Leading an organization is challenging even in the best of times; leading through times of ambiguity and change is herculean. With the economic turbulence, uncertainty, and globalization we’ve been experiencing over the past decade, it should come as no surprise that the rate of organizational change has also been on the rise (Sablonniére, Tougas, Sablonniére, & Debrosse, 2012). Organizational change places strong demands on executive leaders to rise up and steer their ship – it also leads to increased stress and burnout. During such times, successful leaders need more than just strategic thinking and problem-solving skills. To be a calm presence in an otherwise chaotic environment, leaders also need to be keenly aware of their thoughts, feelings, and actions. Personal insight is a crucial yet underappreciated skill in leading through change, which is why we thought it would be useful to describe what it is, why it’s important, and how leaders can develop it.
While strategic thinking is a core competency for any senior leader, to apply it effectively they also need the ability to step back and differentiate themselves and their emotions from their hectic environment. This way they can apply the objective and flexible thinking that helps them react constructively to new challenges as they arise (Day, de Haan, Sills, Bertie, & Blass, 2008). To maintain this healthy balance leaders must constantly regulate their thoughts, feelings, and actions. In order to do that they must first be aware of how they respond to the storm of events surrounding them. This is where insight comes in.
Personal insight means being aware of how you think, feel, and act in response to your environment. This can include identifying the types of situations that trigger strong emotional reactions. For example, implementing a process that you had a bad experience with in a previous organization may trigger a strong negative reaction even if it’s the right solution for this environment. This also includes recognizing your own biases when considering people’s abilities or ideas. For example, you might assume that an employee will be good at X because you’ve seen them succeed at Y or Z. Or you might focus on information that supports your own solution even if it’s incorrect. The point is: everyone has emotional triggers and experiences cognitive biases like ones above, but personal insight helps us recognize them and make better, more informed decisions (which is particularly important for leaders!).
Why Coaching Matters
Developing insight requires help. That is why executive coaching is a powerful tool for leaders in companies that are experiencing large-scale change. Executive coaching provides leaders with the space to step back and reflect on the chaos around them in a constructive way. In a recent study on executive coaching in the midst of change, Anthony Grant (2013) found that executives who received coaching showed increased solution-focused thinking, goal attainment, leadership confidence, resilience, and decreased depression. His study also found that these effects carried over into the leaders’ family lives with improved work-life balance and better relationships with family members during the org change. Most of these effects can be attributed to the personal insight and differentiation that is fostered through the coaching process.
The bottom line: Who’s going to help you build insight and keep a balanced perspective?
Day, A., de Haan, E., Sills, C., Bertie, C., & Blass, E. (2008). Coaches’ experience of critical moments in the coaching. International Coaching Psychology Review, 3, 207–218.
Grant, A. M. (2013). The efficacy of executive coaching in times or organizational change. Journal of Change Management, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14697017.2013.805159.
Sablonniére, R., Tougas, F., Sablonniére, E., & Debrosse, R. (2012). Profound organizational change, psychological distress and burnout symptoms: The mediator role of collective relative deprivation. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 15, 10–20.