As an executive coach, I believe there are three critical components needed for executives to break their negative behaviors and develop long-lasting, productive behaviors:
- The acceptance that there is a problem with their behavior
- The desire to change their behavior
- The capability to change their behavior
Many believe that the most time-consuming and valuable component for a coach to address with an executive is the last one, the capability to change. However, in my experience, it is the first two, acceptance there is problem, and the desire to change, that can be the most challenging and demanding aspects of a coaching engagement. Indeed, a coach’s role in influencing executives to accept that they need to change, and then fueling the executives’ motivation to change, is often the most valuable aspect of coaching. Said differently, coaches must first establish and strengthen the executive’s will to change before addressing the skill to change.
Acceptance of the Problem
Coaches typically use 360 feedback to identify behaviors that the executive needs to change. By talking to peers, team members, and the executive’s boss, the coach can develop a compelling analysis of the negative behaviors that are hindering the executive’s effectiveness. The coach’s approach to discussing the negative feedback with the executive is key to developing acceptance that there is a problem. Hearing negative feedback is difficult and emotionally draining. Often, the more negative the feedback, the greater the executive’s reluctance to accept it. Initial reactions to feedback can range from “they just don’t understand me” to “they are just being mean-spirited” to “well at least I am not as bad as ”. I utilize two approaches to help an executive accept the feedback as a true reflection of her development areas:
- Intent vs. Impact. This framework was established by Daniel Goleman and is discussed in his books, articles and blogs about emotional intelligence. No executive intends to behave in a way that leads to bad outcomes or negative impact. I acknowledge the executive’s good intentions, but also help her recognize that her intentions are not translating into positive impact (i.e., “your intentions to increase your team’s quality standards are ambitious and admirable, but they are resulting in your team’s demoralization and consequently less productivity”). Distinguishing intention from impact can take the sting out of negative feedback. Further, it helps the executive articulate the impact she seeks to achieve, which is key to developing the desire to change (more on this below).
- Perception is Reality. A coach must help the executive understand that people’s perceptions are her reality. In others words, even if she does not agree with people’s perceptions of her, they are what they are, and that is a reality she needs to take in and internalize. When an executive says “but they should not feel like that!”, my response is “unfortunately, you cannot tell people how to feel. The feelings that people have about you or your actions are your reality, regardless if you agree with them or not.”
Desire to Change
Executives may not have the desire to change their behavior for several different reasons: the considerable effort and energy required to change, fear of trying to change and failing, a feeling of someone else “winning” and them “losing” if they change. There may even be an entitlement issue – “well, I am the boss so it is others that should change rather than me. I have made it this far in my career so why should I have to change now?” The key is to identify and discuss the reasons the executive may not want to change. Once these reasons are out in the open, a coach can help the executive decide if putting those reasons aside is worth the potential positive outcomes. Put simply, the coach can help the executive answer the question, “Is changing my behavior worth it or not?”
To help an executive decide if changing her behavior has enough value to conquer her reluctance to change, I discuss what she wants to achieve both in her current role and in her long-term career, and why. By understanding the executive’s goals and ambitions, and what is behind those ambitions, a coach can help the executive connect how behavior changes can help achieve short-term goals and long-term career aspirations. Once that connection is made and clearly articulated, the executive will recognize that changing her behaviors is not just about responding to feedback to please others, but about achieving short and long-term goals that are both personal and profound. Her motivation to change will be fueled by the potential to dramatically increase her impact and achieve her long-term career aspirations.
Acceptance, desire and capability are critical components to behavior changes that will have lasting, positive impact. It is critical for coaches and executives to recognize the importance of the first two components and spend as much times as needed in addressing and developing them, before focusing on an executive’s capability to change. The executive’s skill to change is not useful if her will to change is not potent. The focus and time dedicated to acceptance and desire to change are often what separates the “OK” coaching engagements from the “game changer” coaching engagements.