Coaching for Change

Coaching for Change


Coaching for Change

A case study on how Coaching with Compassion can transform organizations as opposed to the traditional

approach of Coaching for Compliance


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A lthough he was Vice President of

information technology at a mid- sized company, James1 was confused about his future. He was doing quite well. Or at least it appeared he was.

Having grown up in a poor neighborhood in a Midwest city, he did much better than most of his friends— he lived. He went to college and was about to complete an Executive MBA Pro- gram. James loved his daughters and had a sig- nificant investment account ready to pay for their college. He was divorced, but on amiable terms with his ex-wife and had a girl friend. He was devout in his faith, contributed his time eagerly to church projects, and was an advocate for Prom- ise Keepers (a movement to encourage Fathers to keep their promises to their families and their God). So what was wrong?

When James looked into his future, beyond a few months, it was a blank wall. It did not worry him, consciously. Like heartburn, he ignored his lack of an image for his future and hoped the discomfort would go away. His personal vision essay was devoted entirely to his family and his faith. His coach asked him, “James, you didn’t men- tion anything about work in your essay about your future. Do you have trust funds that you didn’t mention?” He laughed, “No, I just thought I’d keep doing what I have been doing.” Trying to invoke his passion about the future, his coached probed, “What would you love to do?”

After a long silence, he shrugged his shoul- ders. It seemed incongruous, a well-dressed, ef- fective executive acting like a teenager who does not know what they want to have as a major in college. His coach pushed, “If you won the Lot- tery, say $80 million dollars after tax, what would you do?” He told him that maybe he would drive a truck cross-country. This seemed more like an escape fantasy than a dream. A few minutes later, in response to a question as to what would make

him feel truly happy that he was fulfilling his purpose in life, he said, “Teaching high school kids, in the inner city, that computers can be their in- struments to freedom.”

Possibilities then opened up for James. He shared his dream that he could teach workshops on Saturdays or Fridays at local high schools. He talked about setting up IT internships for high school students at local companies. It was as if a dam had opened and ideas flooded his con- sciousness. He leaned forward and was talking faster than I’d heard him talk in months. The ex- citement was contagious you could feel it. James had an epiphany. His image of his “work” in the future changed him from “been there, done that” to “Wow, I can’t wait to get started.” James now had a dream— a clear one he could work toward. Two years later, he was actively in pursuit of his dreams. He was running computer workshops and programs for teens while continuing his consult- ing firm. He got an offer to coordinate an IT pro- gram, work full time as an administrator/faculty at a local community college. So when his firm offered a buy-out package as part of their down- sizing, he took it.

In these uncertain and fearful times, many people around the world, like James are avoiding looking to their future and just trying to get by in the present, or tolerating their situation. It is a dysfunctional response to having a future a person dreams about. Unfortunately, those of us in the help- ing professions, like teachers, trainers, and coaches, are often adding to this blocking of the future. Man- agers doing performance reviews and trying to mo- tivate a person to change and improve in the fu- ture are often committing the same act of ‘visiono- cide’. We are contributing to killing off people’s dreams and inhibiting their progress toward a more effective future. The source of the misdi- rected effort and less than desirable consequences lay in misunderstanding how people change.

People Matters • June 2010 • 69


Managers doing perfor-

mance reviews and trying to

motivate a person to

improve often commit the same act of


70 • People Matters • June 2010


The Positive and Negative Emotional

Attractors In his Intentional Change Theory,

Boyatzis2 explained that in pursuit of change or adaptation or in response to change or threat, people and our human systems move toward a Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA) or a Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA). Arousal of the NEA pulls the person into a stress-aroused state by arousing the Sym- pathetic Nervous System (SNS). This results in decreased cognitive functioning, decreas- ing perceptual openness, a severe drop in immune system functioning, and suscepti- bility to illnesses—not to mention that you feel nervous, anxious, worried, and in gen- eral not good.

To minimize the likelihood of sliding into coaching for compliance, there are a few common traps or seductions to avoid.

Efficiency is important. This leads to wanting to do the coaching quickly. It typically leads to a short term fix and impatience with the process. It also puts pressure on the person being coached to get on with the changes, adding pressure and stress. It arouses the NEA and results in the person coping and then closing down.

Work on the weaknesses. The desire for fast action can easily evolve into a premature focus on the weaknesses. The belief is that by working on the weaknesses you will have the most impact on the person improving. But that actually arouses the NEA and stops the change process.

Data Drive the Motivation to Change. Whether the data come from an assess- ment center, 360-degree feedback, or

In contrast, arousal of the PEA helps a person function at their best. Research in neuroscience, endocrinology, and psychol- ogy has shown that arousing a person’s hope for the future stimulates the Parasympathet- ic Nervous System (PSNS). This is the state in which the human mind and body is at its cognitive best, can create new neural tis- sue which allows for learning, engages the immune system, and enables the person to be more open to new ideas, feelings, and other people.3

To summarize, arousal of the PEA helps a person prepare for and engage in sustained, desired change. Arousal of the NEA does the opposite. It facilitates a person closing down and avoiding anything that might induce more stress. It is a defensive posture and invokes diminished capacity for adaptation because it is following an instinctive physiological re- action to chronic or acute prolonged stress to protect the organism. But while this might have helped us survive 10,000 years ago, it does not help us survive or thrive today.

