A Coaching Power Tool Created by Hannah Harrold
(Dual Language Instructional Coach, UNITED STATES)
“Rubbernecking” is a term used in the United States to describe the phenomenon of drivers who crane their necks to get a better glimpse of a car accident as they pass by it. In heavy Chicago traffic, not far from where I live, rubbernecking results in “gaper’s delays”. These back-ups are not caused by the accident itself but from the distracted drivers slowing down to examine the wreckage. I’ve succumbed to the same morbid curiosity.
I propose it is my distance from the accident that makes me feel welcome to gawk. I am far enough away to be assured I am not needed at the scene. Separated by the metal body of my vehicle, a lane of traffic, and an emergency crew, I am granted permission to be a passive observer.
Consider how different my response to the accident would be if I’d been the driver of one of the vehicles involved or a witness to the crash itself. The closer I physically am to the scene, the more emotionally invested I become and the less luxury I have to gawk. Proximity forces me to see the details too clearly to remain a passive observer. I may see that someone is hurt, the engine may still be running and need to be turned off before a fire erupts, a child may need help getting out of a car seat. Proximity clarifies the details of the problem and alludes to their repercussions. I am compelled to consider personal action when I am close.
Conversely, the farther away from the scene I am, the more likely I am to make judgments without engaging in solutions. I don’t see all the details; I feel less compelled to engage. I may conclude that this problem is not mine. Of course, one’s role is at play as well. A passing off-duty police officer or EMT may feel more compelled to engage than a passing baker or hairdresser. But even that idea only goes so far. Imagine the passing baker sees a neighbor or cousin involved in the crash. Proximity to those being involved in the situation is likely to overcome the baker’s otherwise defined role.
“Rubbernecking” is a commonly occurring phenomenon in work environments, too. Car wrecks of the workplace are synonymous with system breakdowns or systemic injustices, unmet expectations, poorly functioning leadership, or ineffective teaming. Here, too, it is evident at first glance that a problem exists, though the details of exactly what the problem is maybe cloudy, let alone the cause of the issue or the extent of the damage. Proximity or distance remains a major factor in who takes the responsibility for getting directly involved in seeking solutions and who observes passively from afar.
So how does one know if he or she is proximate to a problem in the workplace? On the highway, I refer to distance in the physical sense of space, but in the workplace, one may find a person’s distance or proximity to a problem to include a great deal of nuance. Rather than understanding proximity in terms of how close one is to the problem, consider that each of us can mentally or emotionally move toward or away from a problematic situation, thus our proximity is our choice.
Proximity to a situation is not reserved for those in leadership. Proximity to or distance from a situation is fluid, choice-driven, and inclusive. There will be first responders and rubberneckers, which may or may not correlate with a job title or assigned role.
Proximity to a problem in the workplace involves the:
- Willingness to accept that a problem has major repercussions
- Acknowledgment of who will face repercussions
- An honest assessment of who holds power in the situation
- Curiosity about all the causes or components of the problem
- Desire to view the problem from multiple angles
- Courage to uncover what is undesired or unexpected
- Attempts to uphold common values and goals
- Ownership of the causes and solutions to the problem
Conversely, distance to a workplace problem, or “rubbernecking”, involves the:
- Willingness to ignore or avoid the repercussions of the problem
- Denial of those who will face repercussions
- Lack of assessment or dishonesty about who holds the power
- The offering of excuses to explain away the problem or to divert attention from it
- Hasty judgments about the causes or components of the problem
- The skewed or blurry perspective of the reality or the realities that may be uncovered
- Desire to protect a status quo or the position of power
- Rejection of the notion that solutions may require personal involvement
This phenomenon plays out currently in an organization with which I am familiar. Their “car wreck” is employee retention. Highly-skilled employees continue to leave the organization. This year, their employee retention rate dropped to 82%, a full 7% below the average in the industry.
Many staff members are concerned. They argue that this employee retention problem is most proximate to the organization’s managers or HR department and hope these leaders will take action. After all, these leaders’ job descriptions designate them in charge of hiring and retaining qualified replacements. It is widely expected that those working within the department will become the first responders in this employee retention crisis.
But proximity on a job description does not equate to a willingness to engage solutions. The remaining staff recently inquired to their HR leaders about what might be done in the future to help retain highly qualified staff. The leaders replied that the organization could not keep good opportunities from pulling away from their employees. When asked if common themes appeared in exit interviews with the employees who had chosen to leave, the subordinate staff was surprised to learn that no process for exit interviews existed at all, nor did any manager or HR staff intend to ask why employees were leaving or what it would take for them to stay. Eventually, the subordinate staff took it upon themselves to create an exit interview and new exit process to propose to the HR department.
The significance of the proximity-distance spectrum emerges here. Consider who in this situation was willing to ask the questions proximity requires? Who was willing to acknowledge the repercussions of the situation and honestly assess who held power to make a systematic change? Who dared to uncover undesirable answers? Those who were willing to be proximate, regardless of their role.
