A Coach’s Greatest Contribution

Executive coaches bring many skills with them into a coaching engagement: an ability to facilitate adult development and change, a knowledge of systems, keen observation and powerful questioning are among a few. But, one of the most impactful capabilities of a coach is also one that is often  overlooked in the shadow of more tangible skills. This skill is the ability to create a safe environment in which the coachee can take a clear look at him or herself and begin the process of true, deep and sustainable change. The place where true change happens is often scary and hidden so it is only in relationship and in a psychologically safe environment that individuals have the courage to take a glimpse at their true selves and begin to address deep-seated barriers to change they are working to make.

Perhaps no one understood the importance of this skill better than Carl Rogers, a psychologist and creator of the person-centered approach to therapy. The three tenets of his approach are:

  1. Authenticity – Acting and speaking in a way that is genuine
  2. Empathy – Imagining what the experience of the client is like
  3. Unconditional positive regard – Withholding judgement and appreciating the client for who they are in that moment  

His approach is based on the belief that personal growth is most likely to occur in a non-judgmental, supportive environment where the individual enhances their self-awareness and thus finds their true positive potential. When Carl Rogers created this approach in the 1940’s, it was an unorthodox contrast to the traditional “therapist know best” directive approach used in counseling at that time

Rogers’ belief in the importance of unconditional positive regard is the most instrumental in creating a safe environment for the coaching engagement.  Unconditional positive regard is the optimistic, non-judgmental view that a person is valuable, worthy of respect, and has the ability to figure out how to overcome their obstacles in order to fulfill their potential. When therapists and coaches practice unconditional positive regard, it creates a safe, trusting and non-judgmental environment where a person is able to lower their defenses in order to see issues that might be inhibiting them from making their desired changes. In essence, unconditional positive regard means entering the coaching engagement with the intention of change but affirming the individual’s value and personhood as they are that day.

As coaches, it is important to reflect on the environment we create for clients. Spending time getting grounded in these assumptions prior to a coaching session is a great place to start. Additionally, reflecting on our tone and non-verbal signals in a client session can be helpful in assessing the type of relational and emotional environment we are creating for our clients, whether we mean to or not. This is also one of the reasons it is important for coaches to “do our own work” as part of coach training so we know the issues or personalities that trigger us and make it more difficult to create a non-judgmental environment. After all, all the change theory and skill in the world, won’t bring about true change if clients are not affirmed, supported and appreciated for who they are today.

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Relational Learning in a Volatile and Hyper-Fast World

It’s no small statement that the impact of globalization and technology on the way we work, learn and live is profound. The world we live in today is vastly different than the one to which we’ve been accustomed. However, most every generation in history has faced monumental upheaval. The world has been interconnected for as long as history can recount, the difference today, is the speed at which information flows and the overwhelming amount of information that is at our fingertips in a moment’s notice.

To use a military analogy, the world is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, but it’s also full of hope, promise and potential. And it’s through this lens that we need our leaders to operate. Globalization is a man-made construct, we control the inputs and although it doesn’t always feel like it, we also have control over the outputs. The challenge that lies ahead of us, is teaching leaders to understand and learn how to operate in this world in a way that offers hope, promise and compassion for those around us.

Our belief is that we need to slow down the ways in which we learn and create systems and processes that allow us the space to learn, to grow and to prepare us for working and living in a complex but beautiful world. We recognize the paradoxical nature of this request. And we hear the response all too often, “my people don’t have the time,” “I can’t be gone for that long,” etc. But the reality is, for most of us to truly be effective and to meet the challenges ahead of us, we need to better prepare ourselves mentally, spiritually and physically for what lies ahead.

The skills required to operate in our current environment; collaboration and communication, critical thinking and problem solving, innovation and imagination require us to fundamentally slow down our thinking in order to truly master any of these skills, yet we continue to fall into the trap outlined by Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow:

“A puzzling limitation of our mind: our excessive confidence in what we believe we know, and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty of the world we live in.” (Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow (pp. 13-14). Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The world we live in today is uncertain, it’s hard for leaders to fully grasp the monumental nature of the challenges that lie ahead. But that shouldn’t prevent us as leaders to take a stand and learn how to navigate the world ahead of us.

We need leaders that understand complexity, adaptive systems and aren’t afraid to experiment and try new things. But most importantly, we need leaders to understand that the answer to our challenges is not an individualistic pursuit. We learn best alongside of others and through experience. It’s very tempting to jump head first into the challenges we face and fearlessly push through with sheer will and endurance. Yet, with constant change and turmoil, we can’t keep up and fatigue sets in.

We don’t have the capacity to go at this alone. We never have…throughout all of our history. Humans didn’t evolve because we were the most prolific hunters in the ecosystem, we thrived because as a tribe we were able to outlast the prey, we worked together to wear them down and we used ingenuity to survive even when the odds were stacked against us.
We’re social beings. We exist in a relational context. But in order to effectively be a part of the tribe, we need the to spend time with one another. We need to slow down and engage in the moment with those around us. We need to learn from one another, we need to grow with one another. In order to do that, we need time and space- two resources that feel really scarce at the moment. But we have the capacity to make that happen, because when we do it right, we actually learn to how to better handle all that this beautifully chaotic world throws at us.

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The Paradox of Power

By Eric Vandersluis

“Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”  Lao Tzu

In today’s hyper-competitive world, power is multidimensional and complex; technology, speed and the accessibility of information have made it even more so. This diffusion of knowledge and information, constantly at our fingertips, has created a new paradigm for how to manage power in relation to ourselves, to others and across organizations. With information increasingly accessible to all, the traditional notions of hierarchical power are starting to erode. This fundamental shift has created the need for a more nuanced view of power and power dynamics in organizational settings.

