Category Archives: Featured

How Brain Science can Change Coaching

Author: Ray Williams, Psychology Today

Coaching is the second-fastest growing profession in the world, rivaled only by information technology, as I reported in a National Post article. The profession owes its success both to the personal development movement and the huge global economic restructuring since the 1980s. Competition within and among companies, flattened management structures, shrinking talent pools and ineffective leadership have all contributed to the demand for executive coaching.

Executive coaching is an outgrowth of leadership development programs. An article in The Economist concluded executive coaching had become a significant human resource strategy. Recently, the Harvard Business Review noted executive and business coaching is worth US$1-billion a year.

Coaching pre-dates Anthony Robbins, Stephen Covey, Tom Peters and Ken Blanchard. It is rooted in a range of philosophies and practices that can be traced back to Aristotle, Buddhist thought, Gestalt theory and various management and business gurus. It reappeared in the late l950s, but did not receive much attention until the early 1990s. Although coaching gained widespread acceptance by organizations in the 1990s, it has only flourished in recent years.

When executives and professionals, with predominantly analytical training, look at coaching from an investment perspective, they often want theory-based, evidential criteria. Behavior-based coaching, as practiced and advocated by programs such as Dr. Skiffington’s 1to1 Coaching, have focused on behavior change as the basis for effective coaching.

Brain science research in the past decade has significant implications for coaching practices. David Rock, author of Quiet Leadership, and Jeffrey Schwartz, author of The Mind and the Brain, addressed the issue of brain research and coaching in an article in The Journal of Coaching in Organizations. They argue that a brain-based approach to coaching may provide more legitimacy to the coaching profession, which would require coaches to have deeper understanding of brain functions and behavior.

The focus of coaching is often individual change and transformation, including dealing with fear, motivation, successful performance, relationships and a myriad other behavioral and attitudinal issues. Brain science research in recent years has provided key findings that should inform coaches regarding the focus of coaching and their methodologies. So too, are the implications for coaches in organizations, such as executive coaches, who work with leaders.

Rock and Schwartz argue that getting people to change is important, because life–both individual and organizational life–is rapidly changing in our world. The traditional view of change management has focused on two levels. The first, at the individual level has traditional focused changing people by providing critical feedback and judgment, or through the work of professional help, on analyzing peoples’ problems. The second, at the organizational level, has focused on introducing leader-led organizational change initiatives, which assumes by their nature, are expected to create employee buy-in’ or alternatively, focuses on increasing employee motivation and productivity through the traditional “carrot-and-stick” approach, with particular emphasis on financial rewards. The evidence is clear that those approaches have failed to produce meaningful and productive changes.

Brain science research, Rock and Schwartz argue, tells us a lot about why change is difficult and what approaches can work best.

Schwartz argues that our brains are built to detect changes in our environment and are more sensitive to negative change. Any change that constitutes a threat can trigger fear causing the brain’s amygdala to stimulate a defensive emotional or impulsive response. Altering our reactions to change is very difficult for the brain, even though logically we may want to. Rock cites a study of 800 HR professionals in which 44% of them preferred to not follow new directions from the boss and 15% were actively obstructionist. The lesson for coaches and leaders here is the harder you push people to change, the harder they will push back. That’s the way our brains work.

So, how can coaching work effectively with the brain? First, brain research reveals that focusing on problems or negative behavior just reinforces those problems and behaviors. Therefore, the best coaching strategies focus on the present and future solutions. This requires the development of new neural pathways in the brain and new thinking patterns.

Schwartz has identified five main areas of brain research than can inform coaches:

Because the brain operates in a quantum environment, our perceptions and self-talk alters the connections and pathways in our brains. Whatever we focus our “attention” on changes or creates new brain connections;

The connections in our brains form mental “maps” or reality. Whatever we expect to experience, is what we actually experience.

