Control: A common Challenge in Executive Coaching

Coaching is not just about closing gaps and creating tension.  Many coaching challenges can impact performance.  One challenge that most of my executive coachees share is the need to control their workplace and people.  This should not be surprising.  Successful executives learn to rely on themselves as the best way they know to accomplish goals and reduce the chances of failure.  This is a mixed blessing. While it is true that success can be realized through control, it can also be inhibited by control. Trying to maintain control over all aspects of work can handicap an executive by limiting the time and concentration needed to lead a complex organization  The greater the complexity, the greater the cost in time and focus to maintain control.

Why do executives hold onto control?  There are many reasons including habit, lack of trust, fear of relying on others, and lack of available talent. Whatever the reason, executives who maintain control have a tendency to micro-manage. This leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy:  by controlling his or her associates,  an executive prevents them from engaging in challenging work and, at the same time, limits their opportunities to grow into more responsible roles.  Lack of opportunity for associates to learn and grow will reinforce their perception that they are unqualified for responsibility and, therefore, in need of control by executives. 

The need for control may be well ingrained in an executive’s personality.  One way for a coach to approach control is to identify the gap created in performance outcomes.  I try not to discuss the reasons for control with coachees.  Instead, my focus is on how to improve performance.  The resulting tension is usually enough to take a close look at the executive’s leadership style and to identify alternative ways of leading. Then, by reviewing the coachee’s balance sheet, the coach must decide the best way to create a strategy for change. There are several options. By using previously discussed methods of change, such as reflection, reframing, questioning assumptions, using an asset to compensate for a liability, and partnering, a coach can help the coachee to embrace change.  Be aware that the change in itself may create discomfort and tension.  Control is often difficult to relinquish. It is very important for the coach to continuously review the coachee’s experiences with change.  This will allow reinforcement for successes and corrective action when necessary.  The bottom line for coaching effectiveness is reflected in associate responses and performance that result from the coachee’s actions. 

Some coaches might try to change control directly by identifying it as the obstacle to successful performance.  In my experience, attempting to change a personal attribute like control has little chance for success.  Alternatively, by creating a gap between desired and actual performance outcomes, with its concurrent tension, the coach is in a stronger position to help the coachee to change and improve performance.  This will likely require the coachee to relinquish some control in order to gain the desired outcome.

Once again, the coach facilitates the coaching process that requires the coachee to do the “heavy lifting,” leading to change.

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