The top-down model of leadership through heavy-handed authority is no longer sustainable. Autocratic leaders who lead through scare tactics do more damage to organizations than peers who embrace a new age of leadership. Short-term results may be there for these leaders briefly, but longer term fallout is there too and perilous to ignore:

  •  A poisoned organizational culture
  • High potential employees flee
  • Morale suffers
  • Unsustainable results

Unfortunately, in today’s world, business are still managed to the quarter and the Street looks for short term performance results with little regard for longer term implications of culture and engagement. This short-sighted and myopic view has real impact. Leaders that get immediate results are rewarded. How they go about getting results isn’t always considered, leaving many in power that still lead with an iron fist. In Lao Tsu’s words, they lead through strength, not through power.

The real challenge with this style of leadership, according to the Approach-Inhibition Theory of Power*, is that as we gain influence and power:

  • We lose the capacity to empathize with others
  • Our sensitivity to consequences and punishment decreases
  • We become less sensitive to the conditions and emotions of others
  • We talk/dominate conversation and meetings more
  • We experience an increase in positive emotions (they feel good about being in power)

All of which ultimately creates unhealthy relationships, an unhealthy culture and a power dynamic that has negative psychological impact on the entire organization.

If you think the psychological impact isn’t real, or doesn’t have a place in work, consider this….think about your worst boss ever. What comes to mind? How does it make you feel? Likely, not great. As a matter of fact, when we ask this question in our sessions. most of the responses are heated and emotionally charged. It doesn’t matter how long ago you experienced this leader, the emotions still feel raw and have a powerful impact on how you think and ultimately act in the moment. Imagine operating daily under a leader like this (trick statement- you just did), do you think you can really perform at your best? Be honest. If not, what did you leave on the table? Multiply that impact across your team and organization and think about the amount of lost effort and productivity.

Again, according to the Approach-Inhibition of Power, we know that individuals in lower power positions demonstrate:

  • Increased sensitivity to punishment and the consequences of their actions
  • Increased sensitivity to the emotions of others (emotions are contagious, so if they see their peer upset, it has a ripple effect on them)
  • Increased experiences of negative emotions
  • A proclivity to talk/contribute less

The question then becomes, how do we deal with power in today’s hyper-competitive and fast world where job responsibilities seem to grow exponentially? Leaders feel they don’t have the time to slow down, at least that’s the thought. But what if slowing down was the first step to mastering yourself, to learning the difference between strength and power and thereby becoming a  more resonant leader? We hear it all the time, ‘ain’t nobody got time for that.’ But the reality is, to become an effective, long-term leader today, you must. If you want to adapt to the new complexities we face today and be prepared for what lies ahead, you can’t ignore the fact that we need new ways to lead, and ultimately we need to forge a new understanding of power and its impact on those around us. To do this, first and foremost we MUST start with self. It’s through the process of building self-awareness that we can truly begin to recognize the impact and affect we have on others and in turn we can begin to better understand how we use power in support of ourselves and of others.


*Berdahl, J., & Anderson, C. (2002). The experience of power: Examining the effects of power on approach and inhibition tendencies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(6), 1362-1377. Oveis, C., van derLowe, I., LuoKogan, A., Goetz, J., Dacher, K., & van Kleef, G. (2008). Power, distress, and compassion: Turning a blind eye to the suffering of others. Psychological Science, 19(12), 1315-1322. Keltner, D., Anderson , C., & Gruenfeld, D. (2003). Power, approach, and inhibition. Psychological Review, 110(2), 265-284.

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The Emotional Impulses That Poison Healthy Teams

Courtesy of Harvard Business Review


Is anyone really an individual contributor at work anymore? I think not. Pretty much everything we do is done with others in groups. We’re tasked with planning and completing projects together. We negotiate roles and resources. We talk to one another—or text, tweet, email—and sometimes we listen, too. We’re dependent on and beholden to people above, around, and below us for collective success. We develop habits, over time, that dictate how we behave with one another. Add this up and you’ve got the definition of team: people who share a common purpose and goal, who have distinct roles and responsibilities, and who adhere to certain rules of interaction. Teams are everywhere at work. Sadly, though, most of them aren’t terribly effective—or fun.

How can we improve teams? How can we make them an aspect of work that contributes to our happiness rather than adding to our misery?

To start, we need to pay more attention to how important teams really are in the workplace. In most organizations, there’s a subtle undervaluing of teams. For example, while many companies nod to team-oriented behavior in performance management systems, it is not uncommon for this line item to be divorced from rewards and compensation. This reinforces the notion that we don’t have to pay attention to teams or teamwork (after all, we aren’t rewarded for it). What ends up happening, then, is that teams wither on the vine, at best. At worst, people—team members or leaders—are free to engage in bad behavior which leads to dysfunction, less than optimal results, and miserable team members. It doesn’t take much to blow up a team like this…and many of us have done it.