Focusing our attention on solutions or new thinking is a better strategy than focusing on analyzing existing problems because the latter will only reinforce the problems;

If leaders want to more effective coaches themselves, they need to learn to stop giving advice to people, or if it is given, to be unattached to their ideas and present them as options to people. The implications for coaches is obvious, and most coaches are adept at having the clients take responsibility for their own journey or choices;

Coaches need to be adept at reading peoples’ body language, particularly when they have “insights” about their behavior. These insights are visually accompanied by changes in facial expressions. Schwartz has developed a four-part model of facial expressions that indicate emotional states from awareness to illumination. Leaders too need to be sensitive to facial changes as an indication of employees’ mental state.

Coaching has evolved into a much more sophisticated profession based on knowledge from any other disciplines. Now brain science research has the potential for having the greatest impact on coaching individuals and leaders in organizations.



Williams, Ray B.. “How brain science can change coaching | Psychology Today.” Psychology Today: Health, Help, Happiness + Find a Therapist. N.p., 17 Feb. 2010. Web. 1 Mar. 2010. <>

Bullying in the Workplace

conflict-managementBullies aren’t just found on the playground. As a society, we would like to think that when bullies grow up they have learned right from wrong, changed their behavior, and treat others with dignity and respect. Many do; however, some bullies never revert from their mean, aggressive behavior. As our society evolves, with its reliance on technology, many bullies are finding different means and different environments to continue their tyrant-like behavior.

Company of Experts was recently the target of a bully. The Company had an agreement with an independent contractor whose job would require minimal supervision/input from a few individuals via a weekly teleconference. Over the course of time, numerous issues began to surface. First, work submitted by this contractor was not completed, and in some cases, was never attempted. The blame was pushed upon the individuals this person worked with for reasons such as: “it was too much work,” “it wasn’t worth my time,” “no one asked me my opinion,” etc. Needless to say, not a lot of work was accomplished by this contractor. Individuals within the Company picked up the slack and worked long hours in order to meet project deadlines.

Second, the cost to finish this contractor’s projects continually increased. Not only was the Company paying the contractor’s salary, they were also paying the salary of the individuals that were taking on the contractor’s responsibilities. The contractor was originally hired because this individual possessed technical skill sets needed for specific projects. However, because the contractor was not doing their job, the Company was compelled to hire additional staff, who also possessed these skill sets, to complete projects that were neglected by the contractor.

Third, employees who worked with this contractor, and met via weekly teleconferences, were suffering from anxiety attacks prior to each meeting. When questioned as to what provoked these attacks, many answered that after each meeting they were assigned an extensive list of items/jobs by the contractor to complete before their next weekly meeting. They added that their “to do list” consisted of tasks that were part of the contractor’s responsibility; however, if they did not take it upon themselves to pick up the slack, the jobs would never get done. In addition, employees noted that if items on their list were not completed by the following teleconference meeting, the contractor would complain that the employees were not doing their job. As a result the contractor would say something to the effect of, “Well I can’t do my job if you don’t do yours.” Many employees would ignore other items/projects they were working on in order to complete the tasks that the contractor wanted done. The tension in the office was thick with worry that they would not finish their “to do list”.

Company of Experts determined it was in the best interest of the Company and its employees if they released the contractor. During this transition, the contractor was harassing employees via phone and email, inquiring the reasons for the contract termination. The Company notified the contractor to not contact their employees in any way, email or phone. The contractor retaliated and continued to harass employees and threatened harm to the Company and to the employees personally. When the Company released the contractor from service, they changed the usernames and passwords to the Company’s websites, newsletters, etc in fear that the contractor may try to “destroy” materials. Unfortunately, the Company forgot to remove the contractor from having access to the Company’s corporate blog and calendar. As a result, the contractor changed the username and password to these items, which prohibited Company access to these items, inevitably rendering them useless.

