Seeking and executing solutions to problems seems an admirable leadership trait. Now imagine if you are such a leader. So why, despite all our skills and admirable intentions, do we so often end up not with admirable solutions, but unintentionally unhelpful consequences? And what if I were to tell you that it is likely that at least 80% of your employees suffer the same consequences in their pursuit of solutions? Yep, the odds are highly likely you are running an organisation teeming with people who are being handsomely paid to frequently fail. And why, when you spot unhelpful results, the changes you and your colleagues invoke also fail to deliver the results you seek?
Do you remember the COB (Chain of Behaviour) I talked about last time? Well, the situation above is the reason the COB framework was devised. It was becoming so common for unintentionally unhelpful consequences to result from our actions that the demand for improving leadership and overall workplace performance blossomed. It had become clear that the path to growth was through raising the effectiveness of our people. Helping our people become more effective lead us to our understanding of the relationship of cognition-emotion-behaviour.
So here we will dive into the first link in the Chain of Behaviour — Cognition. When we say cognition we mean more than just seeing or witnessing in something. When we say cognition we describe a process where we observe something and then understand it more deeply by attaching meaning to what we observe. To do this well we must strip this experience of all judgement, bias, and emotion. We must train ourselves to create a direct connection between the mind and the senses, and then apply our life experience to try to find a context or understanding of what we are witnessing. And if this is a first time witnessing such a thing, we test our understanding to see if it fits.
This may seem like a cumbersome process at first, but if your train yourself, it will become second nature. If becoming a great leader is your goal, mastering the COB is a non-negotiable skill you must possess. And a truly great leader not only masters the COB, but this leader also coaches subordinates to master it as well. If you want to raise the effectiveness of your organisation it starts with you, but it does not end with you — everyone must reap the benefits of mastering the COB.
The first step is to see the world in an accurate way, so that we have something reliable to which we can surround with context, and from which we can derive meaning. We must have absolute faith in the accuracy of what we see, and the correctness of the meaning we reach from that. It is through this process, and the skills we develop within this process, that allow us to fully understand the threats and opportunities we encounter. Until we master this process, we are likely to mistake opportunities as threats and threats as opportunities.
Anyone who knows me, knows that there is little I like more than a good TLA, (Three-Letter Acronym). Today’s candidate is C.O.B., or Chain of Behaviour. The COB is a simple framework for better understanding why we do the things we do. The COB, is made up of three links — Cognition, emOtion, and Behaviour. Let’s dive into this simple, yet powerful way of examining why we do the things we do.
So often, my clients recognise they have a behaviour or habit they would like to change. Notice I said Change and not Understand? There is a good reason for this. It is very common in humans to want to jump to a solution before we even fully know what the problem is. We have come to expect that our impression of the thing needing a solution is an absolute reality. And when our solution or behaviour when responding to this reality results in unappreciated consequences, we jump again to a premature solution by focusing on the the behaviour that we believe was the cause of the unappreciated consequence.
The COB model forces us to stop and really look before we leap into solutions. As mentioned above, it is a chain that is made of three links — Cognition, emOte, and Behaviour. In my following posts I will go into detail on each of these links, so here I will give the overall context of the chain and how we use it to drive meaningful change.
Cognition is the initial link in the chain of behaviours and many feel it is the most important one — fail at this step and nothing you will do in the others can save the situation. Cognition is not just observing something, it also involves interpreting what is experienced and attaching meaning to it. When I say a failure of this step, I mean a failure to attach an appropriate meaning to what is experienced. Like any chain, the following links rely upon a secure first link.
Emote is the second step or link. In this step we react to the cognition of the first step. Whatever meaning we apply to what we experienced in the first step, we respond to emotionally. And it is that emotion, that feeling, the shapes our behaviours.
And no matter how logical you think you are, you, like everyone else, behaves in response to an emotion that was triggered by cognition. This chain works beautifully and mostly automatically. We happily tick along making sense of the world around us, experiencing feelings based upon those and past experiences, and then behaving in response to those feelings. Simple, eh?