Paradoxically, it helps to learn what not to do with teams, before moving to what to do to make our teams more effective. Let’s look at some common mistakes even good people make when working together:

  1. Forget your emotional intelligence (EI) and let your amygdala do the talking: Act on feelings and impulses, and don’t filter what you signal, say or do. Don’t let pesky things like social constraints or norms get in the way. Get really pissed off—and stay that way—when someone gets more than you do. Stereotype people who are different from you. Say what’s on your mind then excuse your behavior by telling people that you’re just honest and transparent, which maybe you are, but you’re also just being mean, and if it’s your direct reports, you’re bullying. Unfortunately, given the stress that people deal with at work today, an awful lot of people are walking around in a permanent state of amygdala hijack.
  1. Stick to your guns: Awful phrase. How about “My way or the highway”? Same idea. If you want to ruin a team, be rigid, single minded, and obsessive about your goals or how to get things done.
  1. See the glass half-empty: If you want to mess with people’s minds and kill a team’s spirit, focus on everything that could go wrong. Scare people. Be cynical. Emotions are contagious; and negative emotions and the cynicism and biting humor that go with them kill the trust, creativity, enthusiasm, and happiness that are so important to group success.
  1. Truly don’t care about people: I once worked with an executive who was, in fact, blowing up his teams­—and his family. He was at risk of losing the prize at work—the CEO job he’d been promised because he got results. The leaders of this company had, thankfully, figured it out. That this guy got results at the expense of every person and team he touched. Naturally, these results weren’t sustainable. When I asked him why he did this, he told me straight out: “I don’t care about those people.” “Really?” I asked. Underneath this total lack of empathy was a profound belief that his goals, and his way of accomplishing them, were more important. And he was smarter, so what those other people needed—well, it just didn’t matter. It wasn’t until he realized that he was blowing up his family—his wife was about to leave him and his kids had given up asking him to do things with them—that he understood why he was ruining every group and ultimately every part of the business he touched.
  1. Don’t think too much—especially about your motives and feelings: Lack of self-awareness, whether conscious or not, is at the heart of pretty much all of the bad behavior I’ve seen in teams. Take the executive I mentioned above. When we really got down to it, the reason he was blowing everybody up was because he was scared. So, he got them before they could get him at work. And at home, he was scared of intimacy. Yes, he loved his wife and kids. But he just wasn’t ready for real intimacy—so he kept them all at bay.

Far too many of us work in groups that are more than dysfunctional—they are painful and they make us very unhappy. Unhappy people aren’t good workers, and that’s the least of it. People who are unhappy at work are unhappy at home, which means families are unhappy. And on and on it goes. We are better than that. And we can do something about it.

Working effectively in teams takes effort—and it takes emotional intelligence. If you want your team to be healthy, resonant, and effective, take responsibility for the way you show up and what you do.

Studies conducted by Vanessa Druskat and Steven Wolff show that emotional intelligence is essential for team effectiveness. They also show that when more members than not use their EI on a team, that team is more likely to develop norms that support trust, team identity, and sense of collective efficacy. These are the kinds of norms that support sustainable collective success.

Other studies have looked at the relationship of EI to managing conflict on teams, and not surprisingly, there’s a link. For example, Ayoko and colleagues explored the relationship of EI to climate and conflict. They found that there was more conflict around tasks and relationships when empathy, emotional management skills, and conflict management norms were less developed among team members and leaders, the climate suffered—and so did outcomes. Jordon and Troth presented similar findings when they looked at EI, problem solving and conflict resolution in teams.

Working well in groups demands high EI. And if you are going to develop self-awareness, not to mention other competencies like empathy and self-management, you’ll need to go deep. That’s because improving your EI is as much about personal growth as it is professional development.

A final note: That executive I worked with? He worked hard to develop his EI, especially self-awareness, empathy, and self-management. He got the job. And he applied what he learned about himself and his impact on others to his family. He started really seeing his wife and kids, maybe for the first time in years. It took time, but they became close again.

Annie McKee is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, director of the PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program and the founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute. She is the author of Primal Leadership with Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis as well as Resonant Leadership and Becoming a Resonant Leader.

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How Power Affects Your Productivity

By Annie McKee

Courtesy of Harvard Business Review www.hbr.org

Think about the last time you came home from work completely and totally drained. I don’t mean the good kind of tired, when you’ve worked hard and gotten something done. I’m talking about exhaustion, colored by frustration and tinged with anger. Maybe you even felt hopeless. You were fed up, trying to be nice but snapping at family, wanting nothing more than to crawl into bed (or dive into a bottle of wine). If you’re like me, feeling pissed off and hopeless isn’t your natural state. And for those of us who love our work, feeling negative is doubly painful because it just shouldn’t be this way.

Sadly, though, we spend far too much time and energy dealing with destructive emotions at work — which is no doubt part of the reason so many people are disengaged. It’s also the reason why we often don’t live up to our full potential. When we’re stuck in a dissonant state, we lose our capacity for mindful learning. We don’t process data as quickly or well, and we make bad decisions. We aren’t very creative and we don’t adapt as the world around us changes. We don’t focus, so we don’t get as much done. In short, negative emotions make us less productive.

Then there is the stress. Toxic emotions affect our capacity to manage ourselves. There’s also increasing evidence that in mice — and people too — stress decreases our capacity for empathy. All in all, pervasive negative emotions impact how smart we are, not to mention our emotional intelligence.

What can we do? First, let’s face it: we’ve got to do something. Dissonance is an epidemic in our organizations. Why? Pressure, change, too much work, too few resources — sure, these all affect us, but let’s look at what we can control, starting with how we manage power.

Power, not money, is the real currency in organizations. It gets us what we need to stay “alive”. The strongest people make the calls, show us the way to go. And whether we admit it or not, most people want to be seen as powerful. There are lots of ways to become truly influential at work, some that generate positive emotions, and some that aren’t so good. Healthy ways include striving to be the best at building a great team, and being at the center of information flows. When we wield these kinds of power, we feel pretty good about ourselves, and people trust and want to follow us.

Unfortunately, lots of people either don’t know how to get and keep power in positive ways, or they deliberately engage in destructive, even Machiavellian behaviors. They end up withholding information others need, stirring up trouble, and generally wreaking havoc.

