Management by Coaching
By Kimberly Paterson, CEC
THE BAD HABIT
Coaching a superstar when their fatal flaw is getting in the way
Ryan was a superstar. Six months into the job, his results were impressive. He was a fast learner, a self-starter and exceeding his quarterly goals with ease. He was the perfect combination of high productivity and low maintenance. The management team was feeling really good about bringing him on board.
But then, co-worker complaints about Ryan began to surface. At first a trickle, then a deluge. Conversations with staff consistently revealed that the people working with Ryan on a day-to-day basis did not share management’s enthusiasm. Dubbed “the bulldozer,” colleagues described Ryan as “pushy,” “cold,” “relentless when he wanted something,” “disrespectful,” and “self-absorbed.” What started as annoyance with Ryan’s style was rapidly escalating into conflict between him and the team.
As good as they are, many star performers have a destructive behavior pattern that drives their day-to-day behavior. Over time, these negative behaviors can add real cost to the bottom line—even though short-term results are positive.
Management acknowledged that Ryan was irritating his colleagues. But given his stellar performance on every other measure, they were reluctant to intervene. After all, why would you want to tamper with an employee who gets twice as much done as the people who are complaining about him?
The fatal flaw
Like many star performers, Ryan has desirable strengths. But he also has a destructive behavior pattern that is a central part of his personality that informs his day-to-day behavior. Over time, this behavior adds real cost to the bottom line—even though the individual’s short-term results are positive. Their constant pushing leads good people to leave the organization and burns out those who remain. The conflict they create is a continual source of conversation and distraction that takes a toll on productivity.
Left unchecked, people with Ryan’s bulldozer behavior pattern can be damaging. Until the behavior is addressed, there is a glass ceiling that limits the person’s success and contribution to the organization.
According to organizational psychologists, Ryan’s bad habit is one of 12 discrete patterns of behavior or habits that lead to career troubles. (We’ll cover more of these patterns in upcoming columns.) The good news is that managers can play a pivotal role in helping employees recognize and correct the destructive behavior pattern. While it doesn’t take a doctorate in psychology, it does take a willingness to understand how people think and how their thinking drives their behavior.
Drivers of negative behavior
Organizational psychologists James Waldroop and Timothy Butler define four psychological processes that underlie destructive behavioral patterns at work:
- An inability to understand the perspective of others. Many people have trouble getting outside their own heads and seeing the world through others’ eyes. They expect others to see life as they do and share their values. They lack empathy for people with different perspectives. A well-developed sense of empathy is essential in building effective relationships with peers, subordinates, and clients.
- An inability to recognize when and how to use power. Many people struggle with how to use power effectively. They often confuse using power with abusing it. As a result, they tend to avoid gaining power, or they acquire it and fail to use it. Others are all too happy to wield their power as a sword rather than a surgeon’s scalpel.
- A failure to come to terms with authority. Most of us are ambivalent about authority. People can get stuck at one extreme or the other. At one end are those who defy authority in every possible instance. At the other end are those who are overly deferential: “If my manager says it is true, it must be true.”
- A negative self-image. Poor self-esteem can come from a variety of factors. Some people feel pressure from our achievement-driven culture to accomplish more and do it faster than their peers. The possibility of fear is always looming. Other people’s self-esteem deficiencies stem from mild to moderate levels of depression. Weak self-image undermines the confidence of a surprising number of business people, from first-time managers to CEOs.
Coaching people for habit change
Before coaching begins, managers need to step back and make three decisions. First, is the person valuable enough to warrant investing the effort? Consider the possible outcomes. Typically, the person will show some improvement, but the chances of completely eliminating the undesirable behavior are low. Before you begin coaching, have a clear picture of what a “good enough” improvement means. Second, consider if you’re the right person to do the coaching. Even though you may clearly see the problem, you may not be the best person to deal with it. Coaching requires a specific skill set as well as time and patience. Someone else in your organization or an outside resource may be a better option. Most important, is the individual who needs the coaching committed to working on their behavior?
