A Paradoxical Mindset Framework for Coaching Leaders
By Sunitha Narayanan
Amidst the global health crisis, leaders are being required to respond to ever-changing conditions, often with a sense of urgency, while facing their own exhaustion and lack of joy, and while needing to support overextended teams. This context is not conducive to an organizational culture or leadership style that encourages creativity and celebrates cognitive diversity to solve complex problems. Leaders may succumb to an either/or mindset and miss the nuances of business situations, perhaps even doubting their own abilities.
Career practitioners focused on leadership and executive coaching can help clients consider paradoxical perspectives inherently present in a choice and, in doing so, encourage the practice of balanced versatility, thereby increasing the intended impact. The three elements of this paradoxical coaching framework are: helping clients restore confident “heart listening”; increasing awareness of how overusing strengths can derail success; and encouraging love as a foundational business practice.
Build Back Confident Heart Listening
Soman, a team leader overseeing return-to-the-office plans, expressed his unease by saying that he was out of practice being around people daily. This unease brought out contradictory feelings, as he explained to his coach, “I really like people yet don’t want to be around my colleagues daily.” This was surprising for Soman who is recognized for his social skills. Underlying anxiety was derailing Soman’s goal for returning to the office.
With his coach’s help, Soman began connecting back to his heart, using an exercise to expand his emotional vocabulary, observe paradoxical emotions, and notice triggers that were resulting in unproductive behaviors. Soman and his coach identified the following pairs of emotions he was experiencing:
- Annoyed and Delighted
- Overwhelmed and Calm
- Inept and Planful
Sonam tracked these pairs of opposites daily, and soon a pattern emerged that helped him align self-awareness to his leadership behaviors, enabling him and his team to shift towards growth and momentum. As Soman gave restlessness and ease equal attention in his heart first, he also encouraged his team to engage with contradictory emotions and recalibrate trust in each other.
Building on the identification of paradoxical emotions, coaches can craft with clients a set of prompts to help them engage with those emotions with kindness and confidence:
- I am feeling …. (emotions)
- In the grip of this… (feeling)
- I say…
- I act…
- I receive…
- The story I run with…
- Next time, I can choose to…
Recognize the Blind Spot in a Signature Strength
Most leaders prefer to lead and create results from their signature strengths (Kaplan & Kaiser, 2009). In coaching engagements, feedback from 360-degree surveys around areas for development gets discussed and then, sometimes, dismissed. One way to fully use feedback given to leaders is to frame the coaching conversation around the blind spot hidden in a signature strength.
Lorna prides herself on her logic and uses forthright diplomacy to drive business results with discipline. In her 360, being logical and a straightforward communicator are strengths that respondents appreciated in her leadership style. Imagine her shock when her policy decisions about returning to the office resulted in swift push back from her team. She felt anger when told by her senior leaders, “you are being seen as egocentric and uncaring,” the opposite of the psychologically safe culture she is known to create for her team.
For Lorna to recognize how logic, a strength that usually builds success for her, had fallen short was not intuitively easy. In fact, she dismissed the objections she was hearing using logic. With her coach’s help, Lorna completed this strengths-blind spot exercise with three of her trusted senior leaders:
- Write down three strengths that are helping with the move-in office proposal.
- Have each of the three senior leaders give a suggestion for how overuse of the strengths is causing difficulty for the team.
- Bring this feedback into the coaching session to brainstorm ideas for follow-through.
Career practitioners will do well to remember the Law of Requisite Variety (Shah, n.d.) a pre-supposition of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) and a key belief that can enable us to achieve more and add more joy in our life. Essentially, the more flexible we are, the more likely we can influence outcomes. The sophistication of integrating two seemingly opposite behaviors can expand a leader’s repertoire to build influence. While Lorna’s intention was generous, her overuse of logic had fallen short and derailed the success of her well-conceived plan. The strengths-blind spot exercise helped her see this. Lorna is learning to see logic and empathy as complementary and interdependent traits by:
- admitting that her preference for logic is getting in the team’s way and giving permission to her team to call her out when it is unproductive
- asking two open-ended curiosity questions before stating an opinion
- over-communicating that she is committed to listening to all concerns and can’t promise all ideas will be used right away
Use Love as a Foundational Business Practice
Practicing love helps us recognize that we can disagree without rejecting a neighbor’s humanity. In a team workshop on rebuilding trust, participants were struggling with setting aside grudges. The coach introduced three exercises to help shift energy with this group:
First exercise: A playful, pair-and-share activity to list as many “If only” statements in the allotted three minutes and then come up with as many “What ifs” in the next three minutes. Using play helps answer, “What part of my thinking might I challenge for three minutes?”
Second Exercise: “When I choose to offer love, I behave with…” or "When I choose to offer hate, I behave..." Listening to and sharing responses to the “When I choose to offer hate” prompt allowed each participant to give voice to real and imagined hurts and recognize the common ground across team responses. That knowledge opened the team to consider behaviors that align with love, the opposite of hate.
Third Exercise: In groups of two, people doodled the problem and the solution. Each doodle was distinctive. There was an ease in the conversation because play entered the conversation. The team began problem solving with renewed trust.
Love, when used with integrity, can help set boundaries and give permission. For this team, love gave permission to hold on to grudges and yet set them aside for a bit.
Why Embrace a Paradoxical Leadership Style?
Today’s leadership imperative is to help break the cycle of exhaustion and lack of belief in each other’s capacity to build a future together. As a coach, I invite you to accept this challenge today. I look forward to learning from your perspective on why embracing the paradox in life and leadership might be our way forward.
Kaplan, R., & Kaiser, R. (2009, February). Stop overdoing your strengths. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2009/02/stop-overdoing-your-strengths
Shah, N. (n.d.). Truth behind the law of requisite variety: Are you really doing all that you can? ICHARS: Creating Change Unconsciously. https://inlpcenter.org/what-is-neuro-linguistic-programming-nlp/
Sunitha Narayanan is a Certified Executive and Leadership Coach. She helps clients build an authentic life by helping them notice how they get in their own way, how they get in other people’s way, and how they can honor and ask for what they need to do the work that matters deeply to them. Sunitha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.linkedin.com/in/sunitha4