I first met Tom when I was asked by his manager to undertake some coaching sessions with him. Tom was perhaps one of the most creative people I have ever encountered. He worked as a graphic designer for a medium sized company. His work was held in high esteem and he was very well paid – but no one who worked in the company knew him well. He preferred to work alone with as little communication with others as possible. To accommodate Tom’s needs he was given his own office in a company where most staff worked in open plan offices.
However, as the business had grown, Tom had to increasingly work as part of project teams. This required Tom to communicate more often with other team members and to attend team meetings which needed his active verbal participation. Tom strongly resisted this and had actually spoken to his boss about resigning. Not wanting to lose him, Tom’s boss had asked Tom to attend some coaching sessions with me and Tom had reluctantly agreed. His boss told me he thought that Tom was very shy and lacked confidence in his creative ideas.
Sharon’s story illustrates a version of this. Sharon is a divorced single mother of three and a doctor working full time in a large public hospital. She told me that up until recently, she had continuously loaded herself up with responsibilities, always putting everyone else’s needs first and her own last. As far back as she could remember, she was always responding to what she felt were the needs and expectations of those around her – even if not asked to. She did this at work, where she carried a much bigger workload than most of the other doctors. But she also did this in her personal life at home and with her friends.
Several years ago she was starting to feel exhausted, and a bit depressed and resentful – and she found herself asking the question: why do I do this to myself? Unexpectedly and quite suddenly the answer came one day when Sharon and her kid’s were visiting Sharon’s morose and moody mother. Sharon’s parents divorced when she was eight years old, and from that time on Sharon’s mother became depressed and moody. This frightened Sharon – an only child – and she began to try and anticipate her mother’s moods and needs and what she could do to make her feel better. In this way Sharon learned to ignore her own needs and increasingly focussed only on trying to help her mother. What Sharon realised at that moment was that as she grew up, she had generalised that habit into focussing almost exclusively on the needs and desires of everyone around her – and never her own!
Some time ago a woman whom I shall call Sally came to see me for a coaching session. We sat down and after a few minutes of small talk, she began the session by immediately asking me a question: “why is it”, she said, “that I often feel hurt and disappointed with the men I have been in relationships with? I have had four relationships over the past 10 years. They always seem so promising and hopeful at the beginning – and then gradually the men seem to withdraw and we finally break up, leaving me feeling very hurt and alone again.”
She told me that she met another man about 6 months ago, that she had quickly developed feelings for him and they had moved in together about six weeks ago. I then asked her how she communicated and behaved with him on a typical evening or weekend when they were home with each other. She said that she was very affectionate with him, touching stroking and kissing him a lot. And she usually said “I love you” perhaps six or eight times each evening or on a weekend day. But she said she could see that her many affectionate gestures or words seemed gradually to be making him uncomfortable, which hurt her.
The subject of this story (we will call him Mike) was a lawyer and had been a brilliant litigator for most of his law career. As a litigator he had an impressive record of wins. He was feared by other litigators because of his intellectually aggressive style – both in delivering his arguments and in picking holes in the arguments of his adversaries.
For many years Mike had dreamt of becoming his law firm’s managing partner. He had finally won the role of the firm’s managing partner because of his success in bringing in huge amounts of revenue as a litigator. The difficulty was that he attempted to lead the firm using the same intellectual style he used in litigation. For example, Mike led weekly management meetings for the firm’s management committee and monthly meetings for the firm’s fifty partners. He dominated these meetings through the shear power of his intellect.
Mike was highly intelligent and expressed this intelligence with clear, powerful and well reasoned communications. He thought through what he had to say carefully and thoroughly, because he would not just present an argument, but would also often list what he thought the counterarguments might be. He would then include his own arguments against those possible counterarguments.
Also, Mike could think well on his feet. If he was asked questions or someone disagreed with him, he could respond with quick, clear, relevant and logical answers. Through the power of his logic, Mike usually won his arguments – but often at the cost of losing the hearts, the loyalty and the commitment of the people in his firm. Equally, many people were aware that the power of a logically structured argument did not, in and of itself, guarantee that Mike had the best case.
Mark was a senior military officer given the responsibility for overcoming the bureaucratic lethargy, inefficiency and low productivity of a large Defence Department division. Mark exuded power, confidence and authority and he had enormous energy and drive. He had a reputation for taking initiative and for getting difficult tasks done quickly and creatively!
The difficulty was that, along with these strengths, he also had a restlessness and impatience that often made him harsh and blunt in his communications. He could even be scathing if he thought someone was not competent or not achieving what he wanted when he wanted it. As he put it: “I do not suffer fools easily”. Also – though he never directly said this – his basic attitude was: “my way or the highway”! These were his “Achilles Heels” that accompanied his strengths.
The result of all of this was that a culture of fear developed around him and worked its way down through the organisation. This was causing his people to become risk adverse, undertake “backside protecting” behaviour, and creating a culture of non-accountability – all actually reinforcing the bureaucratic lethargy which Mark was charged with overcoming. After a year of making very little progress with this charge, I was called in as a consultant to Mark and his leadership team.
I began this process by running a five day leadership workshop with Mark and his senior team. On the workshop we used a psychological profiling instrument, which identified each person’s natural strengths along with their potential Achilles Heels. On the fourth day of the workshop, I asked each member to read out the natural strengths of their profile – and their possible Achilles Heels – to the whole group, and for the group to give feedback on the accuracy of this.