Well, it is as long as the consequences of those behaviours meet our desired outcomes. Sadly, they often do not. So what do we do about that? Mostly we promise to ourselves that we will learn from the experience and do things differently next time — which we often fail to do. Or we respond in a different way that is equally unhelpful. The lesson here is that as long as we keep focusing just on our behaviours we are unlikely to find lasting and satisfying change.
We must open ourselves to unpeeling the COB and really looking at why we do the things we do. We must ask ourselves if we are really assigning appropriate meaning to the things we encounter in the world — things, places, people, other’s behaviours or words. We must also be honest with ourselves in understanding what underlying emotions are triggered in us when we observe or encounter things in our lives that tend to trigger inappropriate or unhelpful behaviours. Finally, we must look then at our behaviours and understand which of our behaviours we feel drive unhelpful consequences and do our very best to understand why that is.
It is only when we master our understanding of how we see the world, how we feel about it and why, and then why we react the way we do to those feelings, that we can identify effective change tactics. This can often mean unpicking experiences in our past that have formed deeply held, almost invisible understandings, and emotional attachments to those understandings, and then question whether or not these are valid or helpful — this can be a very involving journey, and a life changing one.
If you think that this seems a lot of work and of questionable value, let me share with you an eye opener: real leaders are not only analysing their own COB every day, but they are also doing the same with everyone around them. Great leaders do this instinctively. And they are not the only ones — if you have ever met a really good negotiator, you have met someone who has mastered the COB. So if you think the COB is a nonsense, I would say that your chances of being a really great leader are slim. That is how important it is.
Irreplaceable is an unspoken attribute we all wish to possess. We want to be so respected in our work role that we feel not only respected or cherished, but we also feel safe. There is something reassuring in knowing that no one on your team could possibly fill your shoes. It is a kind of job security leverage. But this situation can also be an anchor. You cannot possess the security of having no succession plan and be seen by those above you as an attractive candidate for a new role. You cannot have it both ways. Why? Because the upwardly mobile leader always prepares those who could follow him in his or her rise. Having a quality succession plan is one of the signs of a good leader.
A good leader finds security in the forward momentum created by leadership skills. You don’t need to hunker in a role to feel secure in your future. You secure your future by being excellent at what you do and make yourself not only attractive for future roles, but available too. Of course there is risk in being available, of recognising that you are not irreplaceable. Skilled and assertive businesses will often use succession strategies proactively to keep costs down. If leaders are made to be aware of a skilled reserve waiting in the wings, they can be worked on when it comes time to renegotiate salaries etc. So it does offer power to the more aggressive employers.
But succession planning when driven by a leader within her team, does two key things — it offers the leader that beautiful element of leadership which is preparing the next wave of young leaders by giving them the benefit of your wisdom and shaping them in ways that you value. Secondly, it signals to anyone paying attention that you are not just a leader, you are also a player. You are confident in your value, and are ready to take it elsewhere if it suits you. You don’t achieve a sense of security by hunkering down in a role. No, you achieve security by being the most evolved leader in the organisation.
We’ve all see or heard the phrase, “be the change,” but what does that really mean? On the face of it, the phrase may smack of some kind of new-age platitude commonly seen on inspirational lunch-room wall posters. I’m not sure myself what the anonymous authors meant, but to a change agent such as myself, it has obvious and relevant meaning for both me and my clients.
For many of those with whom I work, change is something that happens to them — a work crisis, a promotion, a failed relationship, an unwanted move, etc. Much of my work is helping people to avoid avoidance, to grasp the nettle of change and put everything they can behind a conscious change and not just ride a random wave of change.
“Being the change” is a close relation to this. But there is a key difference. Those of us who are the change do not simply respond healthily to their environment and embrace change when it comes upon them. These people actually seek out change. They recognise and engage with things in their lives they feel could be better and they seek out the nettle of change and initiate change. Not everyone is wired this way. In fact, most of us prefer the comfort of avoidance of reacting to change, never mind initiating it!