If you decide to move forward, here are seven tips for making the process go smoothly:
- Schedule a preliminary conversation. Block on both of your calendars 45 minutes to have a private, uninterrupted conversation. Prepare in advance. Reflect on the person’s patterns over time rather than fixating on a recent event or a single incident. Organize what you want to communicate before the discussion.
- Tailor your approach. When it comes to delivering feedback, one size doesn’t fit all. A person’s culture, personality, and experience play a role. For example, inexperienced people typically need more positive reinforcement to build confidence. If your organization is multi-cultural, be mindful that some cultures are comfortable with a direct approach, while others prefer subtlety. With a bulldozer personality like Ryan’s, you need to be forceful and direct for him to hear you. For example, start by asking him if he has any idea how many people he’s alienated on the staff. Follow this with a powerful statement like, “If we were to put this to a vote, there’s no question your co-workers would fire you.”
- Be candid and clear about what needs to change. Concentrate on the specific behavior, not things that are subjective, like attitude. When dealing with a bulldozer personality be prepared for denial. Have a couple of concrete examples that illustrate the problem behavior. If the message is still not sinking in, you’ll need to be more forceful. For example: “I’m not going to baby you. You cost us too much. You need to change or find another job.”
- Stay curious. Avoid assuming you know the root cause of the person’s behavior. When we analyze people, we tend to overestimate the effect of a person’s disposition and capabilities and underestimate the impact of the conditions in which the person is operating. Get as much information as you can before you draw conclusions about what’s driving the person’s behavior. In Ryan’s situation, the conversation with him revealed he had no idea how much he’d upset the team. Given the non-confrontational nature of the firm’s culture, people complained behind Ryan’s back but never to his face. This, combined with Ryan’s lack of empathy for people who didn’t share his hard-driving work style and his inability to read others’ subtle cues, left him oblivious to the impact he had on others.
- Limit the time you spend talking about past negative behavior. Focusing on someone’s negative behavior puts them in defensive mode and makes it difficult for them to rationally process the information you’re sharing. Once you’re confident the person understands what needs to change, shift to the future. Help support them in envisioning a workable action plan for how they can do things differently moving forward. Potential next steps for a person like Ryan might include:
- Make a list of the people he’s offended and deliver a heart-felt apology to each. Apologizing for past misdeeds—whether real or perceived—is a critical step in mending relationships. This won’t be easy for a bulldozer personality and may require role-playing to build the skills needed to move forward.
- Choose someone he trusts to monitor his behavior and signal him in real time or shortly after when he’s overstepping. This will help Ryan become more conscious of the people, situations, and thoughts that trigger his bad behavior. With awareness and practice, he’ll get better at managing his reactions before he does damage.
- Rely on the trusted person to take the temperature of the team periodically. It will take time before people feel comfortable enough to share direct feedback with Ryan.
- Get emotional intelligence training. This training will help Ryan learn how to regulate his own emotions, better read others, and become more conscious of the impact he has on others.
The key word for you to remember as the coach is “support.” The coachee has to choose their path forward if the plan has any chance of working. Manager-mandated changes may work for a while, but they won’t stick. Adults truly change only when they want to or believe they need to. Succeeding means tapping into what motivates the individual and what they want for themselves.
6. Test for understanding. Make sure your message got through by testing for understanding at the end of your conversation. One way to do this is to ask the person, “What are the key takeaways for you, and what do you see as the next steps?” This gives you a chance to clarify any misunderstanding and also your takeaways and next steps.
7. Don’t procrastinate. The longer you allow the behavior to go on, the more you send the signal that what the person is doing is acceptable.
Coaching a high achiever to over-come a fatal flaw is not a one-time intervention. It takes years for a bad habit to develop, and it won’t just disappear overnight. But when you can help a person see how their behavior is getting in the way of what they ultimately want to accomplish and provide the support to help them overcome that behavior, it’s a win-win for the person and the organization.
Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM (www.cim-co.com). CIM works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property and casualty insurance companies, agencies, and brokers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Kimberly on www.linkedin.com/in/kimberly-paterson and twitter.com/CIMChangeMinds.