Faced with people who are bad at handling power, we feel our jobs – and therefore our lives — are threatened, and we go into survival mode. We shut out everything in the environment except what we think we need to stay safe. Adaptability? Gone. Creativity? Snuffed out. Ability to take in information and make sense of chaos? Nope.

It isn’t easy learning how to deal with your own and other people’s power while maintaining positive relationships and a sense of personal safety and integrity. But it can be done. First, you need to do a gut check. How do you feel about power? Do you shy away from commanding people? Fight authority? Or conversely, are you constantly seeking the safety of someone else’s shadow? Clearly none of these is a healthy or effective approach. But in truth, many people are either caught in dysfunctional dependency upon people with power, or they are counter-dependent — fighting against them — just to prove they can win. These reactions stem from childhood and all of those old messages about how we should deal with authority. It’s a really good idea to do a bit of thinking about those old assumptions — do they still serve you? If not, it may be time to change. Awareness isn’t everything, of course. But honestly assessing your deep feelings and reactions is a good first step on the path to dealing with negative emotions at work.

For leaders, deepening your self-awareness will help you acknowledge that people see you as powerful (and maybe even a bit scary). Never forget for a moment that your whisper is a shout. As far as your employees are concerned, you hold their fate in your hands, and your emotions spread easily to them. In the end, knowing how to use your power will enable you to consciously choose to create a climate in which everyone can be and do their best.

Let’s not give in to the dissonance that has become the default in so many companies. Let’s take charge — of ourselves, first.

Annie McKee is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, director of the PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program and the founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute. She is the author of Primal Leadership with Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis as well as Resonant Leadership and Becoming a Resonant Leader.


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Being Happy at Work Matters

Courtesy of Harvard Business Review

By Annie McKee

People used to believe that you didn’t have to be happy at work to succeed. And you didn’t need to like the people you work with, or even share their values. “Work is not personal,” the thinking went. This is bunk.

My research with dozens of companies and hundreds of people — as well as the research conducted by the likes of neuroscientists Richard Davidson and V.S. Ramachandran and scholars such as Shawn Achor — increasingly points to a simple fact: Happy people are better workers. Those who are engaged with their jobs and colleagues work harder — and smarter.

And yet, there is an alarmingly high number of people who aren’t engaged. According to a sobering 2013 Gallup report, only 30% of the U.S. workforce is engaged. This echoes what I’ve seen in my work. Not very many people are truly “emotionally and intellectually committed” to their organizations. Far too many couldn’t care less about what’s happening around them. For them, Wednesday is “hump day” and they’re just working to get to Friday. And then there’s the other end of the bell curve — the nearly one out of five employees is actively disengaged, according to the same Gallup report. These people are sabotaging projects, backstabbing colleagues, and generally wreaking havoc in their workplaces.

The Gallup report also noted that employee engagement has remained largely constant over the years despite economic ups and downs. Scary: we’re not engaged with work and we haven’t been for a long time.

Disengaged, unhappy people aren’t any fun to work with, don’t add much value, and impact our organizations (and our economy) in profoundly negative ways. It’s even worse when leaders are disengaged because they infect others with their attitude. Their emotions and mindset impact others’ moods and performance tremendously. After all, how we feel is linked to what and how we think. In other words, thought influences emotion, and emotion influences thinking.

It’s time to finally blow up the myth that feelings don’t matter at work. Science is on our side: there are clear neurological links between feelings, thoughts, and actions. When we are in the grip of strong negative emotions, it’s like having blinders on. We focus mostly — sometimes only — on the source of the pain. We don’t process information as well, think creatively, or make good decisions. Frustration, anger, and stress cause an important part of us to shut down —the thinking, engaged part. Disengagement is a natural neurological and psychological response to pervasive negative emotions.

But it’s not just negative emotions we need to watch out for. Extremely strong positive emotions have the same effect. Some studies shows that too much happiness can make you less creative and prone to engage in riskier behaviors (think about how we act like fools when we fall in love!). On the work front: I’ve seen groups of people worked up into a frenzy at sales conferences and corporate pep rallies. Little learning or innovation comes out of these meetings. Throw in a lot of alcohol and you’ve got a whole host of other problems.

If we can agree that our emotional states at work matter, what do we do to increase engagement and improve performance?

Over the past few years, my team at the Teleos Leadership Institute and I have studied dozens of organizations and interviewed thousands of people. The early findings about the links between people’s feelings and engagement are fascinating. There are clear similarities in what people say they want and need, no matter where they are from, whom they work for, or what they do. We often assume that there are huge differences across industries and around the world but the research challenges that assumption.

To be fully engaged and happy, virtually everyone tells us they want three things:

  1. A meaningful vision of the future: When people talked with our research team about what was working or not in their organizations, and what helped or hindered them the most, they talked about vision. People want to be able to see the future and know how they fit in. And, as we know from our work with Richard Boyatzis on intentional change, people learn and change when they have a personal vision that is linked to an organizational vision. Sadly, far too many leaders don’t paint a very compelling vision of the future, they don’t try to link it to people’s personal visions, and they don’t communicate well. And they lose people as a result.
  2. A sense of purpose: People want to feel as if their work matters, and that their contributions help to achieve something really important. And except for those at the tippy top, shareholder value isn’t a meaningful goal that excites and engages them. They want to know that they — and their organizations — are doing something big that matters to other people.
  3. Great relationships: We know that people join an organization and leave a boss. A dissonant relationship with one’s boss is downright painful. So too are bad relationships with colleagues. Leaders, managers, and employees have all told us that close, trusting and supportive relationships are hugely important to their state of mind — and their willingness contribute to a team.

