I have been coaching up a storm lately, and having lots of fun coaching senior leaders in a cross section of businesses. It seems that I am attracting great clients – driven, successful, bright, achievement oriented, stubborn, intimidating, inflexible, and open to refining their approach. Perfect! Last week I had a coaching session with a leader who is young and highly successful, yet he has one major issue. When he gets stressed out, he becomes negative, rigid, inflexible, black and white in his thinking, competitive, and bossy. He is not the greatest guy to work for in these moments.
As we dug into what was going we could see that there are triggering events in the business that set him off. There is a “warning sign” that he is about to escalate - stress starts to take over his body, he starts to feel tense, his eyes go black, and you can literally see the veins popping out of his head. The way he described it reminded me of the incredible hulk. The energy was intimidating, and kind of scary.
Yet the fascinating part about these moments is in regards to his thinking style. When he gets triggered it is usually a result of a thought that is “extreme” or skewed. There is a distortion in how he perceives situations that is characterized by a black or white view of what is going on, pessimism, or an inflexible application of a self imposed “rule book” of what should, or ought to be done. Here are some examples of the thinking distortions that came up.
- There is a right way to do this and they are wrong! This is an example of all or nothing thinking. If people don’t do things HIS way, he gets frustrated and blames others. “Why are they so incompetent? Why aren’t they following my directions? Don’t they listen?” Rather than looking at the context, and what might be preventing people from being successful, he interprets the situation in a black or white / right or wrong way.
- We are failing. We are not trying hard enough. This is another thinking distortion that comes into play when he is stressed. This involves zoning in on negative aspects of a situation or people, and using this pessimistic lens to color his view. When a situation or person triggers this negative view he gets frustrated and disheartened. Often he will react by pushing everyone harder, including himself. This demoralizes people, and sets him up for burn out.
- What the heck is going on here?!! This is another nasty habit that doesn’t bode well for relationships. When he discovers something amiss he jumps to conclusions. This one usually happens in combination with the first two. First, he applies a rigid set of rules to how things SHOULD be. Second, he interprets situations negatively. Lastly, he jumps to conclusions. Would you want to be in his way when he is on one of these rants?
So, what are the elements of his coaching plan?
- Identify trigger situations. The distorted thinking and the stress seems to escalate in certain situations. The first part of the coaching was to understand what triggers these situations and reactions. This is important because when he is calm he is awesome, fun, and strategic. This is why the “switcheroo” into the hulk is so confusing (and off putting) to others.
- Label thinking distortions. Then, we identified the thinking distortions that tend to work hand in hand with the trigger situations, and we came up with a more balanced way of responding. In this case, it involved looking at the context of situations, noticing pessimism and balancing it with a realistic view of situations, considering the best and worst case interpretations of what might be happening. We also clarified the difference between rules and principles, and which rules were tied to outdated self imposed beliefs or principles about how things or people “should be” versus what might actually be happening.
- Stress Response Technique – The coaching also involved developing some stress management techniques, so that the leader could calm himself down when triggered and regain his sense of composure, and balance. For him this involved breathing, removing himself from the situation, vigorous exercise, and journaling. He also developed a “signal” for himself to relax that involved loosening up his shoulders when he felt his body tensing.
- Practice – These thinking distortions took 40 years to develop, so they didn’t just disappear overnight. Obviously, practice, reflection, and refinement were a bit part of the his leadership development strategy.