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Writing

Coaching in Disenchantment

Coming from the sunny tropics, and visiting dull drizzly London for the first time, my Ghanaian companion was astonished to find that workmen were out getting drenched repairing cabling in the pouring rain. As his stay continued, and one wet day followed the other, he finally concluded "in England, if you want to get anything done you've got to be prepared to work in the rain"


His observation comes vividly back to me as I reflect on the experience of coaching leaders who were struggling to be effective in an environment that is dull, cold and uninspiring.

When faced with the odd "bad day at work" it is possible to shrug it off, put on a brave face and carry on (and the Brits are masters at that!). But if it is a continuous drench of dreariness it takes a particular depth of energy, sense of vision, thickness of skin or just bull-headed determination to keep going.

Mixed emotions

Leaders who find themselves working in such environments talk of the complex mix of emotions they face at the start of each day.

At times they feel lethargic and unenthusiastic dreading the encounters they expect to have during the day. At other times they wake up with a strong sense of urgency and a clear view of what they want to accomplish that day.

Leaders we coach also report that their moods can change and swing quickly.

Dread can be lifted by a chance encounter with an unexpected encourager. Determination and clarity can be punctured by the sharp remark of a critical boss. The challenge they face leading in discouraging environments is that "punctured deflation" rather than "uplifting encouragement" can be what they experience most. So with time they can come to expect to be deflated by conversations at work. Indeed, some leaders report that during sustained episodes of discouragement, their days start with sentiments of “controlled apprehension” and end with “frustrated fatigue” rather than “satisfied accomplishment”.

Being effective in “disenchantment”

In one organisation I coached in, I worked with the leaders and managers to identify the key requirements for effective leadership when faced with difficult working relationships and harsh contextual conditions.

After months of discussion and literally hundreds of conversations the key requirements were noted to be self-awareness, feedback and a conducive environment.

Self-awareness related to the ability to see one’s self more clearly through each new encounter, understanding one’s self better, and being aware of how one's particular characteristics and attributes "play out" in a given situation and in the face of different challenges. Self-awareness also extended to being able to see and even anticipate the effects one’s behaviour has on others, and then to be able to adapt it to suit the situation, thereby enabling more effective interactions with those you are working with.

Feedback related to the quality, reliability and usefulness of information that was routinely available and that one was open to receive and able to act on. Managers noted that part of the reason for the sense of dread so characteristic of difficult working environments is the lack of connection and understanding that is created by the absence of reliable and enabling information and feedback.

A conducive environment related to being in and having a continuous sense of appreciation and positive regard from colleagues, superiors, customers and other work partners. Faced with bad news, mishaps or continuous difficulties, the attitude and assumptions underpinning the interactions and relationships at work appeared to be key aspects influencing how effectively people weathered the continuing drip of discouragement.

Further reflections as a coach

Since then I have repeatedly found that in my coaching and mentoring activities, clients facing unrelentingly challenging circumstances are helped to develop resilience and renewed sense of initiative through developing self-awareness, getting feedback and nurturing and encouraging the development of supportive niches - even within more hostile environments.

In my experience these aspects can promote the development of increased resilience in 3 ways:

Firstly, they can foster better teamwork amongst leaders who have strong behavioural attributes associated with enhanced tough mindedness, high self-control, and high independence.

This may happen when a leader facing challenging circumstances receives feedback about how their behaviour may be exacerbating levels of discomfort within a team. Given this new awareness the leader then chooses to respond differently, and in so doing, exhibits (and fosters) greater emotional stability, self-assurance and composure. In turn this greater self-confidence encourages more useful feedback to and from their team. This positively affects the overall relational environment that the leaders and team members are mutually co-creating.

Secondly high-quality feedback can help leaders change the assumptions they attribute to others behaviours and the meaning they make of difficult circumstances and interactions.

When faced with unrelenting problems and bad news, leaders can settle into a defensive pattern of "expecting and preparing for the worst". Caught in this way of thinking, threats may be perceived where none exist, leading to unhelpful "pre-emptive" behaviour that makes matters worse rather than better, driven by ill-informed attempts to help stabilise or recover situations.

For example, a manager accustomed to having high levels of insubordination may be unnecessarily authoritative when she takes over a new team. She may also carry her authoritative behaviours into situations and contexts where it is quite inappropriate (as in organising the team's end of year social). In so doing she may be perceived by others as overbearing, over controlling and lacking in discernment and confidence. It appears to those being managed or led, that as the going gets tougher the manager gets more freakishly controlling.