Is it desirable to ‘be the change?’ There is no simple answer to that question. It is possible to lead a relatively happy life simply drifting from one avoidance tactic to another and avoiding change altogether. I believe, however, that most people are happier when they lead a life that recognises change opportunities and takes advantage of them. I also believe that, like most other opportunities in life, they don’t always land in our laps. Being able to see opportunities for change and then proactively assessing those change opportunities and acting upon them can feed the mind, body and soul in ways you might never imagine. If this was not true we would not have the phrase, which we all know well, that begins with, ‘if only I…’
As a change-agent coach, it is common for me to come across leaders who report being told they over-react to situations. When asked if they believe the accusation, few admit they do. At first, that is. But when pressed, most admit that they do, but don’t see that as a problem. In fact, many say it helps them temper their otherwise possibly more rash impulses. This rationalisation, and what it masks is something that deserves closer scrutiny.
In the early 1950s, psychotherapist and psychologist Albert Ellis came to belief that all people have both rational and irrational tendencies.
Rational tendencies are considered self-helping and constructive. But irrational tendencies are self-defeating and unhelpful. Ellis believed that these irrational tendencies manifest when we ‘consciously and unconsciously construct emotional difficulties such as self-blame, self-pity, clinical anger, hurt, guilt, shame, depression and anxiety, and behaviors such as procrastination, compulsiveness, avoidance, addiction and withdrawal .”
I could count on one hand the number of clients I have had who did not describe a desire to change at least one of these behaviours, and I would probably have fingers left over! Why is this?
Ellis would no doubt say that this is because we all possess the irrational tendencies that spawn these self-defeating behaviours. In fact, he went further, listing common irrational beliefs most of us possess:
It is a dire necessity for adult humans to be loved or approved by virtually every significant other person in their lives.
One absolutely must be competent, adequate and achieving in all respects or else one is an inadequate, worthless person.
People absolutely must act considerately and fairly and they are damnable villains if they do not. They are their bad acts.
It is awful and terrible when things are not the way one would very much like them to be.
Emotional disturbance is mainly externally caused and people have little or no ability to increase or decrease their dysfunctional feelings and behaviours.
If something is or may be dangerous or fearsome, then one should be constantly and excessively concerned about it and should keep dwelling on the possibility of it occurring.
One cannot and must not face life’s responsibilities and difficulties and it is easier to avoid them.
One must be quite dependent on others and need them and you cannot mainly run one’s own life.
One’s past history is an all-important determiner of one’s present behavior and because something once strongly affected one’s life, it should indefinitely have a similar effect.
Other people’s disturbances are horrible and one must feel upset about them.
There is invariably a right, precise and perfect solution to human problems and it is awful if this perfect solution is not found.
In the context of reading this post, it is easy to dismiss these as extremely irrational beliefs indeed. But look again and you will likely find at least on or two of these you have held at some point in your life, possibly weekly. And this is not an exhaustive list.
Indeed it is quite common in that a second or two after experiencing something less than a desired outcome or consequence, that one leaps to an irrational reaction. Most times we quickly rebound, talk ourselves down after the initial disappointment and then set ourselves to the task of overcoming the perceived set back. But sometimes we don’t bounce back.
The catastrophising leader can go from eager optimism to feelings of imminent doom in the blink of an eye. And it doesn’t stop there. Next stop on the catastrophising train is swings in mood and corresponding knee-jerk swings in direction and command. Then comes the blaming. In short, subordinates end up on an exhausting rollercoaster that never seems to find level track. Things are always euphoric or catastrophic. the catastrophising leader is incredibly efficient when ti comes to alienating and burning out staff. In fact, turnover and 360 degree assessments are often the quickest way to spot such leaders.
So what is to be done with the catastrophising leader?
At the core of REBT is the acceptance of cognition, emotion and behaviour as inexorably interwoven. In the eyes of an REBT practitioner, there is not one without the other. We perceive something, which triggers emotions, which in turn trigger behaviours. So the REBT process is one with training that focuses on each element — cognition, emotion, and behaviour.
It is critical that all are addressed. It is critical that we understand that our cognition is often not as accurate as we think. And our emotional reaction to our perceptions, whether accurate or not, are also often without a logical basis, and finally, that our behaviours, triggered by inaccurate perceptions and/or inappropriate emotional reactions, are also far from rational.
The REBT process is a directive process. Think of it not so much as a traditional, reflective therapy, but more like a kind of training, or retraining. It is a step by step process of unlearning old habits that are no longer appropriate or helpful, and and learning new was of perceiving, feeling, and behaving that is more appropriate, more helpful.
