Coaches Make a Difference

Sometimes it helps us have the courage needed to do our work as coaches if we remember the value we bring. A 2021 article in the Consulting Psychology Journal by Robert Hogan, Robert Kaiser, Ryne Sherman, and Peter Harms (“Twenty Years on the Dark Side: Six Lessons about Bad Leadership”) provides important data.

For those of you not immersed in psychological literature, the Hogan Suite of psychological assessments, which the authors relied on for much of their data, is one of the most widely used suites of assessment tools in business psychology. It is particularly effective in predicting leadership success . . . and its absence. Due to the Hogan’s widespread use, and the authors’ dedication to ongoing research, you can trust that the insights they provide are based on hard evidence.

In their article, the authors provide stunning numbers concerning the incidence of bad leadership in modern organizations. For example: “. . . published estimates of managerial failure range from 30% to 65%, with an average around 50%.” Think about that for a minute. Half of the people put in charge of other people’s work fail! Thus, there is no shortage of need for coaches who can help managers succeed.

But wait! There’s more!

The authors write: “The principal cause of disease is stress. Employees report that work is a major source of stress, and that their manager is the most stressful aspect of their job and is the primary reason they quit.” When you, as a coach, help a manager or leader succeed, you are not just helping that individual. In addition, you are improving the health of everyone who works under that person.

The authors cite research that shows that removing toxic managers has a sizeable effect on reducing burnout. Toxic management is so powerful that it increases burnout faster than good leadership can prevent it! Coaches can help managers and leaders overcome and diminish their toxic behavior. What a gift you are to those who must work for someone else.

Almost no one sets out to be a toxic leader. Bad leaders don’t think, “Let’s see how awful I can make people feel today, how hopeless, how powerless, and how undervalued.” The vast majority of bad leaders want very much to do a good job. They just may not know how. Or, more to the point, while they may relate reasonably well when everything is rolling along, they may not know how to do a good job when they are under stress.

But stress and leadership go hand in hand. Leaders looking for low stress work are in the wrong job. A leader’s job involves helping their people deal with problems. Problems cause stress. The process of solving problems causes stress. Stress often brings out the dark side of a leader and an employee.

Under stress, leaders may get irritable, even abusive. Or they may withdraw, engaging in what is called absentee leadership. For whatever reason, absentee leaders are essentially disengaged. As such, they don’t offer workers needed guidance, goals, or feedback. That results in workers who have no idea how to be successful. Typically, the only time workers hear from an absentee leader is when something goes wrong that simply can’t be ignored. Then workers need to watch out!

True story: An elementary school principal, let’s call her Ruth, didn’t particularly like one of the custodial staff who worked in her school. She found the woman annoying, and didn’t care for the way she did her job, or the small decisions she made day to day. But because Ruth tended to avoid conflict, and didn’t know how to offer constructive criticism, she never said a word to the woman. As a result, the woman assumed she was doing an OK job. Then one day, when Ruth was in a bad mood because of something totally unrelated, the woman did some small thing that Ruth considered to be the last straw. Ruth called the woman into her office and fired her on the spot. The woman was flabbergasted! As I said, workers need to beware of absentee leaders!

How common is absentee leadership, i.e., the withdrawal from leadership responsibilities? Research shows that it is the most common form of destructive leadership. The authors cite research that finds that absentee leadership is seven times more common than abusive leadership. But, because it is almost invisible, absentee leadership often goes unnoticed by superiors.

Coaches are in a great position to help clients learn how to approach problems rather than avoid them. Ask your client to talk with you about who works for them and how those people are performing. You will soon hear complaints about performance.

“Have you spoken with Joe about your concerns?”

“No.”

“What is stopping you?”

“Joe just doesn’t care.”

“That’s possible. Some workers don’t care, and that’s all there is to it. But most people really want to care about their jobs. After all, they spend a lot of time working. Working in a job you don’t care about is very stressful. Let’s drill down about Joe. What makes you think he doesn’t care?”

“As I said, he just does enough to get by.”

“Oh, right, sure. But I wonder why?”

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe it would be good to talk with Joe and find out. Maybe this is a fixable problem.”

“I wouldn’t know how to begin to have that conversation.” (Now you’re getting somewhere.)

“That’s what you’ve got me for. Let’s do a little role play and see if we can figure out a good approach.”

As you do your role play with your various clients, a number of coaching opportunities are likely to come up. One is the opportunity to work on anxiety tolerance. Your clients will have to tolerate the anxiety of an awkward, difficult conversation. You can help your clients stay with the anxiety, rather than withdrawing, in at least three ways. First, predict it. Then when your clients feel the anxiety, they won’t be surprised and automatically withdraw. Second, help them know that having a plan for this conversation, that you help them create, will help them feel calmer. Third, help them visualize the potential benefits of having problem employees like Joe come to care about their work.

In addition, help them be prepared to re-interpret the behavior of employees like Joe. There are lots of possibilities that your clients could listen for, including:

  • Maybe “Joe” cares a great deal but is in over his head.
  • Maybe “Joe” is having personal issues.
  • Maybe “Joe” is afraid of his manager (your client!)

Just giving your clients some ideas about what else might be going on with employees like Joe can create an impetus to really listen to these employees. Genuine listening leads to creative problem solving.

Let’s say you have a successful coaching session with your client, who then has a successful conversation with Joe. Look at what you’ve done! You’ve improved a key working relationship. You’ve reduced stress for both of these people, and probably their families as well, and thus improved their health. And you’ve made an important contribution to the success of the company. Coaches do bring value!

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