The cost in lost time due to stress, restoring damaged materials, documenting, researching our rights, defending the employees and the Company are great. Additional costs that can be incurred by companies that suffer at the hands of bullies are: increased cost of health insurance for employees, lost days at work, increased legal bills, talent turnover, etc. We think we are being polite by calling these individuals rude or difficult people, but these individuals are “Bullies”. Bullies (like the contractor in our story) create unhappy, unsafe, and unproductive work environments.

You may see several workshops titled “Dealing with Difficult People”. Company of Experts has refrained from developing any workshop with such a title. Is it rude, difficult, bullying, or harassing? Our online workshop “Managing Professional Relationships at Work” is a beginning to understand how others behave at work. The Company of Experts will address bullying at work in this workshop which is to begin in early September. Information regarding registration times, dates, curricula, etc. can be found by clicking here.

The Company wanted to become more aware of how to spot inappropriate, abusive behavior so as to protect itself and its employees. The Company began researching and uncovered several informative websites. One website,, had a startling statistic that read:

“A staggering 37% of the U.S. workforce is bullied at work (an estimated 54 million Americans).” This website lists the traits of individuals who are targeted by bullies:

  • Individuals targeted by bullies tend to be independent. The increased level of independence drives the bully’s need to control.
  • Individuals targeted have more social skills and are more likely to possess a high level of emotional intelligence (i.e. empathy – even for their bullies).
  • Targeted individuals also do not respond to aggression with aggression.

What Company of Expert has learned from this experience…

The conflict seems to be with the perception that people grow and develop as they age. We anticipate those who were Bullies in school will transition to adulthood recognizing that civility and courtesy are key factors to development and growth.  In reality, they may have actually become more of a Bully, therefore, becoming someone who stalks, harasses, and commit crimes that they can be punished for.  Still, other Bullies stay within the law. These type of bullies enjoy the attention they receive from their erratic actions.

The general response from legal consul is mediation. Unless, the person is violating the law, we look at both people as needing to be “fixed”.  This puts the Bully and the Target on an equal playing field, which sounds like a good way to handle this. In fact, most employers and employees are not trained to handle this complex issue. Our research has found that some websites and books recommend that you combat the Bullies on their level. Like you do for a wild animal, you get “bigger” than they are; which is an interesting concept. However, the problem with this approach is that this is not team-friendly.  Just because an employer removes a bully from the work environment does not mean that the bully won’t resurface in some way. As in our case, the bully retaliated and has continued to make efforts to harm and destroy the Company. Most HR departments and managers work to keep business flowing and maybe not be trained or have time to handle conflicts such as this. This leaves them feeling overworked and inefficient.

Resolving disagreements is difficult today for two reasons:

  1. We are emotionally stressed because of the weak economy, world ecology and the potential of terrorists’ threats.  This keeps people in reactive thinking which tends to close them off to creative resolution or to make them back away from engagement.
  2. We simply do not have the tools to civilly and cooperatively achieve sustainable resolutions to the problems which arise in organizations.

Will we ever change the inappropriate behavior of bullies?  Maybe not.  Bullies usually do not listen, are aggressive, and do not understand appropriate social behavior.  The decision is up to us.  We either accept a bully’s inappropriate behavior or become proactive in taking the necessary steps to discontinue a business relationship. Extreme cases may require having to refer the matter to legal counsel.

Working for a living is a basic for most of us. We can learn job skills and earn degrees to get the job that we want. Keeping that job and finding happiness there requires that we each have the interpersonal (or intra personal?) behaviors that are complimentary to how we want to be treated, to our team, and to the Company we work for. This fits into the lifelong learning category. We can do this learning in many ways such as reading, mentoring, coaching, modeling (how we teach others and how they teach us – our actions and interactions!) and workshops. Company of Experts has developed terrific programs that can help you develop your leadership style. In this new society, we each are leaders of our future – the path we choose is up to us. For workshops and programs that we offer – Leadership Development Institute (LDI) and the Center for Appreciative Inquiry. The Department Chair Institute is specifically tailored for our educational partners.