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Business, Focus Edition Are you moving towards your destiny or away from your past?

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By: Alex Couley •  4 years ago •  

Are you moving towards your destiny or away from your past?

In reading the last edition of Coaching Life, I was particularly struck by a comment in Stewart’s editorial piece. In talking about the challenge of upholding standards within our profession, he said the answer is to EDUCATE and I couldn’t agree more.

My professional life has been primarily centred around mental health services. A heavily regulated field. No matter if you are a psychologist, a psychiatrist, mental health nurse or social worker, you will be accredited against a set of national standards. You are required to reregister on a regular basis and as part of that process you are expected to demonstrate a level of ongoing learning. But even with this level of regulation in my decades in the field I have seen hundreds of poor practitioners. Staying up to date with your professions latest advancements is an active not passive process.

As coaches we are extremely privileged to be invited into the world of another person. Our impact can potentially be enormous. I don’t care if your speciality is business coaching, life coaching, sports coaching or any other niche area with this privilege comes responsibility. Part of that responsibility is to stay at the forefront of understanding what works and what doesn’t for your clients.

I believe that coaching is both an art and a science. The science gives us the answer to why we do what we do and the art is how we do that. With all of this in mind, I want to share with you some of the concepts that I believe are key for us to grasp and implement.

Focusing is indeed a crucial skill and all those who have been very successful will attest to its power. But just focussing is not the answer in itself. The scientific evidence strongly demonstrates that what we focus upon makes a major difference, it effects how we are able to move forward. To assist our clients in achieving optimal results we must understand the subtle but powerful differences in approaching this skill we call focussing.

The human motivational process is often assumed to consist of concepts such as internal versus external motivation. That is accurate but it is not the whole picture. Far more important is understanding that there are two clear and distinct mechanisms at work here.

Approach Focus vs Avoidance Focus

The Approach system assists us to focus upon a desired outcome. An easy way to grasp this is, what do you want to move towards. Do you want to be the most productive team in the organisation, do you want to be the CEO or do you want to work in the company’s head office in New York? When you focus upon an Approach goal you can stay connected to these goals for much longer than avoidance goals. This is the science behind concepts like, “it’s the journey and not the destination that matters”. Knowing that Approach orientated goals strongly connect with positive emotions is very important.

But so often we as humans focus in the opposite direction, what we want to move away from. This is the Avoidance system. I don’t want to get fired, I don’t want to work with Billy anymore, I don’t want to be late every day, etc. Whilst all of this is valid it is harder to stay connected to avoidance focussed goals. Avoidance orientated goals activate negative emotional responses. Negative emotional responses sit at the heart of what we call stress. If you are seeing the signs of stress in yourself, your client or your team, this is a sign that avoidance motivation is at work.

At this point I would like to introduce you to two of my ex clients. They were at opposite ends of a spectrum.

Rebecca established her business thirteen years ago. In the beginning she was very passionate, working very long days to get the business off the ground. But because of her passion this felt effortless. Now more than a decade later she was still working extremely long days but it was tough. It had become simply about keeping the business afloat. Rebecca’s passion was gone. When she asked to work with me, she said the goal of the coaching assignment was to assist her to rid herself of these long working days.

Robert was working for a large financial institution. He was well paid and very well respected in his field. When he asked me to coach him, he said that he had decided to set up his own business because he was bored with his current role. He couldn’t foresee a point where he could move internally within his organisation (i.e. promotion) and just wanted to get out of his current role. He had no idea what business he would set up but knew it would be an escape from the boredom. Having said all of that, he felt too tired to put in the necessary effort to make this transition.

As coaches we can assist our clients to define goals in an Approach oriented way rather than an Avoidance orientation. This applies to teams as well as individuals. Are you designing goals towards what you want more of or are they about what you want to move away from? This may seem like a simple word play but the research is clear, it will make a positive difference.

Most of the research into emotions in the last fifteen years has fallen under the umbrella of Positive Psychology. Positive Psychology has often been misrepresented and misinterpreted. The science of Optimal Functioning is a better description of the field. It is not about being bubbly and cheerful every moment of every day but simply about being the best you can be in the moment and understanding what impacts upon that. This again is as relevant to teams as it is to individuals.

Emotions are a major player in our ability to perform well. We know that memories of emotional experiences are regulated in part by the Amygdala, a small set of neurons located deep in the brain.

Brain imaging shows that the Amygdala responds very differently to the experience of positive and negative emotions. Negative emotions appear to interfere with our ability to solve problems in a constructive manner. Conversely when the Amygdala is exposed to positive emotions it assists us to be see challenges as opportunities rather than difficulties. In a positive emotional state, we become more creative.

This takes us back our earlier discussion about Approach versus Avoidance goal orientation. This additional piece of information builds upon the idea that you will stay more connected to Approach goals. Because they activate positive emotions, you are also more likely to find creative pathways to success. Conversely setting goals about moving away from what you don’t want will dampen creativity and innovation.

So back to Rebecca. I guided her to see that what she was describing was what she wanted less of and not what she wanted more of. Working long days had become her habitual way of being and wasn’t even the real challenge. The real challenge was to finds passion again. We addressed this by moving away from the discussion about the hours and spending time exploring the question “What do you want more of?” Rebecca became excited again when we hit upon the idea of opening a new subsidiary of her business. The hours no longer mattered because there was a reason to commit to them. Three years later she now has three successful businesses.

Robert also needed to explore his aspirations through a different lens. We spent time talking about how invigorated he was early in his finance career and what was it that made him that motivated. We moved on to look at what he would want back in his life from those days. What business types would provide this and what the ideal day would look like. After a few sessions, it became clear to Robert that if the business venture tapped into that well of motivation that he had earlier in life, the energy to get the business off the ground would be less of a challenge. We identified a business type that made it easy to create that discretionary effort. Four years down the line, Robert is enjoying life as an independent financial consultant and mentoring others to establish their own businesses.

The science also tells us that where you work, your physical location, is important too. The environment plays a role in your ability to focus. Even if you think that you are focusing upon the task at hand, sometimes your brain isn’t. Despite the popular myth that we don’t only use 10% of our brain’s capacity, it is constantly ticking away. There is no part of it that is idle. It is checking out the space in which you are operating. It is looking for danger, for new opportunities and even just for novelty.

So often the recommendation is, if you are looking to focus then find a space with limited distractions. This is very good advice but still not the whole picture. We also need to accept that our brains cannot focus 100% of the time. The latest research by a team led by Vadim Axelrod at the Gonda Multi-Disciplinary Research Centre, Bar-Ilan University, Israel is demonstrating that periods of daydreaming actually increases productivity, so it is ok to take a break from focussing, let your mind wander and then return to the task.

Renowned coach Marshall Goldsmith said “Simple isn’t always easy”. Staying focused upon an approach mechanism and not drifting to avoidance takes practice but it’s worth taking that science and making it part of your art.

As coaches we need to be seen to walk the walk and talk the talk. Are your goals Approach orientated?


Alex Couley

A leading expert in coaching, Alex is a Founding Fellow of the Institute of Coaching at Harvard University, an affiliate of the Institute’s Coaching leadership forum and he sits on the Harvard Business Review’s advisory panel on coaching. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Institute of Business Wellbeing, University of Wollongong.

Alex’s was a mental health clinician for 35 years and was one of the first none psychiatrists to complete the Australian Mental Health leadership Program, through Melbourne University. He has trained more than one thousand workers in the latest interventions in coaching methodologies, positive psychology and mental health across most states in Australia.

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