’s objectives. This could be anyone whom the leader trusts, from business or life partner to a professional psychologist or business coach. I was once engaged as a coach to the managing partner of an architecture firm of 80+ associates. The managing partner was concerned that associates complained about the quality of his meetings. The manager was quite introverted and hated meetings. I suggested he ask one of his more extraverted department heads to facilitate the meetings, and that the manager sit in the back of the room and serve as a resource throughout the meeting. Problem solved. In the case of Ulysses, his self-awareness made him aware that he lacked the steel nerves (N–) and rigid focus (C++) to resist the seductive sirens. Some coach—his #2 perhaps—may have suggested that he rope himself to the mast and plug his ears to bolster his resistance. Disaster averted. Whether a “coach” nudged him in the direction of acknowledging the weakness and using an adaptive strategy, or whether Ulysses figured it out on his own, this required self-awareness and interdependence.

Just because we are not a 1 in 243 natural leader, that does not mean we cannot lead. If we wish to lead, or find ourselves having to lead, we have these three options to be optimally responsive to our followers’ needs. People need a leader who is strong in will with an equal temper and strong in heart to strive, seek, and find, and not to yield. If all of these qualities are not in one person, adapt or look elsewhere.