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Coaching Technology Leaders

by Michael Maccoby

Printed in: Research Technology Management; Volume 41. No. 1. January-February, 1998. pp 57-58.

Pressure for fast results, friction with co-workers and demands for continual change produce stress in executives ‹ particularly in the high-tech world where a CEO like Intel's Andrew Grove aptly titles his management book Only the Paranoid Survive.

Unfortunately, paranoid worries also cause some executives to crash. These people may seek coaching to alleviate the stress and develop themselves to better cope with their challenges.

Over the past 25 years, I have been called upon to help people like the CEO who asked for help in controlling his anger in dealing with subordinates, and the vice president who became so depressed that he was unable to read reports, much less lead people.

The executives I have counselled have usually recognized they needed help, but some managers are urged to find coaches because superiors, colleagues or subordinates have asked the HR department to intervene. Here are four reasons why.

  1. The manager is seen as autocratic or bullying, provoking fear and stressing other people.

  2. The manager is seen as uncooperative, defending turf or trying to grab power.

  3. The manager is seen as not strong enough, unassertive and avoiding conflict.

  4. The manager is seen as inconsistent and ineffectual.
How should a counsellor or coach help a manager with one of these problems? The first task is to be as precise as possible about the situation. What is really going on? How does the manager see the problem? How do others see the problem?

Unlike traditional psychotherapy and psychoanalysis where all of the interaction takes place in a consulting room, an executive coach should be an applied anthropologist with knowledge of business management, particularly when others have complained about a manager. Too often a psychotherapist assumes the manager has a personality problem which can be helped by gaining self-knowledge, or new skills; when in fact, the cause of dysfunctional behavior may require that others also become more aware and more skilled. In some cases, organizational changes may be indicated. The coach should also be able to judge when to refer an employee for expert psychological or psychiatric treatment.

Managerial Dysfunction

I find seven common causes of managerial dysfunction of which personality problems is the one to explore only when the others have been eliminated. To illustrate, I describe some brief examples from my experience.

  • A manager lacks a clear role or mandate. Project team members accuse this manager of being a power grabber. I find that his role description overlaps those of his colleagues. He sees them as trying to limit his authority and reacts by asserting what he considers his mandate. Once this misunderstanding has been cleared up, he is seen as a cooperative teammember.

  • A manager receives mixed messages from the boss. This manager is accused of being overly harsh and uncaring. Her boss has given her instructions to get tough with technical staff who have been doing research without connecting to market requirements. She is told to get rid of those who cannot change. Her stress is increased when she is evaluated by this same boss as insufficiently caring about subordinates. In fact, the boss is privately sympathizing with the complaints of the researchers. He becomes the good guy and she gets the blame for the new policy. Coaching helps her to confront the boss and demand full support for the policy.

  • A manager is the victim of destructive politics. This executive seems ineffectual and unsure of himself. In fact, some of his colleagues are plotting to limit his power. They withhold information from him and leave him out of key meetings. Once he understands his situation, he decides he would be better off finding another job. He does so and proves to be extremely effective as the CEO of another company.

  • A manager feels resentful. This manager sometimes acts negatively in meetings. He opposes ideas without good reason. He tells me that he is aware that he is acting like "an adolescent," but he feels unrecognized and unappreciated for his contribution. His problem is a combination of his boss's inattention to his needs and his personality which turns resentment into negativism. With his agreement, I talk to his boss who recognizes his accomplishments and gives him a new position that particularly fits his abilities. He, in turn, takes responsibility for behaving maturely.

  • A manager has problems at home. This includes a wide range of problems: marriage, children, aging parents, illness. Psychotherapy can often help a person better understand and cope with these problems so they are not brought to the workplace.

  • A manager is faced with a changed environment. This is so common as a cause for behavior problems that no single example is descriptive enough. Typically, a manager keeps on doing what worked in the past and refuses to learn. He becomes negativistic and uncooperative as others waste energy trying to convince him that his views are outdated and his skills need upgrading.

    The problem for the manager and his colleagues becomes acute when the company is just starting a change process, and the pay-off promised is not yet measurable. Is the manager's resistance to change a response to incentives which still reward traditional behavior? Is it caused by honest disagreement? Or does it result from insecurity or arrogance? Each of these causes indicates a different treatment. Honest disagreement requires engagement with data and logic. An insecure manager may benefit from a consultant's help in working out the implications of change for his organization. An arrogant or narcissistic manager may respond to tough talk from the boss, but usually this fails and this type of resister must be separated from the team before he infects others with negativism and criticism of leadership.

  • A manager has personality problems. While change can provoke or uncover these problems, dysfunctional behavior can also be caused by chemical imbalances. I sent the depressed executive to a psychiatrist whose treatment with anti-depressants resulted in a complete cure. Another executive whose grandiose projects and abrasive behavior alarmed his colleagues was also cured of manic mood swings by a psychiatrist who prescribed lithium.

Understanding Troubled Leaders

Differentiating purely reactive problems from those rooted in personality disorders requires both clinical knowledge and understanding organizational dynamics. The two factors can be interrelated. An executive may be promoted beyond his capability. Instead of rising to new responsibilities, his insecurity brings out an obsessive controlling tendency that results in micromanaging subordinates. A CEO's narcissism is fed by flattering subordinates with the result that he loses touch with his organization and is unable to learn from people who challenge him.

To fully understand troubled executives and managers, we need to compare them to those who are psychologically the most healthy. These are executives with strong egos, able to be self-critical without losing self confidence. Their confidence is rooted in their recognition that change is constant and one never finishes the task of learning and personal development. They seek others' views including critical assessment of their leadership behavior. They understand that the role of leadership requires not only intellectual knowledge but also a heart that listens. [an error occurred while processing this directive]

This page was last updated Tuesday, 10-Nov-1998 17:38:27 EST.