Thirdly well-developed self-awareness coupled with good feedback may help leaders understand better what they need to do more of to cope better with difficult situations.

This appears to happen most when they have a well-developed practice of reflection and review and particularly when they have actual and metaphorical places of refuge and niches of support that can provide shelter from onslaughts of issues to be dealt with, or criticisms to be endured.

Managers who have personal reflective practices such as reflective journaling, practice mindful meditation or contemplative inquiry or are part of a peer support or action learning group may benefit from stabilising effects that they offer. In our coaching work we are told that these effects include developing a better perspective, healthy detachment and new sense of possibility. Overtime the availability of such practices are felt as resources accessible whatever the challenges faced. By accessing them leaders can become better equipped to endure and even overcome their perceived or real emotional and practical threats.

Pressures faced as a coach

I've increasingly found myself thinking of working with clients faced with continuously challenging environments as requiring me as a coach to understand better the requirements of what we have come to refer to as "Coaching in Disenchantment".

As noted above, clients working in disenchanting environments are not necessarily lacking in ability or resilience. Prolonged episodes of challenge and difficulty do not necessarily have to lead to disastrous outcomes. With support, perspective and engagement of coachees innate strengths, it's possible for the coachee to develop practices and construct niches that provide protective yet sensitised cocoons that enable them to remain effective despite the undeniable pressures felt.

As a coach I'm most able to be of help when I can myself be aware of the how the pressures my client's confronted with are also affecting me and the way I'm interacting with and supporting her. These pressures are numerous, however, my experience is that 4 of these are most strident. These are:

  1. The pressure to respond to the unrelenting feelings of tension and crisis that my client is experiencing
  2. The pressure to try and make things better quickly; to try to remove the sources of challenge, criticism or pain
  3. The pressure to "fix" the client; somehow to focus on the clients responses and behaviours that exacerbate the effects of the challenges that the working environment is creating
  4. The alternative pressure to accept and satisfice; to focus on developing coping mechanisms rather than transformative efforts

Coaching clients in the midst of intense and unrelenting challenge inevitably engenders feelings of identification and empathy. Indeed, without well placed and held empathy, it's difficult to develop sufficient insight into what is most distressing or disabling about a client's predicament.

 

Appreciating coaching clients' realities and working with them, can tip into imbibing and feeling their predicaments so strongly as a coach that the drive to address the issues is more out of one’s desire to be rid of them, rather than to support the coaching client to find their own ways of addressing them.

Relieving the pressure

Typically, I become aware of the first 3 pressures (above when I sense an impatience developing towards the situation in question.

The antidote for me is paradoxically to imagine a situation where one moves more quickly and actively to challenge the situation faced. In doing that the virtues of pacing, detachment and patience remerge. I can then strike a balance between encouraging the clients sense of initiative and her attending to the prudence and caution that the situation may dictate.

I am most aware of the 4th pressure (above) when I sense that I'm losing interest and energy.

Coaching conversations become flat and stuck in patterns of polite conversation, that go round in circles with the prime purpose seeming to be not to upset a coping client. Understandably, after seeing a client establish an "equilibrium" within a hitherto deteriorating and threatening environment, one can be loath to trigger, through clumsy intervention, the very feelings of dread that the client has just managed to get handle on. Yet I've found that if I'm open and name (share) this reflection with most coaching clients the effect is to empower rather than to restrict my client. The result can be to "free" both of us from a false attachment to stability. This enables us, together, more courageously to start asking the next questions that our established equilibrium gives us the confidence to do.

Mutually finding re-enchantment

So disenchantment becomes the place where we start to recover the “songs that will re-enchant us”. We feel what we lack and can, with sensitivity start to recover our resilience, imagination and find the steps we need to take. We not only rediscover our passions, we also find and reinforce our strengths. In the words of the poet Ben Okri "Life throws stones at you. But your love and your dream changes these stones into flowers of discovery"

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Extract from Ben Okri' "Astonishing the Gods"

"Only those who truly love and are truly strong can sustain their lives as a dream. You dwell in your own enchantment. Life throws stones at you, but your love and your dream change those stones into the flowers of discovery. Even if you lose, or are defeated by things, your triumph will always be exemplary. And if no one knows it, then there are places that do. People like you enrich the dreams of the world, and it is dreams that create history. People like you are unknowing transformers of things, protected by your own fairy-tale, by love."

Ben Okri

Astonishing the Gods, Pages: 115