Transformational change – the holy grail of coaching

Published by matt on

17 May 2017

Change has been an enduring preoccupation of organisational development practitioners, certainly since I got involved in OD in the early 90’s. You might say that achieving successful intentional transformative change, whether at individual or collective levels, is the holy grail of our profession – desirable, mysterious, elusive, within our grasp and then lost again, with occasional standout successes. Pundits, gurus, consultants and coaches assure their audiences that if you follow their advice, method or formula you too can make the changes you want in your life, work or organisation (see these 1001 winning blog posts!). Personal experience and observational evidence mostly tells us it’s not quite so simple.

In this post, I will attempt to create clarity around this big topic of change and then share my updated model of mindset change (incorporating the somatic dimension – see my last post).

Unpacking change

First, in a Wilberian kind of way, let’s create some basic distinctions.  Change is a fat word that refers to a vast sea of different things and we tend to use it indiscriminately.  My primary distinction is between intentional and unintentional change, between change or transformation that we want to bring about, and change that happens to us, unexpectedly, often undesirably, sometimes called disruptive change.  Then, as already mentioned, there are individual and collective levels of change.

So, intentional individual change might be about developing some personal capacity or skill (e.g. I want to be better at working with conflict, or I want to develop my strategic thinking capacity) and intentional organisational change is often about shifting culture or mindsets (e.g. from a competitive to a collaborative mindset). Disruptive individual change is often caused by an unwelcomed event (e.g. losing my job, the breakdown of a relationship, a bereavement or illness), or by an unfolding inner crisis of meaning or duality. Disruptive change at the organisational level is often about a forced reaction to adverse performance or changing market conditions, or perhaps a change of ownership or a new strategy.

Then there might be different degrees, magnitudes and time scales for change and transformation.  Looking back at my life I can see a whole series of changes or developments which I didn’t see at the time (e.g. how I have become less analytical and controlling and more intuitive and emergent).

Immunity to change

There are change models that help us deal with unintentional change (e.g. Kubler-Ross or Satir’s model of change) and change models that are about making change happen (e.g. Kotter’s 8 steps or countless NLP tools).  One of the most popular new approaches to facilitating change is found in Robert Kegan and Lis Lahey’s Immunity to Change, first published in 2009. The essence of their model is that competing commitments, held in place by unquestioned assumptions or mindsets that lurk in our unconscious, may derail or block our conscious attempts to change our behaviour or transform ourselves.  They develop their model using examples of individual and organisational change, weaving together the challenge of supporting transformation through the stages of their developmental model of evolving cognitive complexity.

The book is full of insights and I like the neatness of describing developmental progress in terms of ‘making our subjective developmental stage an object of awareness, which allows us to work with it (Harryman)’. However, I found it difficult to read and for anyone having similar difficulty, I recommend the following blog piece by William Harryman, which summarises Kegan and Lahey’s works to date and offers a simple step by step version of their change model for coaches. Briefly these steps are (Harryman provides a worked example):

Step 1: Write your commitment (or goal)

Step 2: List everything you are doing or not doing that works against your commitment

Step 3: Write down what you think your competing commitment to your stated commitment might be

Step 4: Write the underlying assumption you are making about why the competing commitment is important

Step 5: Determine how best to move forwards, taking steps towards change in your life

I resonate with Harryman’s view that ‘the idea of hidden assumptions and competing commitments really is nothing new for some of us – those who have been doing parts (subpersonalities) work for more than just a little while.’

Kegan and Lahey make an important link between change, development and organisational culture: “To foster real change and development, both the leader and the organisational culture must take a developmental stance, they must send the message that they expect adults can grow”. They also refer to the age old philosophical battle concerning personal change: “are we better off trying to reflect our way toward transformation, expecting eventual changes in behaviour as the outcome of our hardworking contemplation? Or would we be better off taking up new behaviours as best we can and trusting that our minds will catch up with the realities of our new experience?” (page 319).  Thus, they contrast the insight or depth approach to psychology with the behavioural modification approach and point the way to transcending this dichotomy through praxis – “practice specifically designed to explore the possibility of altering our personal and organisational theories” (or big assumptions). This makes sense and follows the tradition of reflective practice as espoused by Chris Argyris and Donald Schon amongst others, although I am left pondering the cognitive-behavioural bias that runs through Kegan and Lahey’s work and the need to embrace systemic and somatic perspectives when approaching the challenge of change.

I am not going to unpack Kegan and Lahey’s model any more here – if you are interested in learning more about this popular approach, Jonathan Males is running a session at the 2017 APECS Symposium in June, where he will demonstrate how it works and discuss how to work with it within coaching.

Mindsets change

I work with a model of mindset change, adapted from one I first learnt about on the MA in Psychosynthesis Psychology and later used as a coach working with Roger Evans in Creative Leadership Consultants (and the basics of which can be found in Roger’s book, The Creative Manager, 1989).  There are similarities with the competing commitments model, in that our focus is to identity and become more conscious of limiting mindsets before seeking to reframe or transform them and change associated behaviour.  Crucially, I now incorporate systemic and somatic perspectives as part of exploring and releasing the mindset, which I believe increases our chances of success.

