Getting Past Our Stuck Points – Joan’s Interview With Dan Oestreich

I recently had the pleasure to be interviewed by Dan Oestreich for his newsletter Unfolding Leadership. Dan is a deep thinker about leadership and change, and he loves to get into deep conversations about the challenges in helping leaders grow and change. Here’s the interview in its entirety. If you’re a leader who’s interested in getting past your stuck points and growing to a more effective place, this interview may provoke some insights.


Joan, can you tell us a little of your own history and learning about individual development?


When I first started working in this area at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) I was 25, a baby, one year out of college. I was unequipped to understand what was happening in organizations but my role instantly put me in touch with a great many managers and leaders who were facing their own growth challenges every day. I became part of a small research team devoted to understanding why senior executives sometimes resisted attending training programs.  We devised a method to research the character of our subjects, all accomplished people, by interviewing and sharing feedback data with them about their leadership. Although it was not our purpose, we discovered that subjects found the feedback we shared with them particularly useful in terms of their learning. Eventually, this process became the core of a major CCL program. 


Of course, just offering feedback is not enough to cause people to change.  I remember one of our research subjects, in particular.  We wrote up a great case study about him. He was highly perfectionistic and we had a wonderful window into his style, but we really could not talk to him about his style without him becoming quite defensive. Delivering data and insight alone don’t necessarily result in growth. But, at the time, we didn’t have tools to help him see how his style impeded the very outcomes he cared about.


So where did you go from there?


For a few years I didn’t focus on individual development, per se. I was part of G.E.’s famous “Workout” program to streamline work processes and empower people. However, as a sideline, I began to coach the G.E. leaders in how not to destroy the energy of employees who were making proposals for change.  I could see that the people, say from the shop floor, would come forward enthusiastically with their ideas only to have that enthusiasm killed by leaders who seemed to be operating rather unconsciously in their habitual “power-over” mode, even as this mode contradicted the intent of the G.E. culture change.  I began to ask myself, how do you help leaders unpack the way they operate that is so unconsciously disempowering?


At the same time, I met another Workout consultant, Kyle Dover (who later became my business and marriage partner). He was interested in broad issues like shared purpose and alignment, and how these could influence the success or failure of change efforts such as Workout. Our macro and micro critiques came together, and we started figuring out ways to bring large scale change and individual development together – to meet in the middle, so to speak. We work on the range of roadblocks to organizations overcoming their challenges, from individual leaders’ style all the way to systems and work processes.


The result of this is that we see how the system affects the personal work we do with leaders, and we see how individual beliefs and behaviors affect the culture change work we do with larger units. For example, I found myself working with a woman who had been sent to be coached.  She engaged and worked hard to change, but one day she did something that was an echo of her old self.  And that, in turn, confirmed to her boss that she had not changed at all. It was clear that the system needed to shift as much as the person; that we needed to do things to also help break through the perception of others around the client, so that people could become her allies in the change process, not her adversaries or her judges.


What is your thinking today about how personal breakthroughs and change actually occur?


More recently I’ve been thinking about collaborative action science based on the work of Chris Argyris. It’s clear when we go into organizations to teach skills like influencing, expectation management and conflict resolution, these skills make people anxious.  This is because we are teaching various kinds of “self-authoring” behaviors – a word created by psychologist, Robert Kegan. These behaviors cut through the prevailing culture and norms of the hierarchy, such as pleasing others and deferring to those in authority, and they also push on personal assumptions about what will lead to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ consequences. Most leaders I encounter are in transition toward being truly self-authoring. So, trying out these behaviors can be a door into shifting mindset.


For example, I think of a client who was not talking with his boss about some important matters.  I coached him and he did it. We worked in advance to script a conversation and anticipate responses, and we then later debriefed the whole experience for him.  It was like an experiment. In the process of taking action in the face of his anxiety he was forced to unpack his assumptions and gain deeper insight into what was causing him to shrink back.  Doing so in this case enabled him to break through the norms of how he felt he should engage with a boss, what his boss expected from him, and what the outcome would be if he engaged openly.  The question became could he engage his boss with the same openness he might engage someone who worked for him?  Could he engage by holding his power with another person even if he didn’t have power over that person?  The process of giving people tasks that cause some anxiety and then coaching them through those tasks becomes the breakthrough leadership learning experience. 


What happens to the anxiety, exactly?  How, in fact, is it overcome?


The key is to help the person re-define the situation, because it’s the meaning they are attaching to the situation that provokes the anxiety, not some objective property of the situation itself. Without that context shift, people will resist or avoid.  


I think of a small bank that invited us to assist with a performance management challenge. They wanted to  shift the way their employees engaged with retail customers, so that customers would see them as an important partner in their life decisions. We offered them a new way to think about “selling” which was based on understanding the customer’s goals and challenges, and offering products or services in the context of those goals and challenges. This was a big contrast to the traditional selling model, in which employees focused on whatever product was supposed to be promoted that quarter. Once we dug into it, their resistance to adopting the new selling behaviors had a lot to do with their assumptions that customers (who were often their own neighbors and friends) would see them as prying into their personal business, or their fears about hearing “no.” To invite a shift in perspective, we began working with the bankers on how they could actually deepen, not threaten, the relationship with their customers by trying to understand their viewpoints and needs. “Wow, Connie, I heard that your husband, Bob, has finally retired. I’m so happy for the two of you. I imagine you may be thinking about how your life will be changing – perhaps you’re downsizing your house, or doing more traveling. Is that correct? We have some ways to help you think about making those things possible.” So, the bankers began to re-frame their assumptions. For example, they could be thankful when a customer said “no,” and probe into the reason, because this would help them get a finer understanding of the customer’s needs. And trying the “action experiment” of the new selling approach gave further evidence that customers appreciated, rather than resented, the bankers’ desire to engage at this level.  


One last question, Joan. Do you believe there are some predictable places where people tend to get stuck in their own development, particularly their development as organizational leaders?


For me, the predictable places parallel the developmental transitions that Robert Kegan discussed in constructive-developmental theory:


  • The first is recognizing that one’s own definition of “right” and “good” is subjective, and learning to honor others’ viewpoints and priorities.


  • The second is moving past the desire to please important others, and developing the fortitude and skill to face difficult conversations and political scenarios constructively.


  • The third is letting go of the rewards of being a “hero-manager” who can tackle the complex and thorny issues better than anyone else, and learn to develop others’ capability to do those things.


These are places any of us as leaders can get stuck — and they are therefore also prime opportunities to awaken meaningful personal and professional growth.

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