A Coaching Power Tool By Carol Surban, Leadership Coach, PHILIPPINES
Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.― Brené Brown (Brown, 2012)
I started coaching Mary as part of a leadership training program and in our first session, she shared with me that she had gotten the latest round of quarterly employee feedback scores and had been rated at the bottom of all the managers in her company. She was working hard to succeed as a leader, but couldn’t seem to find her way in this new role. She was leading a team of eight and was struggling to create team cohesion and to help them move to greater levels of performance. She had a strong desire to be an effective leader but found herself stuck. She was unable to really connect with her team members in meaningful ways.
Her weekly one-on-ones were focused on job-related issues and rarely had time and space for connection to her team members as people. She was convinced that if they could just do the work better, everything would be better. Her interactions were almost exclusively focused on the work product and getting that right or improving it.
Mary cared a great deal about her team and about being a good leader for them, but she was not able to really communicate that care or make her team feel cared for because she was not connecting with them in meaningful ways. Mary was stuck in a place of correction with her team members but needed and wanted to move into a place of connection.
As people and especially as leaders in organizations, we want to help. We want things to get better, to improve. We want things to be right and to turn out well. When we have more experience or training in an area of work or life, it just seems natural and right to offer our help by way of advice or taking charge and just doing it ourselves. But what can seem like a helpful and effective way to move things forward can often work to weaken emotional connections and trust in relationships and lead to decreased psychological safety and increased disconnection. Leaders are left thinking, “If we could just get this correct…” when what they need is a shift in perspective to “Let me first focus on how to connect.”
Correction vs. Connection Explanation
What does Correction mean in this context? It means focusing primarily on the work (the process, the timing, the details, and particulars) and getting that right at the expense of the human beings doing that work. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines correction as “something substituted in place of what is wrong.” (Merriam-Webster, 2021). In the case of people working together, the “what is wrong” in that definition is actually a “who is wrong.” It’s a person. Correction in the context of relationships (boss to a direct report, peer to peer, etc.) can have the effect of making a person feel wrong. The correction has a clear black and white, either/or approach to the situation and the person. It can shut down creativity, confidence, and curiosity in people.
Connection on the other hand has a way of opening ourselves and others to new and greater places of creativity, confidence, and curiosity. It can embolden us to do more. Noted author and researcher Brené Brown defines Connection as “The energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” (Brown, 2019).
Connection is about creating warmth, resonance, and understanding with others in whatever capacity makes sense for a particular relationship. It is rooted in emotional and empathetic capacities. It creates safety and allows for vulnerability in both personal and professional settings. Without some degree of connection, feedback, no matter how well-intended, may not be received or even heard and ideas shared can feel like one more directive a person is expected to follow.
Prioritizing connection allows for truer, deeper, and more meaningful conversations to take place. It opens up the capacity of both parties to deeply listen and to respond instead of shut down or react to what is being shared. When Connection is prioritized in a professional context, feedback, especially challenging or difficult feedback, can be truly heard and taken in by another person. This is possible because, at its core, connection builds trust with each interaction. Conversely, correction almost always has the effect of chipping away at trust with each interaction. When Connection is a priority, it is a way of building a trusting relationship so that there is the capacity to not only give honest feedback but the capacity to receive it as well.
There is, of course, a time for correcting things and letting a person know when they are wrong or might be headed in the wrong direction, but often Connection needs to take precedence over Correction to build enough trust with a person so they can actually be in a place to hear what is being said.
One of the ways to apply Correction vs. Connection (Guay, 2019) in the coaching space is to notice what is preventing a client from connecting more deeply and authentically with others. Said another way, what is getting in the way of shifting one’s perspective from Correction to Connection? There can be many obstacles, but the three primary obstacles are values, identity, and judgment.
A person’s values are the first primary obstacle. In one context or situation, those values are well-suited, but in others, they can get in the way of making progress. For example, a person that places a high value on efficiency may find it hard to justify the time it takes to connect with others first. Getting straight to business or straight to problem-solving aligns with their values of being efficient. Another person may have a value around privacy and feel that connecting with people in a professional setting violates that value for them and they are uncomfortable or unwilling to make an effort to connect with people.
Another value that can sometimes interfere is responsibility. A person with a strong value of responsibility may see correcting others as an important way of contributing and not doing that would feel wrong or in conflict with who they are. Many other values can come into play as well and it’s important to be able to help a client see past those initial objections. Those objections can be deeply rooted in their value system and we can aid them in excavating their values by asking powerful questions about what matters most to our clients in these situations where shifting to connection is needed and/or wanted by the client.
Identity is the second big obstacle in shifting from Correction to Connection. We all have many different identities in the world. I am a mother, a wife, an ex-pat, a coach, a swimmer, an entrepreneur, and a student, just to name a few. These identities were both created by me, continue to shape me, and can, if left unexamined, hamper my ability to take on new identities and roles in my life. In his book Atomic Habits, author James Clear writes,
Once you have adopted an identity, it can be easy to let your allegiance to it impact your ability to change. Many people walk through life in a cognitive slumber, blindly following the norms attached to their identity. (Clear, 2018).
The transitions that take place in life often signal a change in identity. A promotion to management at work means you are going from being an independent contributor to being a people leader. The upcoming arrival of your first child means you are going from being a single or married person to being a parent to another human being. An aging parent that needs more assistance means you are going from being a child to being a caretaker.
All of these transitions often very clear signals that a change in identity is coming and some change in thinking, feeling, or behaving is needed, but those signals can be left unnoticed because a person is often still using the beliefs and values attached to another identity. Using the example of going from an independent contributor in an organization to a people leader, beliefs of needing to be right and needing to always be recognized for your efforts are often wrapped up in being a really great and appreciated independent contributor.
However, those independent contributor characteristics can create limitations for being an effective people leader. Helping our clients recognize changes in their life that signal a change in identity can help them see where shifts from Correction to Connection need to take place and what may need to shift to support that change.
The last obstacle is judgment. This can be a judgment of self, but most often it is the judgment of others. At its most basic level, Correction is communicating “I’m right and you are wrong.” It can shut down creativity and the flow of ideas before they even begin. judgment removes trust and makes personal interactions feel unsafe. This can be especially true when there is a power differential as in the case of a boss and direct report.
The greater the power differential, the greater the negative impact judgment has on trust and building a trusting relationship. Judgment here does not mean discernment or opinions per se but is more about how that discernment and opinion are communicated to and experienced by others. The ability to put judgment on hold is often what is needed for Connection to happen. With clients who are in a place of judgment, using the skill of direct feedback to show a client what you are seeing can help them see something new and surprising about their thinking or behavior.
- What values might you hold that are preventing you from connecting more deeply to others?
- How important is it for you to be right in different types of situations?
- What does being right mean for you and to you in different types of situations?
- What beliefs do you hold about your roles or identities?
- How could those beliefs be preventing you from connecting with others in a meaningful way?
- What are one or two small ways you could put judgment on hold when interacting with others?
Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Avery
Brown, Brene. “Definitions.” Brené Brown, Brené Brown brenebrown.com/definitions/.
Clear, James. Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Avery
“Correction.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/correction
Guay, Sarah. Personal interview