The language of Mindsets is becoming increasingly accepted within the organisational world, at both individual and collective levels.  It is important to realise that we always have mindsets (beliefs, thought patterns, unconscious assumptions, etc.) and that it is our awareness and relationship with them that we work on, with a view to giving ourselves more choice.  The same mindset can be both empowering and limiting, healthy and dysfunctional in different contexts or periods of our lives.  As we grow and develop, the mindsets that helped us survive or succeed in the past may no longer serve us, (e.g. ‘don’t rely upon others, I can do this on my own!’).  The same is true for collective mindsets, (e.g. ‘we are the best in the business!’ may serve the sales team at one point in time, but can become limiting when the organisation needs to open up to collaborative innovation partnerships. Having said that, some mindsets may point towards deeper psychological issues in our individual or collective psyches, and this is a theme which I will explore more fully in a follow up post.

For now, here is the approach referred to above, involving three parts and ten steps:

Part One: identifying the mindset

  1. What is the goal, purpose or issue you want to work on? What are you experiencing in relationship to this?  Specific blocks, barriers, failures? What are your observations?  What are your feelings, thoughts and wants?  Is this an issue that warrants deeper work to bring about change or transformation?
  2. Explore limiting mindsets which you associate with this goal/commitment/issue. These might be thought patterns or voices in your mind. Which of these feels the most significant?  Which do you want to work with? Write down the mindset, being as specific as possible and using language which is familiar to you.
  3. How does this mindset affect your behaviour and feelings? What behaviours do you associate with this mindset?  What feelings do you associate with it?

Part Two: unpacking the mindset

  1. How strong is this mind set? In other words, how much does it control you, how automatic is it? How much choice do you have around it? (10 = completely automatic with no choice).
  2. How long have you had this mind set? When and how did it first get started?  Is there a time before that you can remember?
  3. How does the mind set serve you? What do you get from it? What quality of value does it represent for you?
  4. How does the mind set limit you? What does the mind set stop you from seeing or doing about yourself or about others?

Part Three: reframing the mindset

  1. How or where might this mindset be held in your body? Can you put your hand there? Is there a shape or pattern to this mindset? Breathe into that place… and release.
  2. In what ways is this mindset held in place, supported or perpetuated by the wider system of which you are part (e.g. family, organisation, society). Which part of you is identified with this mindset? Which part(s) of you are not identified with the mindset and have choice in relationship to it?
  3. As you step back from the mindset, what new space opens up within you? What new prospects does this open up for you? What freedom or choice do you have in terms of your behaviour? In what other ways might you meet the needs or commitment this mindset represented for you?  Which empowering mindsets or affirmations could you draw upon in place of this mindset?

I am not going to promise that this is a failsafe formula to achieving desirable change – real work has to be done by both coach and client for this to make a difference. Working at depth as well as on the surface; work at mental, emotional, behavioural and somatic levels.  Work involving the unfolding of self, as well as activating or releasing the will.

The relationship between our mindsets, feelings (or emotional charge) and our behaviours that are associated with them, are depicted in the graphic above – which also shows how these are held in place through form – with individual mindsets this means the body and related somatic patterns, and with collective or organisational mindsets this can be many different things, e.g. the formal and informal shapes and patterns of the organisational system and its culture.

A word of warning about this kind of work: mindsets are slippery, and finding the mindset that needs working on in relation to a purpose, goal or issue is a serious challenge in itself. The coach’s task is to help the client self-reflect and increase their self-awareness in ways that they would not otherwise. Finding an important mindset to work with may take time, more than one session.  It may help to suggest that the client keeps a journal and records thought patterns between sessions, as close in real time as possible to significant events or behaviours they want to change.  You are trying to help the client catch their inner negative or critical voices and externalise them by putting them into words. I also capture what seem to be significant phrases my clients say during sessions, and occasionally feed them back.  By the way, I am amazed at how often these turn out to be the words used by a critical parent or authority figure.

Questioning convention

I can’t leave this topic without questioning two conventional orthodoxies concerning change.  Firstly, that change should be the primary focus of OD or coaching.  Mostly development is a better context.  Change is better seen more as a consequence or effect than a desired outcome in itself.  As a coach, I am more interested in development (e.g. of self and will) than change per se or even the goals and objectives that are driving it.  The deeper we engage with will and purpose, the more likely that superficial change objectives will fall away, dissolve, morph or shift in importance.

Secondly, the assumption that resistance to organisational change is necessarily a bad thing.  There is usually a good reason that individuals or parts of an organisation resist or oppose a planned or intended change. I am always suspicious when there is too much demonising of resistance, without any sense that the nature of what is being protected (the competing commitment) has been understood and without evidence that the resistance has been engaged with.  More often, resistance is an indication that an organisation and its leaders are those that really need to face up to change and transformation (see previous posts on Laloux), in order to create an organisation with purpose and a culture that is worthy of people’s trust and commitment.

Thanks for reading



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