This is not an open-ended therapy where the goal is to achieve relief through recognition. This is concrete change in behaviour through training. It starts with cognition — really understanding yourself and the world around you. Then it continues with understanding how you feel about the world around you and why, which gives you deeper self awareness. Then, finally, you learn about how these perceptions and feelings can influence you behaviours. We work backward at first, identifying behaviours you may seek to change and tracing them back to the cognitive roots that lead to them. We then end by picking out perceptions you feel have been inaccurate, corresponding feelings that were inappropriate, and the behaviours drove. It is then we can see how a chain of change in how you see the outer world, the inner world, and how you put the two together in the form of new, more helpful behaviours.
If you decide to embark on a course of REBT I can guarantee that you will spend no time on a couch. It will be more like active study, organising observations, giving them context, and then making concrete plans for how to identify them and executing new behaviours to break old chains and create new ones. Another thing I will guarantee is that you will not leave the last session the same as when you began the first.
It has often been said that when things are going well we cannot imagine a time when things will go badly. Likewise, when things are going badly, we cannot imagine them going well again. I think we all have seen evidence of this. How many people, when times are good, stack away reserves, saving for a rainy day? And how many people, when times are tough, see that as the time to push the boat out, take a chance, and embrace change? Instead, when times are good we celebrate and when times are bad we circle the wagons and burn the furniture.
It is easy to forget that when all boats are rising, so too are the cost of boats. It is also easy to forget that opportunity costs are often much lower in down economies. Down economies are often the very best time to test business ideas that have been ruminating during the good times but never acted upon because time was such a scarce resource. As sure as the sun rises in the morning, so too the economic pendulum will eventually swing the other way. But instead of allowing a down economy to stifle your growth, use it to accelerate it. Our frustration is poorly aimed if we just focus on the fact that the pendulum exists as there is nothing we can do about that. Our frustration is also poorly aimed if we focus just on when the pendulum might swing next — again, it is not something we can easily influence, but keeping an eye on this is smart. Our focus will always be best employed in thinking about how we can best use the current pendulum state to our best advantage. And every pendulum state offers opportunity.
So now you have some idea of what I mean by life’s hammer. More than likely you have already experienced it. To reiterate, it is not just what we might call catastrophic loss (but it could be). It could be any setback in life. But what really defines life’s hammer is how you react to the setback. So, it’s not the setback itself that gives the hammer its power of impact — it is how we perceive the setback that gives it the power. let me explain…
I consider myself pretty capable when doing DIY projects, but like may people, I procrastinate doing them. I’ve struggled to know exactly why because I so appreciate a job well done. But the answer is in that last sentence. You see, without knowing it, I am setting myself up for the blow of life’s hammer each and every time I undertake a DIY job, even before I get started! I watch the YouTube videos and read the online posts to prepare myself for whatever the job is. So I have an image in my mind of how I expect the job to proceed. I know what tools and bits and pieces I will need to do the job. And I visualise what the outcome should be. So expectations are running high before I even get started.
And then I begin… First, I don’t have all the right parts but think I can substitute something I do have or can modify something or riff on the original plan in some way. This seldom works out well. Then I find I do not have the right tools for the job so I try using other tools to fill in the gaps, or fashion something out of a coat hanger etc. Then I start injuring myself and then I break or damage something. Then I manage to get the job completed but it doesn’t look anything like what it did in the YouTube video. At each step of the way I am getting more and more frustrated at the job, the tools, the pieces, the weather, myself. I step back at the end and am relieved the job is over and disappointed in the result and in myself. I have failed to meet my own standard. This sequence happens every. single. time. Well, it used to.
As a coach I should know better. This is classic territory for rational emotive behavioural therapy (REBT). The core tenet here is that it is not the stimulus event that is the problem, it is how we perceive and respond to the problem. We can, as in my DIY example, have irrational beliefs about how things in life should go. These irrational beliefs create irrational expectations which then create self-defeating thoughts and behaviours. Self defeating thoughts can lead to all sorts of issues from procrastination to full-on depression. While this may all sound a bit daunting, there is good news in this — it can be fixed!
