The Art of Making People Uncomfortable

Surround YourselfImagine this. Standard hospital practice pre-1950 was to minimize or forbid parents to visit their infants and children while they were in hospital. In some hospitals parents were completely forbidden to visit their kids, while others allowed visits but parents could only view children through a glass partition inserted into the ward doors. Now, it’s not what you might think. This wasn’t an effort to contain some raging airborne disease – these were ‘ordinary’ hospital cases and patients. A psychologist called John Bowlby, who was particularly interested in ‘attachment’ (how a child psychologically attaches to the main caregiver) eventually changed this practice through a huge body of research which demonstrated the damage that such separations can cause to a child:  “…the prolonged deprivation of a young child of maternal care may have grave and far reaching effects on his character and so on the whole of his future life” (report to World Health Organization, 1952).

Executive Coaching: Executive Coaching is a relatively new ‘science’. Those of us who practice in this space are figuring out the best way to provide this service. Just as Bowlby tackled the ‘myth’ of the benefit of separating parents and children while in hospital, I want to address a myth that exists in executive coaching. The myth is as follows: Keeping clients happy is the best way to secure new business. How did this idea emerge? Well, generally new business comes through referrals. A lot of executive coaches believe that the ‘route to success’ is therefore to keep the ‘coachees’ (I know, it’s a brutal term) happy. They do this by reinforcing how great they are, sometimes by listening attentively as client’s re-tell: “How I saved the world and other interesting stories”. In practice, I find that the opposite approach works best (both for the client and for future marketing). The route to success is to make people uncomfortable in line with the quip that ‘Sometimes your worst enemy is your best friend’.

Medium Security: Most people in the coaching field will be familiar with the balance which needs to be struck between ‘support’ and ‘challenge’. People being coached (or people who work directly for you if you are a line manager), need to be supported – particularly people who are new to a role and ‘learning the ropes’.  If your 6 year old was trying to spell ‘Constantinople’ and got it wrong, you probably wouldn’t ball him out. When junior staff are attempting to do something new or difficult, your default style should be supportive. Similarly, in establishing a new coaching relationship, most people err on the support side of the equation at the front end. And, that’s exactly right, up to a point.

High Challenge: But when the coaching relationship becomes established, my role often takes on a stronger ‘challenge’ element – pushing clients’ to be the very best that they can be. For example, when I meet executives who want to continue to do what they’ve always done (but achieve superior results), the logic of this needs to be confronted. If I suggest an alternative approach and they are, “Not comfortable with that,” then we explore this or why they might experiment! Of course, too much challenge and the relationship becomes hard work; executives ‘vote with their feet’ and move on. The trick is to know when to be friend and when to be foe.

Macho Stance? This is not about being  macho for the sake of it. If executives are not pushed outside their comfort zone and constantly play ‘within themselves’ they are unlikely to achieve dramatic growth or success. No-one trains an Olympian to shoot for the Bronze medal. For sure, not everyone is a ‘Success-a-Holic’ and clients, not me, decide what to aim for.   But, whether the aim is really high or slightly more modest, my job is to help them get there. So, this week’s thought is simple. Success should be your goal, not comfort. As Troy Moore in typical US style stated: It’s no harder on your gun to shoot the feathers off an eagle than to shoot the fur off a skunk”. So, get out there and make some people uncomfortable. They will (eventually) thank you for it.



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