“I just don’t know how to get through to John. My coaching isn’t working!” a senior leader exclaimed in frustration to me last week. It seemed like David’s feedback was falling on deaf ears and increasingly John would get defensive when his boss would bring up his skill gaps in delegating to his direct reports. The frustration was mutual and it was starting to impact their working relationship. The reason David’s coaching wasn’t working is that he was making some of the common mistakes we all make when trying to change someone’s behavior.
Neuroscience-backed research by Dr. Richard Boyatzis and his colleagues at Case Western Reserve shows that we often make three major mistakes when coaching others that actually prevent the change we are looking for. I sat down with Dr. Boyatzis to talk about his upcoming book “Helping People Change” (co-authored with Melvin Smith and Ellen Van Oosten). These insights will help you become a coaching ninja, whether you’re trying to coach people on your team or your teenager.
Henna Inam: Many of us wanting to help others change often get frustrated by the lack of sustained change. Based on your book, what are the top mistakes we make in our approach?
Richard Boyatzis: In our eagerness “to help” another person, whether a subordinate, student, patient or child, we often jump to telling them what to do to fix the problem or improve their performance. Sadly, our research shows this results in the exact opposite outcome than what we hoped to achieve. The person is likely to feel obligated or pressured. That activates a psycho-physiological state known as the Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA), what we call coaching for compliance. The result is that the person feels defensive and begins to close down. The person feels that the emphasis is to get them to comply with us.
Neurological research, including our own studies, show that typical actions thought to motivate change, such as: (a) setting specific goals; (b) providing feedback before a person asked for it and (c) providing tips on how people can perform better, are more likely to activate the NEA and reduce the likelihood of any change effort.
Inam: What should we do instead?
Boyatzis: As we explain in our book, sustainable learning is likely when someone uses coaching with compassion. This is based on 39 longitudinal studies of behavior change (improving emotional, social and cognitive intelligence actions), three fMRI studies and two hormonal studies.
Among the many techniques we address in the book are three cardinal ones. First, engage the person in formulating or articulating their dream for an ideal life in 10-15 years (dream not goals, a fantasy not forecasting what is likely). The specific question is, “If your life and work were ideal, what would it be like in 10-15 years?” Second, evoke their gratitude by asking them to describe moments in which they learned something important from someone. The question is, “Who helped you the most in your life become who you are or get to where you are?” Third, building a caring and trusting relationship, which we call a resonant relationship. These discussions do not have to be long ones, sometimes 15 or 20 minutes can be sufficient to invoke the desired physiological and psychological state.
These techniques involve activating the Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA). This means arousing the Parasympathetic Nervous System which is our body’s only antidote to annoying or acute stress (in contrast to the Sympathetic Nervous System—the stress response), activating the Empathic Neural Network (in contrast to the Analytic Neural Network), and feeling positive (in contrast to feeling negative).
Inam: What is the brain science that supports your research and conclusions?
Boyatzis: My colleagues (Tony Jack and Angela Passarelli as well as others) and I conducted three functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies. One to test the effect of resonant versus dissonant relationships, and two to directly test coaching to the PEA versus NEA. Asking the dream question mentioned above resulted in a person activating their lateral visual cortex (where a person dreams and imagines things), components of the Empathic Neural Network (i.e., posterior cingulate cortex, Nucleus Accumbens, Orbito-frontal cortex, etc.). These areas of the brain in concert, as a network, help a person to be open to new ideas and other people and emotions.
Asking people about how they were doing addressing problems or challenges they were facing did the opposite. The NEA is more likely to arouse a negative state because the person feels guilty or obligated to do something. In the first study, reflections on specific moments with a resonant leader from one’s past invoked many components of the Empathic Neural Network, while two thirds of the time reflecting on specific moments with a dissonant leader invoked the Analytic Neural Network.
Inam: As a leader in an organization, we often notice gaps where people are not performing at the level their job requires. Based on your research what is the best strategy to help motivate people to address these gaps?
Boyatzis: The dilemma is that if you engage by frequently trying to correct their actions or performance, you will actually do the opposite. The result would be less initiative, less engagement, and less motivation. Any change is short lived and not durable.
The majority of people want to do good work. The first step to helping them to be successful is to understand what the person wants out of life and work. You have to care about the person, their dreams and values, and listen to them. So, the key is the conversation. Leaders need to be intentional about having conversations that inspire others to bring the best version of themselves to work.
This means creating an environment where people are encouraged to and feel safe reflecting on their core values and imagining an exciting, meaningful future. The leader’s role becomes helping others consider what they wish to do and who they wish to be. As a person’s values and dream come into focus, you can ask them how they think they are doing on their current job or tasks. Most of the time, you will discover that people know they are not doing as well as they could be. Once they acknowledge that, it opens a door to them asking you for help. Then, feedback and ideas are more likely to be experienced as an opportunity for change.
Of course, it’s important to note that if the person is delusional about their performance or just does not care, then a different approach may be required.
