Talismanic coaching: where science meets superstition

This Article was published originally in Coaching Psychology International, Volume 8, Issue 1 (Summer 2015) – ISSN 1758-7719 – pages 16-19. 

In Daniel Goleman’s (2013) Focus, he proposes that in a world of ever-increasing 24/7 distraction, we need to become better at focusing in the here and now. In this paper we propose the benefit of “superstitious conditioning” through the use of a Talisman to help
clients focus their attention in post-coaching situations.

Learning, at its most fundamental, is based upon the creation of neural connections which either strengthen or inhibit behaviour, facilitated by attending or not attending to stimuli. Learning can be said to happen when a new state (ie, a new connection) or a new association of existing connections occurs. The stronger the associations become, the more they become embedded, meaning the associated behaviour will be more readily enacted.

As coaches, we are in a highly privileged position, able to utilise this knowledge of how learning occurs for the benefit of our clients. We can share with them tools and techniques to create and strengthen associations. Once changes are fully embedded, then the tools may no longer be required, but, in the early days, having a proxy association to aid the formation of a neural association assists with sustenance of early progress.

However, all too often in coaching, after gaining insight, clients return to the everyday fray of work. Here, they lose conscious awareness of their coaching goal as it becomes displaced by more demanding pressures. Continue reading

How do you know when coaching has been successful?

As a professional coach, I regularly take coaching issues and dilemmas to supervision. These sessions are an essential part of every coach’s development, growth and emotional maintenance. I thought I’d share something important that came up for me in my most recent session with my coaching supervisor, in the hope that you may too get something from it.

courtesy: Maurizio Pesce, under Creative Commons, Flicker

courtesy: Maurizio Pesce, under Creative Commons, Flicker

The dilemma I expressed was around exploration of vision. Some of my clients move naturally towards vision. They are comfortable with the language and for them it is not a threatening or challenging conversation when we explore what it looks, feels or even smells like. Other clients struggle to talk in terms of vision. Even the concept of aspiration, dream or goal can be challenging. This is particularly true for some of my clients who find themselves in custody as young offenders. Many express the view that they do not like to think too much about dreams or visions as it only results in them becoming disappointed. They say that they do not want to build up their hopes only to be let down, and as a result they content themselves by living in a world of very low expectations.

When I put this issue on the table in my supervision session, the statement that my supervisor came back to me with was “It is not our job as coaches to breed optimism.”

I let this statement sink in, and my first instinct was to rail against it.  Some of the clients I work with have very low levels of hope or positivity, and I believe that people do their best work when positive neural circuits are switched on. My coaching often focuses on work around beliefs, particularly limiting beliefs, and how those give rise to thoughts, words and actions that generate negativity. Surely the work of the coach starts from the basis that people want to seek improvement, do ‘better’ than they are currently doing (whatever that means), and fulfil their potential? Why wouldn’t we encourage them to look toward alternative futures and choices?

Committing to New Year Resolutions

So, another year is about to begin. Who knows what it may hold? For some, they approach it with trepidation. Others can’t wait to get started and to grab the opportunities that the new year will generate. It is a time when many people make plans and resolve to make changes, yet so many of those dreams will be but memories before January is out.

resolutionsEvery call to adventure is acted upon by two opposing forces.  In one direction we can choose to embark on the adventure, to take the journey into the unknown and face the uncomfortable challenges that will inevitably lie ahead.  In order to make this choice, the force of reward must be sufficiently strong to overcome the opposing force of inertia, the appeal of the status quo or the comfort zone we have become used to.

I spend a lot of time in workshops and working one on one with people who know that they are in a bind.  They know that their current world is less than satisfactory. They recognise that changes would be positive and could make life better in so many ways. And yet, there is no guarantee that people will make the necessary commitment to move away from the world they inhabit, to make the journey that is necessary to gain the reward, the change, the life that they would prefer.

People know they would be healthier if they gave up smoking, that they drink a bit too much alcohol, that they don’t exercise as much as perhaps they could, or that they are in a dead-end job and a change would breathe new life into their career. They may even make a resolution each New Year to do something about it.  Some may even get as far as joining a gym, giving up smoking or drinking for a while, or actively seeking job vacancies on the internet. And that does demonstrate some level of recognition that change may be attractive. So, why are so many of these attempts aborted so early?  What is missing when people embark on these annual failed excursions, which rarely mature into fully fledged adventures resulting in transformation? Continue reading

It’s Lonely at the Top

I have long been a fan and admirer of Andy Murray, so naturally I was delighted for him when he recently reached the pinnacle of his sport by being crowned the world’s number one-ranked male tennis player. Amazing!  Perhaps even more amazing when we reflect on the fact that he comes from a small town (Dunblane) in a country (Scotland) with practically no history to speak of in the game of tennis.  His journey to get to the top has been far from easy.  He has played in an era which has been dominated by three other great players, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, an era that most tennis experts agree has been the most highly contested period of excellence in the men’s game – ever!

