Helping Alpha Executives to Drop The Corporate Armour

According to Ludeman and Erlandson (2004). ‘Alpha’ executives make up 70% of senior executives. They are confident and intelligent, competitive and impatient. They like to be in charge.
‘Alpha’ executives don’t tend to listen well to others. They engage in dominance behaviours, (Schmid Mast and Hall 2009) such as:
Taking charge of the conversation
Interrupting others
Talking down to people
Expressing strong opinions
Tending to steamroll others into doing what they want (Schmid Mast and Hall 2003)

And unfortunately these behaviours seem to worsen as they get more power.

Senior alpha executives can find it hard to let others influence their decision making. (See, Morrison et al. 2011)
Alpha executives often have unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. This can lead to burnout, both in themselves and in members of their team. Alpha executives can be dismissive of others feelings and can fail to notice the negative impact that their competitive and aggressive approach has on others. Colleagues and direct reports can sometimes experience the aggressive alpha behaviour as bullying.

Alpha’s often achieve results in the short to medium term; they look confident; they speak up in meetings. They look like potential C-Suite material and they get promoted.

But once they reach higher levels of management, the need for cooperation and collaboration grows and their dominance behaviours start to hold them back and sometimes even derail them.

I often coach executives who exhibit some, if not all, of those alpha behaviours. I enjoy working with them. I like their intelligence, their focus on results and honesty. It can also feel intimidating. The curiosity and exploration that is central to good coaching can seem like a waste of time to these executives – and they let me know this assessment in no uncertain terms!

How does ACT help these executives to develop more effective leadership behaviours?

An ACT-informed coaching approach would likely include:
– Identifying workable and unworkable behaviours
Helping the executive to make better quality decisions
Choosing values and choosing how to convert those values into action
Developing compassion for self and others
Broadening behaviour and improving the criteria the executive uses to select their behaviour in a given situation.
Building psychological flexibility (of course!)
Uncovering unhelpful internal rules that are controlling behaviour

In this post, I want to explore the tricky topic of working with these executives and their emotions.

My observation is that many, but not all, of these executives have learnt to disconnect from their own emotions.  This disconnect is often contributing significantly to their insensitive and impatient behaviour.  The behaviour is, in a sense, a form of running away from unwanted thoughts and feelings.

Executives have often donned corporate armour, in order to protect themselves, in the sometimes hostile environment of organisations. Whilst this armour can be helpful, it does make it hard for them to be emotionally intelligent and agile.

In many, the armour was actually created early in life. It may well have been adopted in the school years, as a response to the harsh experiences that many of us have during childhood. This means that many of these executives have never learnt to really notice and label their emotions, a core skill of emotional intelligence.

Emotionally intelligent leaders can tease out the different grades of their own and others emotion, for example separating impatience from frustration or anger. Emotionally intelligent leaders can notice emotions that may be pulling them in different directions. They can pause, notice their emotions and notice the urges that result from these emotions, without having to act on those impulses. They can hear the wisdom their emotions often offer, perhaps about the risks in a situation or how others may be feeling about something.

The lack of emotional awareness that some alpha executives experience is often coupled with avoidance of many of the ‘softer’ emotions. This does not mean, however, that the executives are genuinely emotionless, the emotions will still be present and will often drive behaviour unconsciously.

The aim of coaching alpha executives can often be to help them to learn to engage with their own emotions with more curiosity and wisdom.

This work can be scary for executives, many of them have an emotion phobia; where approaching certain emotions, such as sadness or fear, can make them freeze or escape.  Just like with other exposure work, this needs to be done with the consent of the individual concerned and with gentleness and curiosity.

Often the most important thing that a coach can do in this situation is to help the executive to pause and notice. How does it feel in your body as you talk about this issue? And what does that tell you? And what do your values and the needs of the situation suggest you do next?

As people become more fluent with their own emotions, they become less driven by them and have a greater capacity to choose the most effective behaviour in a given moment.

As people become more open to their own emotions, they also become more aware and empathic towards others.

As emotions become welcome companions, the corporate armour becomes less necessary, vulnerability becomes possible and life becomes richer.

