Our responsibility as a manager, executive or leader is to energize our people to do their jobs—to innovate, to deliver services at the highest possible level, to solve problems, to overcome challenges and so on. In short, our primary role is to motivate others. And then they do the crucial work of the organization. But motivating others can be a liquidation strategy in which we are spending all of our human capital. We need to get performance now and build a sustaining human capital base for the future. So the other critical part of our role is development.
In these uncertain and fearful times, many people are not coming to work with all of their talent. They are avoiding looking to their future and just trying to get by in the present, or tolerating their situation. It is coping. Unfortunately, those of us in the helping professions, like teachers, trainers, and coaches, are often adding to this disengagement. Managers doing performance reviews and trying to motivate a person to change and improve are often committing the same act of “visionocide.” We are contributing to killing off people’s dreams, energy and inhibiting their progress toward a more effective future. The source of the misdirected effort and less- than- desirable consequences lay in misunderstanding how people change.
The Positive and Negative Emotional Attractors
In his Intentional Change Theory, Boyatzis 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 Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). This results in decreased cognitive functioning, decreasing perceptual openness, a severe drop in immune system functioning, and susceptibility to illnesses—not to mention that you feel nervous, anxious, worried, and in general not well.
In contrast, arousal of the PEA helps a person function at their best. Research in neuroscience, endocrinology, and psychology has shown that arousing a person’s hope for the future stimulates the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS). This is the state in which the human mind and body are at their cognitive best, can create new neural tissue which allows for learning, engages the immune system, and enables the person to be more open to new ideas, feelings, and other people.
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 reaction to chronic or acute prolonged stress to protect the organism. But while this might have helped us survived 10,000 years ago, it does not help us survive or thrive today.
Coaching to the PEA
Coaching someone to try to maximize their motivation or to help them develop involves arousing their Positive Emotional Attractor through eliciting their dreams about the future, about possibilities, and arousing his hope. It is the beginning of a process of helping a person articulate their personal vision. When you coach someone to their PEA, you arouse their PSNS with all of the enhanced cognitive and emotional functioning and ability to learn that is part of it.
Because of the contagion of emotions, coaching to the PEA arouses these beneficial states in the coach, as well as in the person being coached. The physiological and emotional renewal processes (the only non-pharmaceutical antidote to the ravages of chronic 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. The relationship with the coach allows a person to break through to a new level of insight about their dreams and future possibilities. But this does not always happen.
Coaching to the 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. In our effort to maximize their motivation, we try to start a fire in them. Or, in our desire to help them develop, we try to fix them. In the process, we invoke the NEA and the body’s stress reaction. The person being coached often feels on the defensive, 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 or manager’s image of how he/she should behave.
Instead of invoking the person’s Ideal Self, their dreams of a possible and desired future, the coach or manager invokes the person’s Ought Self. 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 person’s Ideal Self, it arouses the SNS and contributes to the person closing down their mind and willingness to change. This is the opposite of what we can arouse and how we can help another person when we coach them to the PEA.
Coaches often utilize feedback data from an assessment center or a 360-degree feedback assessment, and then proceed to analyze the weaknesses and gaps in the person’s data. The coach then tries to get the person to identify what they can do to change. Although the coach’s intent is to help the other person, the coach has actually aroused the NEA and in doing so, diminished the person’s ability to make sustainable change.
Myths to Avoid
To minimize the likelihood of sliding into coaching for compliance, there are a few common traps or seductions to avoid.
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.
Money matters. The false insight into professionals, managers, and leaders is that some people still think that they are motivated by money. The assumption is that a carrot or stick combo works with anyone in the workforce, including professionals and management. It does not. Sure, a fair and reasonable amount of money does matter, but that is a minimum standard. To activate and energize people, they need to feel like they are contributing, they matter, they are part of something important and relevant. If you are going to work because you have to go, you are probably showing up in a cognitively-impaired state—a natural result of the NEA and build up of chronic stress.
I Know What They Need. When a coach assumes that they know what the coachee needs, they risk emphasizing a person’s Ought Self and again arousing the NEA. When the coach projects how the other person should change, either overtly or unknowingly, , the coachee can sense it. Now the contagion of emotions is mostly defensive and NEA.
The current economic climate may distract us from the need to maximize the motivation of our people and help develop the human capital that drives and sustains our organizations. Life seems more exciting when we consider the possibilities and pursue them. This positive, hopeful state reflects internal physiological 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 to the PEA arouses this in the coach and the person being coached. It is opposite of the state typically aroused in coaching to the NEA. Coaching to the PEA is an effective way to coach for results and sustained desired change.
Richard Boyatzis is aProfessor, Departments of Organizational Behavior and Psychology, Case Western Reserve University, Adjunct Professor at ESADE. He is the author of more than 150 articles and books that include: The Competent Manager and two international best-sellers: Primal Leadership with Daniel Goleman and Annie McKee; and Resonant Leadership, with McKee. For article feedback contact Richard at email@example.com
Ellen B. Van Oosten is a Doctoral Student in the Department of Organizational Behavior and Senior Director for Business Development at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University. She is also a Master Coach and an instructor within the School’s Executive Education area. Her research and teaching interests focus on executive coaching, leadership and executive development. For article feedback contact Ellen at firstname.lastname@example.org
Melvin L. Smith, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Organizational Behavior and Faculty Director of Executive Education at the Case Weatherhead School of Management. His research and teaching focus on leadership and coaching, as well as the development and use of human and social capital in organizations. For article feedback contact Melvin at Melvin.Smith@case.edu