Inam: What are ways to institutionalize this approach in organizations?
Boyatzis: Today’s organizations are faced with an engagement crisis. People want to feel like they’re making a difference in what’s meaningful for them. Most of the HR systems today are focused on goals, performance reviews, succession plans and are inherently meant to reduce performance risk for organizations. They are not focused on developing and energizing employees. To our current HR processes, we need to add coaching conversations and create a culture of true caring for the people we are responsible for, not just the performance. Great companies are bringing this culture change in three ways: a) They find great coaches for the top leaders so they have a direct experience of the benefits of coaching, b) They build an internal coaching team and find managers who want to be trained to be better coaches for their people, c) They encourage peer-coaching to grow a culture of development and growth mindset.
Inam: Your book shares the importance of each leader creating a personal vision statement. Can you share the research? What are some ways for people to create their personal vision statement?
Boyatzis: The key to a personal vision statement is for the person to spend time reflecting. We ask 25-65 year olds to engage with about twenty different exercises to attempt to draw out from their half-baked thoughts and feelings about what they would love their life and work to be like in the longer term future. One exercise is to ask the question posed above. Another is to have them discuss their core values. Another is for them to playfully consider how winning $50 to 80 million after tax in the lottery would affect their life and work. Another exercise is to have them fantasize different jobs they would love to do for 2 years if they had a magical infusion of skills and knowledge. Thinking about the specific jobs is not what is important – instead, the focus should be on the themes that make these different jobs similar.
We ask people to create a comprehensive, holistic vision. We want it to include their dreams about their profession or job, family, physical health, spiritual health, relationship health, financial health and contributions to the community. We ask people to consider what gives deep meaning in their lives. We ask them to consider their core values and noble purpose.
We also point out that it is important to talk with supportive others (people with whom they have a resonant relationship) about the elements and the entire vision.
Inam: One challenge for many ambitious leaders is to get their teams to buy in to the high performance goals they’re setting. What advice do you have for them?
Boyatzis: First, work on establishing a shared vision within the team. Along with faculty and past and present doctoral students in the Department of Organizational Behavior, we now have over 25 studies, most of which have been published showing how a shared vision is the most powerful contributor to increased leadership effectiveness, innovation, engagement of others and organizational citizenship (i.e., doing more than your job requires).
The most effective leaders use every meeting as an opportunity to remind or talk about the shared purpose and values of the team. This is a discussion not a poster or lecture. Some leaders do it by starting meetings with a story or two about their colleagues, associates, subordinates, patients or students accomplishing impressive things. Sometimes, they pose the question, “Why are we doing all this?” The best leaders do not accept the answer to make money. They know and say that making money is a measure of how well you might be doing but not the purpose.
Inam: How can a hyper-focus on high performance results (what most of us think our job is as leaders) actually lead to impairment of emotional intelligence?
Boyatzis: When a leader predominantly focuses on specific targets especially in financial terms, they activate the Analytic Network and NEA in people. This helps people solve problems and make decisions, but also closes them to new ideas and other people. The concept of being open to diversity of thought and innovative ideas is gone! Enter the “not invented here”, “not the way we do things here,” and competition neglect syndromes. A series of studies, including some impressive ones published by Professor Anthony Jack in his Brain, Mind Consciousness Lab at Case Western Reserve University (our friend and co-author on our studies) have shown that the Analytic Neural Network and the Empathic Neural Networks suppress each other. By emphasizing one, you crowd out the other. So, the more time we spend focused on achieving high performance goals and accomplishing tasks, the harder it becomes to be aware of ourselves and each other. It becomes harder to dial in to our emotional triggers and to read the emotional play in another person and the team.
The effective leader, we contend, toggles back and forth between these networks. It turns out that you cannot activate both at the same time without dire consequences! The key is to help people in helping roles, as well as leadership positions, develop the facility to use both networks.
Inam: What are some important behaviors associated with coaching with compassion? In our fast-paced, high stress environments, how can we create the time and mindsets that enable this?
Boyatzis: It starts with adopting a coach approach in interactions with others. We think of having a coach approach as a way of being that encourages positive growth in ourselves and others. Our primary role as a coach is to help someone else with their self-directed learning and change with the key being on “self-directed.” That’s where most leaders get trapped. They often think “helping” means solving the problem. But when leaders repeatedly give the answer, they negate that others have the intelligence or ability to do it for themselves as we shared earlier.
To coach with compassion means to focus on building a resonant relationship with associates, emphasized by positive emotion, empathy, mutual respect and caring for the other person. It also means focusing on what the associate desires or needs more often than giving direction. In essence, the associate drives the agenda. This usually requires a shift for the leader from telling to asking. It also requires the ability to be mindful, fully present and able to actively listen. The skill for leaders is to be able to engage in conversations that inspire – to unleash the very best in others in every moment.
A version of this post first appeared in my Forbes leadership blog.