The most common symptom of avoidance is procrastination — be easiest way to avoid doing something is to avoid doing pretty much anything or everything. Why take a risk doing something that might end up in catastrophe when you can simply not do the something in the first place. It is not a stretch from that to not doing much of anything just in case anything might end in catastrophe too. One of the most effective ways of addressing the root cause of chronic avoidance, including procrastination, is to engage in some form of REBT within a relational coaching scenario. We’ll talk about that soon…
There’s no avoiding it — it’s like death and taxes — sooner or later the shit will hit the fan and something unpleasant will enter your life. It’s as sure as they day you were born. And while we can undertake a life of mitigation and risk avoidance, sometimes it just feels like it was going to happen no matter what we did. Spending one’s life finding ways to avoid life’s hammer seems sensible enough and we all do it to varying degrees. But if we accept that the hammer is coming for us all eventually regardless of what we do to avoid it, shouldn’t we at least be doing something to prepare for it? And when it does hit, what should we do to recover from the blow? These are worthy questions. These are the questions I explore with clients each and every day.
The hammer comes in many forms — getting passed over for promotion, not getting that dream job, being made redundant, watching your industry being reduced by an emerging one, sickness, marital problems, death. Some of these blows, and other blows are likely to strike us all at least once in our lives. So what can we do? Anything?
Well, yes and no. There are avoidance strategies that we all undertake in the hope of avoiding these and other potential blows. But we must accept that we cannot avoid all of life’s hardships. So we must do more to prepare ourselves for them. We will talk more about that later. For now it is good for us to be mindful of what I’ve just described. Between now and when you die there will be some unpleasantness entering your life. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way life is. What we need to do is embrace that reality and begin to think about how much of your life you wish to invest in avoidance. How much of your income do you want to spend on insurances, how many things do you want to turn down because of the risk of unpleasantness? How much of life’s possibilities will you deny yourself in the name of playing it safe? We all draw these lines in different places. Where do you want to draw yours? And while you think about ho wmuch of yourself you wish to invest in avoidance, think too about how prepared for the impact of life’s little disasters you really are. How do you respond when things don’t go to plan? Would you like to make some changes there?
They can help you to decide whether to use a coach or whether there is an alternative development approach e.g. executive development programme. They can also help you to think through your goals so that you are better prepared for meeting and choosing a coach.
Employee Assistance Programmes
These confidential employee assistance services provide professional and confidential support where situations at work or at home are making it difficult for you to cope or perform effectively.
Occupational Health Services
These professionals will see people quickly and confidentially, they are experienced in dealing with stress and illness at work.
Other development options
Coaching is a great approach to development where the development goal is particular to you and the means of achieving it is within your control. The assumption in coaching is that you have the basic knowledge, but need support to bring your learning effectively into your performance at work.
Where your development goal requires further knowledge, it may be more appropriate to seek training or learning through internal or external programmes.
Sometimes the development goal is dependent on team or relationship performance – where this is the case it may be more appropriate to work with a facilitator or Organisational Development consultant who can work with both you and the group / team members to achieve their potential.
The most effective coaching takes place when we are both clear about the change you are seeking. This may be straightforward, e.g.
Demonstrating a particular leadership competence in the workplace
Helping to create an effective personal plan for transition into a new role
Preparing for a significant career event
Guidance and support as you deal with a complex team situation
It may be that the purpose is less tangible and is around building your confidence and commitment e.g.
Guiding you as you learn how to deal with complex or difficult political/relationship issues
Coaching you to overcome a limiting behaviour that is impacting your performance and how you are perceived at work
Supporting you as you resolve career and personal work-life conflicts.
Whatever the intention of the coaching, you should be able to articulate the outcomes of working with me in measurable goals. The goals may be fairly tangible and have measures attached, They may also be more behavioural where your goals describe what would do differently: What would you be doing, saying, hearing and feeling that would be different from how it is now?
Way of Working
I work in a number of ways and bring a wide range of professional skills and experiences. It is important for you to think about what you want and don’t want from the way we work together. Some questions you might ask are:
What is your coaching approach?
How long have you been coaching, and what kind of clients/situations do you normally undertake?
Describe how you coach someone – how did you work with them, and what were the outcomes?