An Executive Coach’s perspective on how communication tactics can drive permanent change and develop future leaders
There is one simple, yet big difference in communication styles between simply managing a team and leading a team. It’s a cycle we must break if an organization or individual wants greater success while setting the stage to appropriately groom the next generation of leaders who are better suited to fostering the inevitable, organizational change that has become more common since the days of Jack Welch.
Have you ever had a boss (or perhaps your wife/husband) ask you a question that started out with “Why”? Why did you do this or that? Think back to the emotion that elicited in you… the second that bad “W” word slipped off their tongue. Your guard likely came up
and you might have become a tad bit defensive. So how does this play out in a professional setting?
Enter the concept of ego states, as discussed in Coaching As A Leadership Style by Robert Hicks. We have three possible ego states; Parent, Child and Adult. All ego states are important and play their role in life. The key is to appreciate the difference and know which to use when. The most effective communication style in most leadership capacities, the one that opens the door to intellectual and motivational stimulation of employees, is when both parties (leader/employee) are operating from an adult ego state. It sends a message of objectivity, parity, reasonableness, and a general non-judgmental attitude. Respectful of each other in every way. Easier said than done, right? Unfortunately, most of us are experts communicating from the Pare
nt ego state on a daily basis. After all, we’ve been exposed to it our entire lives, starting from early childhood. Consider the example of a well-meaning leader who is exhibiting one form of the Parent ego state known as the Critical Parent. I’m not suggesting it’s never appropriate. For example, in cases where there is no margin for error with compliance being 100% necessary, it would make sense. But from experience, we know most opportunities to demonstrate leadership aren’t burdened by absolutes. From the Critical Parent ego state, a boss will rely on a corrective and judgmental style. “Why haven’t you done this or that?”, or “You should do this instead of that!” The commensurate response to these questions will invoke a Child ego state on the part of the employee. Much of their energy might be focused on defending their position, justifying their actions, digging in their heels, protect themselves, or just caving in. It’s not an effective communication exchange in most cases and it certainly doesn’t lead to permanent learning or growth on the part of the employee. On that note, in Jackson & McKregow’s book, The Solution Focus: Making Coaching and Change Simple, you can read about the case for why a solution focus is far more effective than a problem focus. An Adult/Adult ego state communication partnership will invoke the former, while the Parent /Child ego states will invoke the latter. (Note: Contrary to what the word “child” might suggest,
many adults operate out of the Child ego state a fair amount of the time).
Think of focusing on a solution in term of lifting a heavy weight. If much of your energy is wasted on an awkward grip of the weight you’re trying to lift, then less energy is left for the actual lifting. The same concept applies to a manager’s style to move their employees forward, not just with regards to an immediate issue, but to empower them to become better employees and future leaders. If much of the employee’s energy is focused on justifying their actions at every turn, very little positive energy (brain power) goes into any reasonable forward movement. The employee is on their heels and from there most people cannot perform at their best level. The rule of thumb should be not to use “Why”, unless the word is stripped of all negative connotations. E.g. Why don’t we grab a bite to eat? So the next time you are tempted to use the bad “W” word, think of a way you can promote progress by rephrasing the question with a good “W” word, like “what”, for example.
What are some practical examples?
Parent ego: “why didn’t you include a chart in your presentation to graphically depict sales figures?”
Imagine how you would react. Now take the idea behind the question and rephrase using a good “W” word.
Manager (adult ego): “Thanks for putting that together. What else might you add to depict the trend in these sales figures?”
What I like about this approach, it allows the employee to put all his energy into coming up with a solution, and not focus on justifying or defending what they did. After all, as a manager, what can we possibly hope to gain by demonstrating we were right and the employee was wrong? Empower the employee to get it right and figure it out on their own and you’ll see the return on your employee investment grow in spades.
Awareness is the first step to making changes, so what ego state will you be in the next time you are “leading” your employees?
Note of interest: He who figures out on their own, will “own it”, “retain it” and become a better problem solver for it. The leader/coach just needs to ask incisive and challenging questions without being judgmental. Easier said than done, but well worth it!