Added up, brain science and our organizational research are in fact debunking the old myths: emotions matter a lot at work. Happiness is important. To be fully engaged, people need vision, meaning, purpose, and resonant relationships.

It’s on individuals to find ways to live our values at work and build great relationships. And it’s on leaders to create an environment where people can thrive. It’s simple and it’s practical: if you want an engaged workforce, pay attention to how you create a vision, link people’s work to your company’s larger purpose, and reward people who resonate with others.


Annie McKee is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, director of the PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program and the founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute. She is the author of Primal Leadership with Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis as well as Resonant Leadership andBecoming a Resonant Leader.

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When Fighting with Your Boss, Protect Yourself First

Courtesy of Harvard Business Review


by Annie McKee

Have you ever felt like your boss is out to get you? Maybe you’re paranoid. But then again, maybe not. There are a lot of bad bosses out there, leaders who aren’t stupid but lack emotional intelligence. Their self-awareness is strikingly low, they’re clueless when it comes to reading people, they can’t control their emotions, and their values seem to be on a permanent leave of absence.

These dissonant leaders are dangerous. They derail careers and blow up teams. They destroy people — sometimes overtly, sometimes slowly and insidiously. Over time we can find ourselves in perpetual, all-consuming combat with these bosses. We think about it all the time. We relive every last painful word hurled our way. We nurse our wounds. We plot revenge. We talk about our boss and the injustice of it all with anyone who will listen, including coworkers and loved ones.

It’s tiresome, really, but we can’t help ourselves. It feels like a fight to the death. That’s because fighting with a powerful person — like a boss — sparks a deep, primal response: fear. After all, these people hold our lives in their hands — the keys to our futures, not to mention our daily bread.

Clearly, battling to the death with one’s boss does not lead to health, happiness, or success. But what can you do?

First, protect yourself. Conflict with one’s boss usually backfires. That’s because our many cultures place huge value in the official hierarchy: the higher you are, the more “right” you are assumed to be — especially by people even higher up. It is a self-perpetuating system that respects and rewards people by virtue of their level in the organization, not their behavior. This means that you can lose a battle with your boss — in his eyes and others’— even before you start. So, if you must fight, be sure you have a strategy to protect yourself from the fallout. For example, you want to be sure you’ve prepared key people to support you if things go wrong. You also probably want an “exit strategy” to get out of the conflict. You can then decide to act on this long before real damage has been done.

Second, focus on yourself. Make sure that you’re not picking a fight with your boss just to prove something, or cover up your own insecurity. You’ve got to be squeaky clean: fight only for goals that help everyone, not just you. Don’t compromise your ethics. And don’t fight dirty —exaggerating or distorting facts, for example, is a tactic we tend to use when we engage in unequal fights. Sabotaging and backstabbing are pretty common too. Stooping that low isn’t good for the soul.

Third, know that your boss’s issues — not yours — are driving this dysfunctional conflict. These bosses are unstable, insecure, power-hungry demagogues. They are often narcissists. They need help — and, frankly, compassion. Unless you truly understand that these individuals are broken, you can end up joining the fray, blaming yourself, or playing the victim. Rather, you want to focus on building healthy relationships where you can (perhaps with your colleagues or your boss’s boss), doing your job well, and finding ways to be creative. Creativity is a life force that combats the misery of a long-standing fight.

Fourth, evaluate your situation realistically. Fighting at work is nasty. Fighting with one’s boss is downright painful. It can kill your spirit and ruin your health. If you are perpetually fighting with your boss, you’ve got to ask yourself if it’s worth it to stay in your job. Sure, we all have a million reasons for staying in a job (this stance is usually fear-based too). If the relationship with your boss can’t be fixed, why not think of all the good reasons to find another job — with a better boss, in a better culture where such fights aren’t tolerated?

Finally, ask yourself: “Am I part of the problem?” Are you perpetuating a fight culture, using power as the means to quietly intimidate or get what you need at the expense of others? Many of our organizational cultures drive us to behave this way. Dysfunctional power dynamics, coupled with an overemphasis on competition, push us to fight rather than collaborate. And while you may not be able to change the entire organizational culture, you can change it on your team. Here’s how:

  • Start with self-awareness. Self-awareness is the foundation for emotional intelligence, which you need to manage conflict with your boss and anyone else, too. Self awareness means that you understand your issues, so they don’t blindside you—or others.
  • Manage your emotions. Conflict triggers powerful, mostly negative emotions. You have a choice about whether you let these emotions take over or whether you channel them toward health and wholeness.
  • Read people carefully. Learn to really see people for who they are, not where they sit in the hierarchy. Figure out what makes people tick and what they need, and then do something to help.
  • Come from a place of compassion. Love, even. Positive emotions, such as compassion and love, are just as contagious as their toxic cousins: anger and fear. And when we choose to share positive regard, enthusiasm, care, and concern, not to mention compassion and love, people will follow you anywhere.


More blog posts by Annie McKee

More on: Conflict, Managing up



Annie McKee is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, director of the PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program and the founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute. She is the author of Primal Leadership with Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis as well as Resonant Leadership and Becoming a Resonant Leader.


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Why We Fight at Work


By: Annie McKee

Courtesy of Harvard Business Review



Disagreements and debate at work are healthy. Fighting is not. That’s because fighting with one’s boss is just as confusing and destructive as fighting with a powerful family member. Fighting with a colleague feels like fighting with a friend or a sibling. Fighting with people who have more or less power than we do feels like bullying.

Naturally, we have to learn to deal with aggression at work. But first, we need to understand the real sources of conflict—not the textbook “struggle over resources” issues—but the underlying psychological reasons why people fight. Then, we can develop ways to engage in conflict that keep us sane, help others, and hopefully support the organization.