I first met Lisa, a senior executive, when I was hired as a consultant to assist in designing and implementing a culture change programme for a large financial services company. Lisa was a member of the change management committee, who were charged with implementing the culture change programme. I sat in on the change management committee meetings and I gradually noticed that almost all of the ideas the committee decided to use were Lisa’s. Yet Lisa’s behaviour was in no way pushy or dominating – in fact she appeared quite open and diplomatic.
It gradually became clear that Lisa’s ideas “won out” largely because of her mastery of the persuasive arts. For example, Lisa seemed to have remarkable insight into other members of the committee – their moods, concerns, agendas, etc – and equally good insight into the internal dynamics within the committee (alliances, power relationships, etc). This allowed Lisa to present her ideas in ways that appealed to the interests of each individual committee member and also to use the committee’s internal dynamics to facilitate putting forth her case.
In addition, she would ask skilful questions which lead others to give answers that would help support her case. In this way she got others to do much of the talking and she did not appear to dominate the discussion. Lisa had many good ideas, yet the result was that other’s ideas were simply not being sufficiently discussed and considered.
John is an acquaintance of mine, an executive who had recently been promoted to manage a division in a large corporation. When first promoted about one year before the events described here, John had many excellent managerial skills. He was very goal focussed, results orientated and had a very carefully structured, systematic way of getting things done. John was very self disciplined, self reliant and he always held himself accountable for achieving the goals the company set for his division. He made his division very successful.
In spite of these excellent managerial skills and the division’s successes, morale in his division was very low – especially among managers and staff who worked directly with him. John said he was not aware of this. But about a year after his promotion, his personal assistant, whom he respected, told him how people felt. She said that while he never lost his temper or treated people badly, he seemed to both perceive and treat people in a very impersonal way. Someone had put it this way: “John acts as if his division’s people were like cogs in a machine, whose only purpose was to make the machine more efficient”. She then gave him a book on leadership and said he should read it.
Up until I was about 30 years old, I had felt uncomfortable around shy, introverted or withdrawn people and usually avoided contact with them. Consciously, I think I avoided them because I assumed they probably had little to offer and it would not be worth the effort of engaging with them. Subconsciously, I think I avoided them because they reminded me that when I was younger I had inwardly felt very shy and also assumed I had little to offer – even though my behaviour was outgoing and disguised these internal feelings.
This way of seeing shy or quiet, introverted people changed quite suddenly and dramatically when I met a man named Jim at a social function. The function’s host, who saw Jim standing alone staring at the floor with a drink in his hand, introduced me to him hoping I would draw him out. As I had expected, I found the attempt to initiate conversation with Jim very difficult. After struggling with this for about ten minutes, I suddenly remembered that the host had said something about Jim having an interest in philosophy. Since my graduate and undergraduate studies had been in philosophy, I thought this subject might provide an opening and I began to describe a book I was reading on existential philosophy.
I had only been speaking for a few minutes, when during a brief pause, Jim suddenly began to speak. He in fact launched into a brilliant – although quiet and halting – monologue about existential philosophy. The suddenness of his response and the depth and clarity of his thinking left me absolutely astonished. For the next hour he did almost all of the talking, speaking about other subjects with the same depth, clarity and brilliance. As the function ended, I told Jim I had really enjoyed the conversation and said I would like to continue it later.
Jane had recently been appointed the CEO of a large clothing retail chain. She was a very articulate, optimistic, creative and charismatic person and had risen up the corporate ladder into leadership positions quite rapidly. Her charismatic personality and her many successes within the company had won her the CEO position at the early age of 35. However, along with her many strengths as a leader Jane also had a significant Achilles Heel: Given her charismatic and inspiring leadership style, she found it difficult to communicate with and listen with very conservative, analytical people.
Shortly after being promoted to CEO, working with her senior management team, she had created a vision and strategic plan for growing the company quite rapidly. However, her CFO – a highly conservative analytical thinker – had warned her against expanding so rapidly, saying that if retail sales dipped even slightly, the company would become insolvent. Feeling her usual irritation with this very conservative and analytical person, she ignored his warning and began implementing the expansion plan. Then six months into the plan the global financial crisis hit, retail sales plummeted – and very suddenly the company was on the verge of collapse.
We most commonly associate “addiction” with some kind of compulsive substance abuse (alcoholism, addiction to tobacco, drugs, etc) – but “addiction” could equally be applied to certain kinds of compulsive activities (e.g. Workaholism). While activity addictions are in some ways different from chemical ones, all addictions have one thing in common: they are all ways of avoiding experiencing or dealing with uncomfortable emotions.
James’ story, told to me over a long evening together, is a case in point. James was a lawyer specialising in litigation, and though the work was intense and often stressful, he was always able to keep his cool and he thrived on it. He had enormous energy and endurance and worked long hours – but he had many other interests that he actively pursued. For example, he was involved in rock climbing, was a committed and talented karate student and a skydiver.
This capacity to control his emotions and keep his cool under pressure made a major contribution to his success at work and in other activities. But James said this had reached a point where he almost never experienced emotions of any kind because he was constantly involved in intense, focussed action almost all of his waking hours. This had resulted in the break up of two marriages, mainly because his wives hardly ever saw him, and when they did, he would never express or show any emotions or talk about anything very personal. His last wife told him it was like living with a robot.