3.1 When Less is More
Fred is a CEO in the final months of a five-year term during which he turned a failing public company into a very profitable business. His people skills are excellent and he is rightly regarded as a ‘good leader and coach’. He is a highly intelligent and charismatic leader with a solid grasp to the details of the business. Like many leaders he can be highly opinionated. He has good self-awareness, particularly about the influence that he has on people. He thus holds back on giving his own opinion (e.g., by actively seeking other people’s views before he states his own). However, as is common practice in many organisations, people tend to fish for his viewpoint before giving a rather guarded version of their own personal views. Not surprisingly, such reticence tends to inhibit open discussion in executive team meetings, obscures the real issues, and impedes the decision making process. He presents for coaching with the expressed goal of ‘proving the way he coaches the team on an individual one-to-one basis to really say what they believe in team meetings, so that the next CEO will have a even better team to work with’.
This is an overview of a 90-minute solution-focused executive coaching session. This is based on a real case conducted by Anthony Grant, albeit with essential identifying details changed.
As Fred began to talk about his situation and his goals for the session, I (Anthony Grant) was ‘listening for solutions’ (e.g. listening for exceptions to the problem – times when the problem does not exist). After he had spent a few minutes explaining the situation and his goals, I started to ‘probe for solutions’ and asked Fred if there were any times when any individual members of his team actually said what they really thought to him in a direct and clear fashion. On reflecting on this question, he named a couple of team members who were very forthright, but only when they were talking with him in a private one-to-one meeting. In a team meeting, they tended to hold back. As the coaching progressed, I continued probing, and asked him what was different about those times. He did not find this question easy to answer, and was hesitant in replying. Instead of changing focus in response to his hesitance (as one would in everyday polite conversation), I continued to probe on this point, asking the same question in another way. Using the analogy of viewing two TV screens, I asked him imagine viewing a typical team meeting on one TV screen, and then compare that to an image of a typical one-to-one meeting viewed on the other TV screen.
It seemed obvious from where I sat that a key difference was that in the one-to-one meeting Fred was alone with the other person, whereas in the team meeting there were many people present, but for some reason Fred seemed to have difficulties in identifying that apparently obvious point (this ‘solution-blindness’ is very common). I did not want to step in and present my viewpoint, as I felt that it was essential that he make this connection for himself, and of course there may have been other important factors that had not yet surfaced.
To raise his awareness some more, I asked him to mentally walk around the room and to view the two meetings from a number of different perspectives, not just his own. After a short period of silence, Charlie appeared to have an insight, an ‘ah-ah’ moment, saying that the difference was that the audience was different. Probing again, I asked him to tell me some more about that point. He explained that he thought that in the one-to-one meetings he was the audience to whom the ideas were being presented, but in the team meetings the key audience was the other team members – the team members were primarily playing to each other, not him as he had previously assumed.
Over the course of the coaching, the focus had shifted from individual team members to the team dynamics. Indeed, one of the strengths of solution-focused coaching is that it takes a systemic perspective, rather than focusing on and trying to fix individual ‘dysfunctionality’.
Shifting to ‘talking about solutions’ I asked Fred a variation of the ‘Magic Question’ … ‘what would be different if the team was interacting in a way that encouraged open dialogue and less posturing?’ Fred began to talk about concepts like trust, respect, and moving away from a mental model of leadership that prizes being right all the time, towards one that valued curiosity, ambiguity, and collaboration.
Now that we had begun to detail a vision of the preferred future, I highlighted existing strengths and resources, and asked Fred about times when the team already functioned in a similar collaborative fashion, and he was able to talk about a couple of times when the team had used a facilitator as part of their professional development. As we continued to talk about solutions, Fred recalled that during the facilitator-led sessions, team members tended to not sit in their usual places, but in different seats. He mentioned that this seemed to have a positive impact on the team dynamics. However, he still found it difficult to identify the key categories of patterns of communication that made a different.
As we talked further about solutions I asked Fred if I could make some suggestions. I shared with him Li and Liao’s findings (2017), showing the links between perspective taking, creativity and pro-social helping behaviour and how taking different perspectives facilitate team cohesion, cooperation and creativity. I also shared with him Wang, Zhang, and Jia’s work (2017), which illustrated that leader humility is positively related to employees’ perspective taking and creativity.
After we explored these issues in relation to Fred’s team interactions, we then moved into ‘planning for solutions’ stage. I asked Fred what steps, based on our discussion, he thought might be helpful. He presented some action steps on changing the seating arrangements (thereby priming perspective taking) for each meeting, and holding a team development session with a facilitator with the aim of the team itself developing some explicit guidelines group interactions. He said that he also realised that in order for the team to be sustainably functional under a new CEO, the team needed to drive the development of more positive communication patterns themselves. To be sure, some individual coaching from him would help, but if he was over-controlling in that process he was in effect creating a team that was dependant on him for its functionality.
As we closed the session he observed that he had come to the coaching session with intention of coaching all of his team members individually, but now he realised that it was important that he would be doing less, letting the team itself take greater responsibility for its development, and that (at least in this respect) less really was more.
Li, S., & Liao, S. (2017). Help Others and Yourself Eventually: Exploring the Relationship between Help-Giving and Employee Creativity under the Model of Perspective Taking. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1030–1035.
Wang, J., Zhang, Z., & Jia, M. (2017). Understanding How Leader Humility Enhances Employee Creativity: The Roles of Perspective Taking and Cognitive Reappraisal. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 53(1), 5–31.