What does conflict at work look like?

Conflict at work comes in several forms. First, there are the people who pretend there’s no problem when there’s an obvious problem. They may say something like: “I don’t see an issue here.” When you try to explain, you’re hit with: “You’re being illogical.” When things escalate, this becomes the ultimate insult: “You’re too emotional.” (Women, beware.) Turning the conflict around so it’s about you is a tactic—a crazy-making tactic. No matter what you do, you’re seen as unreasonable or you’re labeled as the one picking a fight. In this scenario, they win and you lose.

Another common approach to conflict at work is outright aggression. People who habitually choose this approach are bullies. They are the hyper-competitive, anything-goes, take-no-prisoners, narcissists among us. These people prove their worth by dominating. They’re especially dangerous because they often have vicious followers who do their bidding. When these bullies get mad, watch out.

Then there’s my least favorite tactic of all—passive aggressiveness. Passive aggressive people seem to be supportive, logical, and even helpful—until you read between the lines. Their attacks don’t seem like attacks because they are so good at hiding their word-weapons. Sometimes, you don’t even know you’ve been hit until later. Fighting with these people is like shadow boxing.

Why do people fight at work?

Disagreements and even true conflict are inevitable at work, for some pretty good reasons: the constant flood of information means that we are always touching different parts of the elephant and constant change requires constant debate. In a perfect world, we follow the textbook advice, treat these sources of conflict logically, behave like adults, and get on with it.

The problem is, we’re not working in a perfect world, and none of us is perfect. We each bring our own baggage to work each day. And, some of our issues rear their heads again and again. At the top of my list of sources of work conflict are: personal insecurity, the desire for power and control, and habitual victimhood. Let’s take these each in turn.

Insecurity. We are all insecure about something. And when insecurity gets triggered, we can find ourselves behaving in ways that don’t make us proud. We try to hide our mistakes, avoid healthy debate, shy away from disagreements and even lash out unnecessarily, just to protect ourselves. Sometimes we even start fights just to distract people.

Nobody’s perfect. So why spend so much time and energy trying to prove that we are? Wouldn’t it be better to just work with our shortcomings, rather than create complicated work-arounds that confuse people and inevitably cause conflict?

Desire for power. Most people want to feel that they have some control over their lives and actions—at work as well as at home. We want to have impact. We want to help people achieve goals, and we want the recognition we deserve. This is natural and healthy: proactively looking for ways to influence and impact people for the sake of the group is the epitome of good leadership. Unfortunately, many people are at the mercy of this very human need. Instead of working withothers, the goal becomes to position ourselves above others. When it’s pathological, shared goals don’t really matter anymore, and shared credit isn’t an option. This stance, however well hidden, puts everyone on high alert and on the defensive. This is because we know that even normal disagreements about things like resources are actually primal struggles about who has power over whom.

Habitual victimhood. Insecurity can be a good thing—it can mean that we are in touch with our shortcomings and that we are ready to learn. And many people use their power well, for the good of the group. Habitual victimhood, however, has no redeeming value whatsoever. Still, it is all too common to find perpetrator-victim pairs in organizations. The script is so predictable: “He does thus-and-so all the time and I can’t do anything about it.” Really? You can’t do anything about being metaphorically kicked to the ground over and over again? Why do people put themselves in this position? It’s deep, for sure, and quite honestly if you find yourself the victim over and over, it wouldn’t hurt to talk with a good therapist. Or at least a good friend. You need to figure out how being a victim serves you. For example, giving up control means that we have a ready-made excuse and can’t be held accountable.

What can you do about conflict at work?

The first thing we can do is to admit that conflict at work is real and pervasive, and just as painful as fights and struggles in other areas of life. Let’s stop pretending that somehow it is more rational, more sterile than conflict elsewhere in our lives.

Second, we need to cultivate real empathy and compassion for others. What drives them? What are they insecure about? How would it feel to be them? This kind of reflection isn’t easy, and it is tempting to let your biases and stereotypes guide your conclusions.

Finally: Our feelings matter, and they need to be attended to first and always, not as an afterthought. So, dealing with conflict at work starts with self-awareness. What are you insecure about? Why? Is it rational, or are those old tapes from childhood still there, playing long after they stopped being true or useful? How do you feel about power—yours and others’? What happens when your freedom is threatened, or when someone tries to control you? And…do you make yourself a victim? Why? How does this serve you? Where else in your life do you do this? Is it really working?

This kind of self-awareness isn’t superficial—it’s deep. And it will help. Not just you, but your colleagues and your organization, too.

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Being the Right Choice in Executive Coaching

A year ago, I found myself on a short list of coaches who had been invited to have a chemistry meeting with an executive (let’s call her “Jane”) who was particular about whom she would work with.  The company Jane worked for had started grooming several individuals for very senior leadership positions by hiring a well-known coach to work with these executives, who were on the fast track for senior leadership positions. They ran into problems when Jane who, after having two coaching sessions, decided she wanted to have a different coach. The company suggested 3 other coaches to choose from—and I was on the list.

I met with the Jane for a 1-hour coaching session to see if there was chemistry to build a productive relationship. At the end of our meeting, I asked her to let me know as soon as possible if she wanted to work with me. She replied right away that she did not need time to think about it. Jane wanted to work with me—if I thought that I could work with her.

I was a little surprised at such a quick decision. I knew she was “choosy,” and I did not think so highly of myself to simply assume she would naturally love to work with me. So out of curiosity I asked her how she made the decision so quickly. Jane said it was clear to her that I would not tell her what to do.