And here he now stands. On top of the world.

So, what next?  Well, the only certain thing about being world number one is that the day
will come when you will no longer be world number one.
 Sorry to introduce such a note of pessimism to proceedings, but that is the stark reality.  It’s a lonely place being out on your own. Not everyone has enjoyed it, and not everyone has coped well with it.  Andre Agassi has described how miserable it made him, and John McEnroe found it lonely and exposed. He once said, “You’re out there on your own island, and you feel like you’re disengaged, not only with the rest of the world, but the rest of your competitors, some of them friends.”andy_murray_practice_27107035063

This is similar to how many CEOs, Business Owners and Leaders describe the feeling of being at the top, or out in front of their organisations and companies. It can be a lonely place.   Continue reading

Lazy Leadership

Is this the age of Lazy Leadership? Well, before you answer, perhaps I should explain a little more about what I mean by that term.

No-one ever said that leaders need to be popular. In fact we probably need to be wary of leaders who appear to be universally liked. Those who are, in my view, are either at the head of a very slick and dangerous brain-washing machine, or are simply not tackling the tough stuff that people don’t like to hear.  (See We get the Leaders we deserve).

Here in the UK we have experienced a number of major political episodes in the last couple of years, from a Scottish Referendum, to a General Election, and more recently, an EU Referendum, and both a Tory and Labour leadership battle.  And we are currently in the final lap of the US Presidential marathon (or Trumpathon).donald-trump-creative-commons-via-flickr_659823

Perhaps it is because so many of these events have been reduced to simplistic binary choices that the quality of political debate has deteriorated. Complex issues, that do not necessarily have straightforward solutions, have been reduced to simple soundbites, creating polarised debates, resulting in divided electorates and divided nations.

High quality leaders navigate complexity and ambiguity, and do not allow themselves to be drawn into the downward spiral that is satisfied merely by securing a simple majority to fulfil a political end. Instead they are prepared to tackle thorny issues that may not be popular, they recognise that alienating half of the electorate (or workforce) is not a good foundation to build from, and they understand the danger of chasing populist opinion.

Here in the UK,

Continue reading

Is The Appraisal System Dead?

If, as is reported, as many as one third of U.S. companies have abandoned the traditional appraisal system (ref:The Performance Management Revolution), and the signs are that more and more are joining the revolution, what is the future of performance management? How will companies ensure that people do what is expected of them in the future? How will managers know who’s good and who’s not? How will they advise on development, or decide who to sack and replace?

Major players such as Dell, Microsoft and IBM, as well as previous champions of the
forced ranking system such as GE, are at the vanguard of new approaches to retaining and developing talent.  These companies are responding to many issues and criticisms which have been levelled at traditional performance management systems. In some organisations they have become enormous consumers of people’s time. With  the move to
flatter organisational structures and virtual or globally dispersed teams, supervisors have had to contend with larger and larger teams. The answer to this problem in some companies has been to turn the job of performance management over to ‘specialist’ people creativitymanagers, who do little else other than manage the entire cycle, quarter after quarter. Ranking, levelling, forced distributions, identifying rising stars, identifying laggards, assessing delivery against stretch targets, calculating the distribution of the bonus pot, and starting the whole cycle again.  This has become an industry in its own right, and one that delivers no core benefit to the customer or the shareholder.

A number of factors have played a part in driving the shift we are now seeing.  Continue reading

The Quiet Power of Selflessness

To me, teamwork is the beauty of our sport, where you have five acting as one. You become selfless ~ Mike Krzyzewski

Much continues to be written about what marks out successful teams from those that fail. Most of us can think about our own experiences of both, and, no doubt, recall factors that contributed to both positive and negative experiences.

source: thevalleys.co.uk/

source: thevalleys.co.uk/

The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro have been providing us with thrilling achievements, but while they shine a light on athletic stars and big names such as Usain Bolt, Simone Biles and Laura Trott, I am fascinated by the armies of unsung heroes. Team members who are vital parts of the success but who do not receive the same media attention. This can be coaches, trainers, physios and sometimes fellow athletes, who sacrifice themselves for the greater good. They may not receive the Olympic medal or the adulation, but their contribution is vital, often displaying a level of selflessness that appears extraordinary. I have touched upon the role of the ‘domestique’ in team cycling in previous posts, which illustrate this point further.