(For Australian Readers – I am running a workshop on this topic at the APS International Coaching Congress in Melbourne in November 13th to 15th)

How To Super Charge Your Leadership Training

I recently heard of a leadership programme where it is expected that half way through the programme participants will contact the CEO of their large organisation to complain. They are doubtful about the usefulness of the programme and feel overwhelmed, stressed and angry. The CEO apparently responds by telling them to ‘suck it up’. Why does he tell them this?  Because he sees that, in the long run, the programme works – the majority of participants do become better leaders after the programme. They are wiser, more courageous and demonstrate more integrity.

Although the programme apparently ‘works’ it sounds to me like it is causing unnecessary suffering to participants. Let me explain what I mean.

When I was a junior doctor, all gall bladder operations involved a long incision, a 2 hour operation, 5 days in hospital and 4-6 weeks recovery time. Fast forward 15 years and most gall bladder operations are now done laparoscopically, via small incisions in the abdomen. The patient only needs to stay in hospital overnight and returns to normal activities within a week.

I think that some leadership trainers are doing the equivalent of an open cholecystectomy. They are inflicting unnecessary trauma on participants in order to achieve the required changes when they could be using newer, more effective and less damaging behaviour change technology.

Contextual behavioural science has the clues to these more effective and less traumatic ways of achieving the same important outcomes.

Contextual behavioural science (CBS) aims to ‘predict and influence behavior, with precision, scope, and depth.’ What this means is that CBS is using scientific inquiry to work out exactly what works in helping human beings to develop and grow.

So what does a leadership course based on these principles look like?

  1. It understands that most of us become inflexible when we feel threatened. If the learning environment is safe, secure and playful we are more likely to learn new behaviours that we will then apply in the real world.
  2. At the start of the programme participants choose the values they want to express through their work. What they want to stand for. How they want others to experience them. This is important as this links the leadership programme to their own internal motivation (‘What is important to me’) which is much more powerful than external motivation ( e.g.’My CEO says I have to suck it up’).
  3. A combination of 360 feedback and reflection (supported by coaching) helps participants to identify the behaviours that they need to Keep, Start and Stop doing.  Participants learn research findings about which leadership behaviours are effective in which settings; so that they can make wise choices about what behaviours to focus on.
  4. Participants explore the function of any behaviours that they find both problematic and resistant to change. They then use this information to develop a plan for change. This is because behaviours that look the same can actually have completely different underlying aims. If the plan for change doesn’t take this into account it is likely to be ineffective. For example: participants who complain to the CEO could either be trying to avoid something difficult or they could be asking for a more effective leadership programme. In the first case, some work around becoming better at handling uncomfortable emotions might be warranted, whereas in the second, it might be helpful to learn how to manage upwards more skilfully.
  5. Facilitators in a programme based on contextual behavioural science understand that problematic thoughts and feelings are often what hold people back from expressing courageous, caring and inspiring behaviours. The programme therefore includes evidence based methods to handle painful thoughts and feelings more effectively.
  6. Participants learn to become more mindful. They become good at observing their own behaviour and it’s impact. Noticing when their behaviour aligns with their own deeply held values and when they are off course…and then self correcting.
  7. Relational Frame Theory is used to improve the design of activities and metaphors. Why relational frame theory? Because it is a theory of language, cognition and learning that has more than 60 studies to support it.
  8. During workshops, the behaviours that participants have identified as needing to change are likely to occur. These events are seen as opportunities for authentic and thoughtful conversations where the effects of these behaviours on both the particular participant and on other participants is explored. The outcomes of the behaviour in the session are then linked to their possible outcomes in the ‘real’ world.
  9. Facilitators and other participants also look for and encourage positive changes in behaviour. Participants make plans for how to try out these new behaviours in their work and then observe the effect.
  10. Participant’s managers are seen as an important part of the programme. It is much easier to change when people around you are supportive of the change.

A leadership course run this way would still be challenging for participants but it would be less likely to overwhelm them.  Even better, early research is suggesting it might even be more effective than standard leadership training. (Professor Frank Bond has some research in press showing just this).

How Promising Managers Sometimes Derail Their Careers…and How to Prevent It

According to The Centre for Creative Leadership almost 1 in 2 of the managers who have the makings of success fail to reach their potential. They ‘derail’ and are either demoted, fired, plateau or opt for early retirement (William A Gentry).