In a culture and society that rewards specialization, it can be easy to get stuck in a rut of becoming an expert in a specific type of verbal and nonverbal behavior. In coaching the expert approach can potentially lead to the client not being listened to, feeling that their issue of concern is being ignored by the coach and consequently experience no shift or change in the status quo or issue that prompted the coachee to seek coaching.  The expert focuses more on what they think the client needs to do to resolve the issue. Coaching is relational and as such it is time consuming and cannot be hurried. A tendency and temptation is for a coach who overuses their expertise to tell a client what they need to do in an attempt to get them to move faster in resolving their situation. Therefore, the coach can get into a loop of seeing the same pattern in issues so that for each client, the same things are paid attention to and responded to. But, this choice limits awareness of many other behaviors that also carry meaning and potentially rewarding avenues of exploration in the coaching engagement are left unattended. So, awareness of the choices that are made in “noticing behavior”—that is, the behavior of noticing, rather than the noticing of behavior—are essential competencies for a coach to develop.

We all like to have choices. The ability to choose is a key component of what we may call the human experience. When there is no choice, there is no autonomy, no empowerment. And when these things are lacking, people perceive there is a fundamental loss of quality of life. But engaging in conscious, reflective choice comes at a pretty hefty cognitive cost, and it is unreasonable to believe that absolute freedom of choice for every potential action within the universe of possibilities in our daily existence would result in anything but a crippling paralysis. This is one reason why we build organization—routines, rituals, hierarchies, and traditions—into our lives. We all need a break from choosing. Instead of dedicating precious energy to decision making, we can use that energy for enjoyment. Sometimes we don’t want to choose…and that, itself, is a choice.

Each choice is accompanied by a universe of extinguished possibilities—of choices not made. Choosing something is essentially rejecting something else, and for some this may be accompanied by regret for the road not traveled, while for others it may become a sort of freedom because it simplifies the world and gives a sense of direction and focus.

So what does all this have to do with coaching? In the story I told at the beginning of this article, the well-known coach had met with Jane for two sessions and had decided very quickly what he thought she required. Then he proceeded to tell her what she needed to do. As I worked with the client, I later learned that the coach I replaced had actually suggested—rather than told—her what to do. However, what she heard at the time was that she was being ‘told’ what to do. The well-known coach may have had the right intervention, but he definitely had the wrong timing—and timing can be everything. He had not yet established enough trust, as far as this client was concerned, in the two sessions for his client to agree to his direction. It can be tempting to jump into the work a coach thinks is important, but if an adequate amount of trust has not been established, the attempt is likely to fail.

After 4 or 5 sessions I suggested some homework for her to do, waited, and watched for her response. Jane smiled, and I asked her what her smile was about. She said the other coach had suggested a similar homework, but she noticed that she felt more willing to cooperate with me than she was with him. She said she did not know him so how could he tell her what to do? She happily went on to do the homework I had given her and we discussed her experience of doing the work and what she learned from it.

A fundamental ethic of professional coaching is that the client chooses the focus of the work and the conversations that will take place. It is such an important ethic that it is part of the International Coach Federation’s definition of coaching.  This choice is made both verbally and nonverbally by a client, while the coach must be able to maintain flexibility to respond to client choices, to make observations and to offer insights and feedback. To engage with the client is to be “present and flexible during the coaching process, dancing in the moment.” The client may set the course, but the coach has equally important choices to make with regard to what to observe and what to share. When the flow is right between client and coach, the coach speaks and acts with a free and elegant savoir faire, being in the moment and fully present.

So what does the coach choose to focus on and give meaning to? This is not an easy or straightforward question to answer. What can be said is that it benefits the coach greatly to cultivate a healthy openness to experience. It also helps to realize that everything a client says and does—as well as does not say or not do—is rife with meaning as long as the coach has the awareness and ability to support the client to unlock that meaning, drawing on breadth of experience and engaging in conscious and mindful empathy and compassion.

The 20th century existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre believed that people were absolutely free, and because we are free, we are responsible for all our actions—all our choices. Freedom, in Sartre’s view, meant that each of us chooses the entire world within which we live, and that all we become and do stems from the choices we make. Sometimes we can benefit from guidance in making those critical choices—but they are still our choices. That is where coaching can help in making informed choices following an extensive, and deeper exploration of what is relevant and what is possible within the context of what is important to the client.

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You and Your Doctor Part 2: Solutions

By Mohan Peter

Mohan Peter MD is the Principal at SMS Leadership Coaching specializing in physician coaching and leadership development. He obtained his International Coach Federation Certificate (ICF) from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He is an Executive Partner and Leadership Coach at the Mason Business School at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA. Dr. Peter trained and worked as a cardiac surgeon in United States and abroad including the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, OH, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN and Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, NH. Email: mohanpeter44@yahoo.com.

If you talk with most health care providers today, the ACA (Affordable Care Act) is the all-consuming event in their lives. As we mentioned, this act affects almost everything in the health care arena and we can look at this at the Institutional level, affecting the health care business and at the Individual physician level.

Two eminent physician leaders in the country have chimed in as to how they see this playing out in the years ahead. Writing on LinkedIn, Dr. Toby Cosgrove, CEO of the Cleveland Clinic, and a former colleague, sees the future as follows: He sees a country in which, over the coming years, approximately thirty million people who are currently uninsured, will join the ranks of the insured and increase the demands on physicians and health care facilities to provide added services. At the same time, he anticipates diminishing physician reimbursement per patient as part of ACA. Simultaneously hospitals will not be reimbursed for preventable readmissions thereby putting additional strain on the system. Cosgrove sees hospital systems employing physicians as salaried employees with NO added incentive to physician reimbursement with regard to increased volume of procedures or for ordering increased number of lab tests to help control costs. He sees hospital consolidation as a means for efficiency in implementing electronic medical records, technology and super computers as part of the system.

