By SANDY CLARKE
How do leaders create the kind of sustainable change that builds engagement, increases morale, and nurtures the kind of culture that allows their organisation to flourish?
Traditionally, in an effort to improve staff performance, leaders have adopted the carrot-and-stick approach. They praise strengths, before talking abut what needs to be improved. Perhaps there might be some incentives; however, it’s more likely that there will be some implied, fear-driven message that’s usually tied to performance and KPIs (key performance indicators).
In their paper, Developing Resonant Leaders Through Emotional Intelligence, Vision and Coaching, Prof. Richard Boyatzis and colleagues refer to this approach as ‘coaching for compliance’. The trouble with this, they argue, is that a leader – or someone in authority – is potentially asking people to move in a direction they’d rather not go.
As a result, employees incline towards being defensive as they encounter what Boyatzis – an expert in organisational leadership – refers to as the ‘Negative Emotional Attractor’ (NEA). This becomes aroused whenever leaders focus on problems and weaknesses within an employee or the organisation as a whole. Consequently, people become closed-off, disengaged, and compliant; that is, they do the minimum necessary to get the job done.
The alternative to coaching for compliance is coaching with compassion. As Boyatzis and his colleagues explain:
While sometimes needed, coaching for compliance pulls people into a defensive posture, the NEA. Instead of opening them up to new possibilities, it typically results in a person engaging in compliance-coping in the short-term, and then eventually forgetting it all and returning to their old ways.
When coaching with compassion…become(s) typical and widespread, then an organisation begins to change its culture in terms of its norms and values.
So, how can leaders coach with compassion? Boyatzis and his colleagues refer to Intentional Change Theory (ICT) as the model under which compassionate coaching helps employees to flourish. Prof. Boyatzis talks about the ICT model in his new book, Helping People Change: Coaching with Compassion for Lifelong Learning and Growth, and highlights five core concepts of fostering intentional change:
1. Cultivating an ideal self and personal vision
Leaders who help their employees to develop a sense of their ideal self enable them to a positive state of imagining opportunities and possibilities. As they see what their future could be like, the personal vision they create manifests in motivated, committed behaviours that work towards their desired future.
2. Comparing the ‘ideal’ and ‘real’ self
Crucial to any positive change is the ability to be self-aware. When people look honestly at themselves in an objective way, they can see the qualities they recognise as strengths they’d like to keep, and they also become aware of what they would like to improve on. Gaps between this ‘real’ self and the ‘ideal’ self can be viewed as a representation of areas that can be made stronger with the help of a compassionate leader.
3. Developing a learning plan
At this stage, the individual would create a learning plan that they can use to help them work towards their ideal self. It’s important that the employee is supported and encouraged to have faith in their ability to improve and flourish, and to recognise that they are enhancing the skills, knowledge and qualities they already possess. Keep in mind that people flourish when they are in a positive state, and they also become motivated to put their plan into action.
4. Practising behavioural changes
Whether it’s strengthening communication skills, organisational ability, or developing a knack for problem-solving, it’s important for employees to act out the changes they wish to see. Of course, there will be some trial and error (and perhaps some experimentation will be needed). With the guidance of a supportive leader, people will feel safer and more comfortable knowing that they have room to grow, which includes an allowance for taking some steps back if necessary.
5. Learning with the help of a strong network
Supportive relationships – with colleagues, managers, and leaders – can help employees to stay the course as they transition from their ‘real’ to ‘ideal’ self. Each of us knows the importance of having healthy relationships that act as a reliable support network to help us through any new change or challenge. They can also be counted on to provide constructive feedback as we work on the changes we desire to see in ourselves.
Although it’s necessary to know where they can improve, employees are more likely to be motivated to make those improvements when the focus from leaders and coaches is on their strengths and how employees can build on them and realise their ideal selves. When employees feel empowered, rather than compliant and fearful, they open up to new ideas and possibilities and work towards their powerful personal vision.
It’s crucial for leaders to remember that change is a process and one that takes time, effort and commitment. It’s tempting to fall back into the carrot-and-stick approach, but the research is clear: leaders who coach with compassion lead teams that feel empowered, creative, motivated, and highly engaged.
Sandy is a freelance writer based in Malaysia, and previously enjoyed 10 years as a journalist and broadcaster in the UK. He has been fortunate to gain valuable insights into what makes us tick, which has deepened his interests in leadership, emotions, mindfulness, and human behaviour.