But, let’s take a closer look at this. The mental state required to achieve this is one of ‘selflessness’. And, to exist happily in this state, one must be more concerned about achieving the eventual outcome than about personal recognition for it being achieved. In other words, the outcome is the most important thing, not your own psychological state.

Let’s think Continue reading

Mining for Treasure

You could be excused for wondering whether leadership has gone out of fashion right now. Whether it be politics, business or sport, wherever you look, there appears to be a vacuum at the top, and much discrediting of those leaders who remain.

What could be going on?  Well, I think one of the problems is that we are mixed up about
what we want from our leaders. Perhaps we expect too much of them. Should they have all the answers? Should they be all-seeing and all-hearing? Is it reasonable to expect them to set strategy, direction, plan, implement, review, report and make key decisions, as well as dispense wisdom to all who seek it?   Of course not.  But, despite recognising this as impractical, and even unhealthy, as a society we are still encouraged to demand unequivocal and unwavering surety from our leaders.

Pirate_map

At this time, perhaps more than at any time in the past, we need a different set of skills from our leaders. We live in a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world where knowledge is distributed more widely than ever, where more information is instantly available than at any time in history, yet despite all that information, decision-making has never been more difficult. Those who come out of the charismatic ‘all-knowing’ school of leadership present us with dangers. Continue reading

Dance under those Lights

In the week of the great Muhammad Ali’s sad death, I felt it appropriate to repost this article in his honour. He has been a remarkable inspiration for so many for so long. His impact will be felt for many years, and his legendary status will grow with time. His appeal transcends boxing and sport, it has no geographical boundaries, and he is instantly recognisable even by children too young to have known him in his prime. He will go on ‘Dancing Under Those Lights’.

Gyro Consulting Services

George Bernard Shaw is reputed to have described a sick man as being unable to think of anything but his ailment”.  The general malaise and depression that swamps much of our news, both regionally and from around the world, is reminiscent of Shaw’s sick man. Get too close to a problem and you can’t see beyond it.

source: http://www.kclanderson.com/

Our organisations and businesses are being driven by a management obsessed with ‘looking in the rear view mirror’. Think about it!  What goes on in meetings in organisations and businesses, day in day out? How much of the focus is on what has been going wrong, and why?  How much time is devoted to looking at trends, and graphs, and budget forecasts based on productivity over the last month, quarter or year? How much of the employee performance appraisal is devoted to the fine detail of relative value and contribution…

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Collusion of Confusion

People do not go out of their way to seek data that contradicts their existing beliefs. On the contrary, they will select any data they find that supports existing assumptions. We may like to believe that we are open to having our minds changed, but the reality is that we are quite fixed when it comes to our mental malleability.

Evidence for this assertion is being played out daily on our radios and televisions, as people debate the pros and cons of Brexit. There is an uncanny collective agreement amongst the public that they do not get enough facts to help them arrive at a logical and balanced position. We hear this refrain in panel discussions, question time and vox pops. “How are we supposed to know what the truth is? One lot give us a load of statistics, and then the other lot come along and tell us that is all wrong and hit us with another load of statistics.”

I watched one such programme recently, where a member of the public made exactly this
point. He levelled his accusation at one of the ‘experts’ on the panel. His complaint centred around the costs of running the EU along with an assertion that Britain should not be run by unelected bureaucrats. The expert spent a reasonable amount of time patiently 141201.unbiasedexplaining the facts. He explained that calling all of the EU machine unelected was not accurate.  He pointed out that the EU Parliament, which is made up of elected national representatives, does in fact have a veto over recommendations put forward by the EU Commission. And that the EU Council is also made up of one member from each state in the EU, each of whom will have been elected as part of their home nation’s general elections.  This was all delivered in a tone of neutrality, and with a genuine desire to help alleviate concerns and misunderstandings.  At the end, the person who had raised the original issue was asked if the information provided had helped. His response was not positive. Exasperated, he accused the ‘expert’ of simply adding to the confusion and misconceptions, and “just who was he supposed to believe?”

I suspect the data provided Continue reading