Cosgrove has walked the walk even as he talks the talk. Under his leadership, the Cleveland Clinic System has evolved into a world class health care center and his views deserve careful consideration.

Dr. Eric Topol has also written extensively about the future of health care. In his book, “The Creative Destruction of Medicine” he sees the future somewhat differently. From his point of view, the future of medicine will be impacted primarily by technology. He sees algorithms replacing some of the work done by doctors today. He cites the example of EyeNETRA in which one’s refraction can be tested over the smart phone with an app that is down loaded and the cost of the whole process just a couple of dollars and a few minutes. Emailing the refraction to the optician can procure the requisite eye glasses, saving time and money. Similarly, smart phone pictures of skin lesions can help dermatologists to identify the lesion without an office visit. There currently are available subcutaneous implantable needle devices that can provide continuous reading of blood sugar, for diabetic patients over a smart phone app on real time basis just as there are similar devices that can provide the readings necessary to control blood thinners.  He sees all these technologies freeing up physicians from having to spend time on these “routine” calls from patients and be able to focus and spend time with patients on more meaningful visits.

Another area that Topol sees change occurring is in the area of individualized medicine, which is quite different from the social medicine that we practice today. With expanding knowledge and understanding of genetics, we are entering an era of individualizing medical treatments, so that they are most efficacious for the given individual. Many of the chemotherapeutic agents and antibiotics are beneficial to only select subsets and identifying those through genetic technology helps to individualize the administration of the drugs to those that benefit most from it. Some of this, and other decision-making can be done by super computers, probably just as or more efficiently than physicians. These machines can handle some of the processing that is done by physicians today. I mean, just look at IBM’s Watson for an example of what can be done!

All these lead Topol to think that a physician shortage is not a given – but moreover, the role of physicians may change from its current form to that of “humanistic compassion” and “communicative judgment”.

Predicting the future is fraught with danger, but I believe that the role of doctors in delivering health care is bound for change. At the individual physician level, some of the potential changes are outlined below.

Doctors now assume the responsibility for making the diagnosis and treating their patients.  When you think about it, this is an awesome burden—to be responsible for another human being. Multiply that by the number of patients that an individual physician cares for, and it is no wonder that they tend to develop sagging shoulders and drooping eyelids.  How can we change this?

What happens if some of these responsibilities are shared?

Many health care institutions are now developing the concept of shared caring, or teams. This helps to share responsibility and the interaction among health care professionals helps to create new ideas. The secret to success in these groups may very well be in the group assigning responsibility to individuals best suited to carry them out. A nurse practitioner, a pharmacist or a fellow physician can all share responsibility in the area where they are most competent. Thus, a pharmacist becomes a valuable resource for the team in finding the best suitable drug for the given patient and situation. This frees up the physician from addressing the issue him or herself, and the shared knowledge provides him or her with the best information, resulting in the patient receiving the best possible care.

Being at the top is lonely. By tradition, if nothing else, physicians have chosen or placed at the top of the health care provider pyramid. Sadly, at this level free and frank exchange of ideas and thoughts occur much too infrequently. True, physicians do call on colleagues for consultation, but this is mostly for expertise in areas such as cardiology, rheumatology, etc. Consultations with colleagues in the same field are, surprisingly, minimal. Very often “my patient” is my patient is the prevailing mode in care giving. Facilitating this free exchange of ideas between physicians in the same specialty is often stymied by pride, ignorance and cultural norms. Behavioral change in this existing culture is an area where change can be most effective in creating a partnership atmosphere for patient care.

Almost from the very beginning of their schooling, physicians are trained to be mistake free, because their mistakes can kill or maim. Such a culture results in the physicians over a period of time developing a defensive attitude against committing mistakes and in many cases refusing to own up to them when they do occur. And the overhanging threat of litigation only compounds this problem.  Changing practice in this regard can be beneficial both for the physicians and those they treat. Acknowledging and accepting mistakes helps minimize their occurrence in future.

What to do?

A recent Medscape Survey linked physician burnout to several factors and suggests some of the following as possible changes that would be helpful.

First, find time for yourself. This has to be a priority to be able to rejuvenate and re-energize oneself. Without that a general malaise sets in and life becomes a drag.  Adjusting your mind set to control feelings and thoughts can have powerful beneficial effect over the lives of individuals. Finding time to engage in activities other than those related to work is important for growth and even effective functioning. And as other demands occur such as parenting or caring for elderly parents, you cannot give the same undivided attention to medicine you did as a young physician. Accepting and acting on this reality is difficult for most physicians.

Most professionals realize, and accept, the need for coaches to enhance themselves. Executives, athletes, and performers all employ coaches to improve their craft. Medicine as a profession is lagging behind in this area. It may be partly because of a culture that is not used to asking for help and doing so is almost admitting loss of control. William Osler, father of medicine, lauded the value of detachment for physicians. He found this quality useful for physicians to get not too attached to the problems of the patients, so that it helps them maintain sufficient detachment for sound judgment. But as we see, the role of the physician is changing and it is moving away from just problem solving to being a partner with your patient in creating an environment where the two together create growth and wellbeing.   In other words, Emotional Intelligence becomes a significant part in the physician-patient relationship. For many doctors this is a paradigm shift. Learning to master these skills may very well determine the success or struggle within the profession. Reinventing modern physician to address the changing needs of today’s patient may very well be the most significant  thing happening in medicine today.

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