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5 Strategies for Coaching Leaders Who Struggle to Connect With Their Teams

By Michael Watkins based on a dialogue with Cino Adelson, Pat Costello, Ron Meeks, Brenda Steinberg, and Kathryn Tecosky.

The COVID-19 Crisis is presenting leaders with unprecedented challenges in understanding and responding to the emotional stresses impacting their people. Emotional intelligence (EQ) was an important leadership quality before the Crisis; it’s essential now. Leaders need to be able to mobilize, focus, and sustain the energy of teams that are dealing with enormous personal and professional pressures. More than ever, therefore, executive coaches need to help their clients do a better job of authentically connecting with and reassuring their teams and others.

In my experience, it’s challenging to help leaders who are low on EQ learn not to alienate their teams. So I asked some of the great coaches I know about how they approach working with leaders with this issue. There was 100% agreement that this is a hard, sometimes insoluble problem. That’s the bad news. The good news is that they offered some solid, actionable advice. Here’s five strategies for coaching leaders to connect with their people.

Focus first on raising awareness and motivating the leader to change.

The need to do this reminded me of the old joke: “How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb?” The answer is just one, but the lightbulb has to want to change. Does the leader understand that their inability to connect undermines their capacity to mobilize, focus, and sustain the energy of their people? As one of the coaches put it, “Does he or she know that he is failing?  And if so, what is the impact?” If not, you need to work to strengthen that motivation. As one of the coaches put it, “work with the executive to clarify the impact they want to have and how that connects to their goals/objectives. Once it is (painfully) obvious they’re having a negative impact, they’re more likely to be motivated – at a gut level – to do something different.”

Leverage assessment tools to reinforce the case for change.

One of the coaches crystallized the value of using the right tools, saying, “Validate the derailer/behavior with a psychometric assessment plus 360 feedback that concretely describes the behavior and the negative consequences it has. Make it undeniable.” There are many such tools available, but the key is to be sure the results shine a spotlight on the key behavioral issues and, critically, are viewed as credible by the leader.  If you’re not certified in such instruments, then, as one of the coaches suggested, “Tag team with a trained psychologist/assessor who can help administer and debrief the assessment and determine “coachability.”

Help them “program” the right behaviors.

Even when leaders don’t have the natural ability to connect, they can learn to do a good simulation of it. Having learned to do this, they may be able to embrace the behaviors more deeply. One of the coaches described a success story in doing this: 

I worked with a CFO who was highly introverted and abrasive. He routinely alienated people because he never even thought to pay attention to who people were personally. He wasn’t ill-intentioned; he was so internally focused he didn’t ask others basic things that many of us need to be asked to feel connected. He had to learn how to use specific tools whenever he met with people, as well as triggers to help him remember to use the tools. The ones that helped him most were to (1) committing to start meetings with a personal check-in, (2) intentionally ask people how they were doing in 1:1s, and when meeting informally and (3) remember to smile because he could be intimidating to people.

Another coach highlighted a similar approach, saying, “once you understand what it is, help them plan to deal with the derailer. Start with awareness: what triggers this behavior? What outcomes does their behavior typically produce? Then help them to ‘”go to the balcony” to notice the triggers as they happen in real-time. Use that as a basis to identify some alternative/constructive ways of reacting to the trigger. Have them try some, see what works, and experience the difference. Coach them to work toward the stuff that works consistently. Just be sure you don’t let them skip the step of building awareness.”

Work (carefully) on the deeper issues.

Such work has to be done judiciously, of course, because there may be deep reasons that contributed to the leader’s deficit, so deep that it may require the attention of trained therapist rather than a coach. As one of the coaches expressed it, “There likely were developmental events that contribute to his behavior, and you have to decide whether it’s productive to try to dig into them.” A less potentially fraught approach is to focus on values: As another of the coaches put it, “I often ask people to identify their core values, then use their values as a motivator to change behavior. Doing this can be as simple as asking them to list the values that drive them. If someone values ‘results’ and they truly internalize that when people feel connected emotionally, they work harder and get better results, it can help them view the connective behaviors as having value.” Yet another approach is to focus on identifying and emulating the behavior of role models. One of the coaches expressed it this way, “Who does he trust? Is there a leader who does this well who s/he respects and could emulate?”

Create a “social reinforcement system.”

It helps a lot if the leader gets support from others. As one of the coaches put it, “To improve their emotional intelligence, it helps a lot to enlist others in the effort. This is not the type of problem that they solve themselves.  For the leader that likes to solve problems on their own, this is counter-intuitive.” Going back to the example of the introverted CFO, the coach noted, “His people knew he was working on these things, and he asked for their support. Fortunately, he had a good sense of humor, so they could remind him of the meeting check-ins and catch his attention to say hello when seeing him walking the walls.”

Are you guaranteed success if you employ these five strategies to coach leaders with emotional connection challenges? No, but doing so will substantially increase the likelihood that you will help these challenging clients to make progress. 

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