I am on the road again. I’ve just spent two weeks in Mexico: one week with my son Clarke, and the other working at what must be one of the most fantastic meeting sites I have ever encountered. It is called the Hacienda San Gabriel de las Palmas. Built in 1529, it is easy to imagine Cortes and the Spanish conquistadors riding up the roadway. There are lots of ruins on the grounds and the meeting room was in what appears to be an old barn or storehouse with curved ceilings and antiques all around.
My visit with Clarke was outstanding—lots of good conversation. We have tentatively committed to explore co-creating a father-and-son workshop focused on bridging an ever-widening generation gap. Speaking for myself, I am always amazed and inspired by how much he has to teach me. One of the principles I talk about in my work is that people don’t listen to us unless we listen to them first. This is something I am constantly relearning in my relationship with my children.
This leads me to share a coaching principle that came up in the Mexico meetings: we can’t empower people if we think we need them. By empower, I mean that others experience their ability to accomplish their commitments. While this may seem obvious, most people are deeply committed to their stories of why they can’t have what they want. This is a cultural condition in which we live, an interpretation that has our circumstances determining what is and is not possible and our past informing what we can and cannot do. Basically, we fall prey to the notion that being ‘realistic’ and coping successfully with our circumstances is the most reasonable and safest strategy for living.
Almost anyone working in a business or for a large organization knows that while this attitude is widespread and rarely challenged, it will always produce a future that is more or less an extension of the past. In a world of constant, rapid change, this formula for success is almost certain to leave us in a state of constant anxiety and, more importantly, it will leave us behind the curve, trying to catch up with those who are creating the future. We need to empower people to act as an expression of their own vision and commitments and not wait for others to direct and coordinate the action. The paradox, however, is that the people who have the power historically (for example, managers, parents and teachers) believe that they need the employees, students or children to do their jobs. So as an expression of their responsibility, they adopt culturally reinforced practices that simultaneously create dependence and limit their capacity of their ‘charges’ for independent action.
For example, if I think I need you to get a job done, in all likelihood I will not risk your becoming upset and quitting. I will probably ask you for those things that you are comfortable providing and/or if you have good reasons for not producing, I will probably ‘buy’ them rather than challenge them as excuses. Moreover, I may not give you my fully ‘unedited’ feedback (straight talk) because I don’t want to make you defensive or upset and place additional strains on our relationship. All of these ‘patterns’ are very common in organizations. Although there are exceptions, this type of accommodating of people’s normal ‘limitations’ because we ‘need them’ actually disempowers them and doesn’t allow them to grow and accomplish more than they might normally think they can.
Coaching is obviously about empowering people to accomplish more than they think they can accomplish on their own. Good coaches (like leaders) know they don’t need those they coach. If they forget this basic principle, then their value to others is diminished and their conversations become about them and what they need.