There seem to be some key problems that cause this derailment:

  • Failing to build effective interpersonal relationships
  • Showing poor team leadership
  • Having problems adapting to changes in the environment
  • Lacking growth and development in the face of the changing demands of their role
  • Failing to meet business objectives (due to either failing to follow through or being overambitious )
  • Maintaining a narrow focus, so that they aren’t able to supervise outside of their area of functional expertise

What seems to happen is that these managers are defensive in the face of challenging feedback, don’t learn from their mistakes and don’t identify and address their weaknesses.

Why do they do that?

I suspect that they lack self-compassion. Self-compassion makes it easier to be open to difficult feedback; learn from mistakes and admit failings. Self compassion can probably be increased*.

These managers also need to get better at noticing when their approach is ineffective and then quickly adjusting their behaviour. A starting point here may be to learn to become more mindful and psychologically flexible.

So, if you are a beginning manager, it might be good to focus on becoming more mindful, flexible and compassionate.

* For readers based in Brisbane, I am running a low cost public workshop on self-compassion on Sunday 6th May 2012.

Is It a Good Idea to Act Authentically?

Well, it depends how you define authenticity.

Authenticity can be problematic when we define it as freely expressing our thoughts and feelings. I have made this mistake many times in the past. I believed that it was wrong to hide my true feelings, that it was important for me to be ‘honest’ with others. The problems with this approach were:

  • It involved treating my thoughts and feelings as if they were true. I have since come to realise that sometimes they don’t reflect the reality of a situation!
  • It meant that my thoughts and feelings had control of my behaviour.
  • It meant other people had to deal with my ‘stuff’ – sometimes that was helpful, at others, frankly, it wasn’t.

A better definition of authenticity is when:

  • Behaviour, goals and values are aligned.
  • Values are freely chosen rather than imposed by others. They feel like an expression of my best self. The person I really want to be. Working out authentic values can take some time. We have to cut through what we have been taught is good and proper and get to the heart of what is important to us. There are some tips on how to do this here.
  • I am honest with myself about my thoughts and feelings and then choose what to communicate with others. Hiding from thoughts and feelings leads to behaviour that feels inauthentic to others.

This way of behaving is associated with a number of positive outcomes:

  1. I feel like my behaviour is an expression of my true self – which feels important.
  2. Mindfully noticing my thoughts and feelings and then choosing which ones to act upon provides opportunity for growth.
  3. I will tend to put more effort into pursuing self concordant goals that align with my values.
  4. I feel more satisfaction when I achieve self-concordant goals.
  5. Others are more likely to trust someone whose behaviour is both predictable and transparent. Choosing behaviour based on a consistent set of values leads to more consistency than being pushed around by whatever thoughts and feelings show up at any particular moment.
So, yes it is a good idea to act authentically – as long as that means acting in accordance with deeply held values.

For further reading on the research relating to authenticity:
Chapter 11, Character Strengths and Virtues by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman

ACT in the Workplace

So many leadership courses are based on the idea that to improve performance we must firstly sort our thinking out.  So we focus on motivation, confidence, self-belief or ways of controlling or removing anxiety and stress.  Sounds logical enough.

The problem is whilst this approach makes such intuitive sense, the evidence does not support it.  Our minds are expert problem solving machines which evolved to scan the environment for threat, propose hypotheses, and then prompt action to avoid, control or get rid of any threats. But when we try to apply the same techniques to our own thoughts, beliefs and emotional states, the evidence is that we make the problem worse, not better.

As Paul Flaxman said at a recent BABCP event, what works outside the skin does not always work inside the skin.

This may sound like a small distinction, but it has profound implications for the way we learn, teach and improve performance  in the workplace.  In short, the evidence suggests that focusing on trying to alter, control or avoid emotional and cognitive states as the means to improving performance is flawed.

From workplace stress to task concentration, innovation, learning, anxiety and even chronic pain management, all are showing that attempting to regulate our own internal states IS the problem.

In contrast, the alternative – psychological flexibility – gives people control over their lives, ironically by letting go of the struggle of trying to control their emotional states.  It is the ability to focus on task-relevant stimuli whilst feeling negative emotions that drives better performance and reduces distress (see Gardner and Moore, 2008).

One recent participant said to me that defusing from his thoughts – treating them with a degree of distance – had been the single most effective change he has made in attempting to build a safety culture in his team.

Rather than more rules and regulations to live by, ACT can help people get unstuck from where they are, and take control of their working lives.  If ACT can reach more people in organisations, it could benefit us all.