Coaching for Compassion Coaching James involved arousing his

Positive Emotional Attractor through eliciting

climate survey, the data become the sledge hammer and invoke defensiveness and arousal of the NEA. We are all socialized to look for our weaknesses in today’s world. By offering the data too early in the coaching process, you seduce the person into looking at their weakness- es. Like our fascination with the tabloids, we focus first on the things most likely to hurt or be wrong—the gaps. But again, this drives us into the NEA. If any ideas for “change do emerge, they are often a response to change agenda that’s externally driven.

I Know What They Need. This creates a major Ought Self push in the coaching and again arouses the NEA. When the coach thinks, he/she knows how the other person should change, the other person picks it up. Now compliance is in full swing—and the contagion of emotions is mostly defensive and NEA.


When most of us try to help someone, we often get seduced into focusing on the things that need to be fixed, like a person’s weaknesses

People Matters • June 2010 • 71


his dreams about the future, about possibili- ties, and arousing his hope.4 It was the begin- ning of a process of helping James to articu- late his personal vision.5 This is what we call coaching with compassion. When you coach someone to their PEA, you arouse their PSNS with all of the enhanced cognitive and emo- tional functioning and ability to learn that is part of it.

Because of the contagion of emotions6, coaching with compassion arouses compas- sion in the coach, as well as in the person being coached. The physiological and emo- tional renewal processes (the only non-phar- maceutical antidote to the ravages of chron- ic stress) then allow the person to consider possibilities of change- and allow him/her to be more open to the coach and other people around them. James had pondered these is- sues before, but it was the compassionate and caring relationship with the coach that allowed him to break through to a new level of insight about his dreams and future possi- bilities. But this does not always happen.

Coaching for Compliance When most of us try to help someone,

we often get seduced into focusing on the things that need to be fixed, like a person’s weaknesses. In the process, we invoke the NEA and the body’s stress reaction. The person being coached often feels on the de- fensive, feeling a need to justify or prove himself/herself. Or, the person feels that he/she should go along with the coach’s desire for them to change some aspect of their behavior. In other words, the person being coached is pushed to move toward the coach’s image of how he/she should behave. In this manner, we often slip into coaching for compliance.

Instead of invoking the person’s Ideal Self, their dreams of a possible and desired fu- ture, the coach, manager, trainer, or teacher invokes the person’s Ought Self.7 That is, they stimulate the image of the person he/she ought to become. When this Ought Self is imposed and is not consistent with the per- son’s Ideal Self, it arouses the SNS and con- tributes to the person closing down their mind and willingness to change. This is the oppo- site of what we can arouse and how we can help another person when we coach them with compassion.

Coaches often utilize feedback data from an assessment center or a 360-degree feed- back assessment, and then proceed to ana- lyze the weaknesses and gaps in the per- son’s data. The coach then tries to get the

Richard E. Boyatzis, Ph.D., Professor, Departments of Organizational Behavior, Psychology, and Cognitive Science -H.R. Horvitz Chair of Family Business Case Western Reserve University;

Melvin L. Smith, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior, Faculty Director, Executive Education – Case Western Reserve University Weatherhead School of Management;

Ellen B. Van Oosten, Senior Director, Business Development- Case/Weatherhead School of Management.

This article is based on the authors’ research and writing for Coaching at Work Magazine


1 James is a pseudonym for a real person who prefers not to be identified.

2 Boyatzis, R.E. (2006a). Intentional change theory from a complexity perspective. Journal of Management Development, 25(7), 607-623.

3 Boyatzis, R.E., Smith, M. & Blaize, N. (2006). Developing Sustainable Leaders through Coaching and Compassion. Academy of Management Journal on Learning and Education, 5(1), 8-24.

4 Smith, M., Van Oosten, E., & Boyatzis, R.E. (2009). Coaching for sustained desired change. in Pasmore, W. & Woodman, R., Research in Organization Development and Change (Volume 17).

5 Boyatzis, R.E. & McKee, A. (2005). Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

6 Goleman, D. & Boyatzis, R. (September, 2008). Social intelligence and the biology of leadership. Harvard Business Review. 86:9, pp. 74-81.

7 Boyatzis, R.E. & Akrivou, K. (2006). The Ideal Self as a Driver of Change. Journal of Management Development, 25(7), 624-642.

person to identify what they can do to change. Although the opposite to the coach’s intention (that of helping the other person), the coach has aroused the NEA and dimin- ished the person’s ability to make sustain- able change.

What Next?

Life seems more exciting when we con- sider the possibilities and pursue them. This positive, hopeful state reflects internal phys- iological and emotional processes. We are actually healthier, more open, more capable of learning, and better able to cognitively function at a higher plane, when in this state. Coaching others with compassion arouses this in the coach and the person being coached. It is opposite of the state typically aroused in coaching for compliance. Coach- ing with compassion is coaching for results and sustained desired change.

Coaching with compassion is coaching for results and sustained desired change, focusing on the person’s vision of self

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