Behavioral Drivers and Imperatives May Inhibit Long-term Success in Coaching
A short description of the case at hand: the client reported that his employees have complained repeatedly about the fact that he was overly fussy and that they could never meet his expectations. After employees filed for relocation to other departments because they did no longer want to suffer his “exaggerated demands,” which came in tandem with working overtime, but little appreciation for their work, Human Resources recognized the urgent need for action and recommended he’d see a coach.
In the coaching process it soon became apparent that the client presented a textbook example of perfectionist behavior. To employ Transactional Analysis lingo: he featured an overwhelmingly strong “Be perfect!” driver, which was dominant not only for his own actions, but which he also expanded toward his employees. His single point of reference was absolute perfection, which is what he expected of anyone. Over time he had developed a keen eye for mistakes, which he rebuked mercilessly upon detecting them. He acted on the belief that only complete and unerring accuracy was worthy of praise.
Through further analysis it became clear that he had learned this behavior in childhood when he had only experienced appreciation when his performance was impeccable.
These high expectations toward himself and his employees were linked to the fear that mistakes could indeed happen, that his employees might overlook something, or that they might make wrong decisions. To prevent this he cut his employees’ range of decisions to a minimum while installing a regime of double and triple checks, which led to substantial additional workload for all concerned parties.
The result of his efforts was satisfying as his department was praised for its excellent work unanimously, but this came at an unacceptably high price: lack of work-life balance for him and discontent among his employees.
A traditional coaching approach would tackle the client’s behavior: a key point would be to make him understand that an important aspect of his job is talent development of his employees and that it is in turn important for him to learn how to show his appreciation. This is something that can be trained employing traditional coaching methods so that he will feel safe with it. The next step would be to work out strategies to delegate responsibility to his employees.
Another possibility would be to employ the means and methods of Transactional Analysis to work on his Driver, thereby enabling the client to critically scrutinize his “perfectionist delusion” and reduce his excessive demands toward himself and his employees.
If the client participates constructively these measures would certainly help him to present himself in a different way, which both his employees as well as Human Resources would gladly acknowledge.
The question is: would this coaching approach be really successful?!
When some time has passed after the coaching there is a distinct possibility that the client’s old patterns of behavior will gradually return. This has to do with his key imperative, “It is essential that no mistakes are made!”
As long as this imperative is not resolved, the client will again and again run into inner conflicts because while he may “hear” the newly trained voice stating, “It makes sense to let people make decisions of their own!,” or, “I do not have to be perfect all the time!”, at the same time the old voice demands, “There must not be mistakes at any cost!” This inner conflict creates stress, which is usually solved by recurring on the old patterns. While this may provide stress reduction in this specific situation, it will produce loads of brand-new stress in the long term.
This pattern cannot be sustainably influenced by conscious rational countermeasures due to the fact that the real problem is located on a deeper level of the brain’s physiological setup: through his childhood experiences the client’s limbic system has established an alarm protocol, which is triggered the very instant he thinks something might go wrong. This alarm evokes an inner conflict with his imperative – and ultimately this inner imperative always gets the upper hand over any conscious decision.
The way to put this conflict to rest is to resolve the imperative in question on an emotional level, thus disabling the alarm protocol for good. The goal should be that even the thought of possible mistakes will not trigger emotional reaction or internal states of anxiety so that the client is relieved from the inner compulsion to gain perfection in all matters.
In my opinion Introvision is the single most useful instrument at hand for coaches to reach this goal.