This particular car wreck is not unique to this organization. A recent Gallup survey reported that 52% of exiting employees say their manager or organization could have done something to prevent them from leaving. Without the proximity to ask why these employees are choosing to leave, it will be impossible to know how to get them to stay. Furthermore, in choosing not to get proximate to the problem, and in modeling rubbernecking behaviors toward it, the consequence of a “Gaper’s Delay” ensued down the road. Progress inevitably slowed across many sectors of the organization as employee frustration continues to rise.
It is worth noting that not all workplace problems deserve the same attention. Maybe the organization had pressing goals that required more immediate attention than employee retention. Regardless, how leadership communicated their proximity to the problem of employee retention created an unnecessary divide between management and their teams. Rubbernecking is a dangerous game on the road and at work. Experts caution that rubbernecking is to blame for 10% to 16% of all vehicle accidents; proof that purposefully observing known problems from afar only creates more problems.
Of course, leaders can not be expected to make their most productive, effective decisions at all times. At one point or another, every leader will rubberneck something they should get proximate to or may become too close to a situation not deserving of so much attention. Yet it is fair to expect leaders to work towards increasing levels of awareness regarding their blind spots and their proximity to problematic situations. Jim Hayden, co-author of the book What Are Your Blind Spots? Conquering the 5 Misconceptions that Hold Leaders Back, agrees when he says, “They [leaders] should focus on what discussions they need to have with their people that inspire them to understand and creatively respond to our most important issues. Leaders need to recognize that their people are closer to the customers and issues and likely have better, more creative ideas than they do.”
Closeness breeds awareness. Awareness breeds creativity. Creativity breeds solutions. This is where coaching comes in. An effective coach holds space for a client to become aware of where he or she sits on a proximity-distance spectrum. Coaching offers perspectives, observations of blind spots, and fosters courage that can bring leaders more proximate to the problems they may otherwise choose to rubberneck. And we all choose to rubberneck some problems. Our brains are hardwired to avoid discomfort. Freud’s Pleasure Principle asserts that humans “sometimes go to great lengths to avoid even momentary pain, particularly at times of psychological weakness or vulnerability.” Coaches can be the difference-maker in how closely a leader can see all the details of the challenge.
Judith Glaser’s experience with a team of leaders from Union Carbide exemplifies the power of coaching to help leaders explore their blind spots regarding workplace problems. She was hired to coach the leadership team around Conversational Intelligence to help the team secure a highly desired contract. Through her coaching partnership, leaders chose to get proximate to the problems that would keep them from gaining this new client. At first, the team felt strongly that they were already facilitating productive sales conversations. But a close analysis of the reality proved otherwise. In fact, according to an article by PsychologyToday, these leaders used “telling statements” 85% of the time, using questions only 15% of the time. Worse, a portion of these questions was considered cleverly disguised statements. As it turned out, the sales team was not nearly as effective in their sales dialogue as they had originally believed. They were essentially presenting monologues to prospective clients, eliminating the opportunity for clients to engage in relationships. Fortunately, proximity to the problem, offered through the coaching experience, allowed for the reality to emerge. The leaders gained a clear, detailed view of the situation. Natural action steps arose that led the team toward their common goal. Results followed.
So how can a coach ensure that his or her clients are managing proximity and distance in a way that serves them well? Coaching includes no script, nor is there a single question that will lead a client toward an exploration of their relationship with proximity and distance. A masterful coach will engage each of the ICF core competencies in a way that creates the opportunity for clients to arrive at these important conclusions themselves. With that said, coaches may consider incorporating the following powerful questions into sessions as they apply.
- What is important about understanding this situation completely?
- What might happen if you distance yourself from this situation?
- What might you notice about this situation if you get closer to it?
- How would moving closer to or farther from this situation change it?
- Who holds the power here? Who will face the repercussions?
- What other perspectives exist around this situation?
- What information or perspectives might you be avoiding?
- What is your perceived role in this situation so far? What may be the benefits or challenges of maintaining that role?
Sometimes a client will explore a situation closely and determine that adding more distance is the best way to respond this time. For reasons of prioritization, healthy boundaries, or the availability of resources, one may choose not to become a first responder in every situation or problem. In reality, no one can be a first responder in every situation, and creating more distance is sometimes the best choice. Even then, coaches and clients must keep in mind that proximity to the problem is required for enough exploration to occur to determine that distance is most appropriate. There is no getting around it; we must get close to problematic situations to understand them.
In our current political climate, this proximity-distance spectrum is increasingly relevant. Companies find themselves searching for ways to right the wrongs of racial oppression, LGBTQ discrimination, and matters of equal pay. If they get close enough, many leaders find systems that promote power for some and marginalize others. It’s not always overt. Sometimes the details are blurry. We’ll have to get close to see them. A coach helps us get close.
Holding space for their clients to engage this Proximity vs. Distance Power Tool is a coach’s privilege. Coaches offer the observations, direct communication, and powerful questions that help determine what we see when we look closely and how or if we will engage it. In the coaching session, proximity is achieved through one’s willingness to move toward that which may be messy versus what our stated role says we must do. This process isn’t limited to leaders. Coaches in any industry can partner with any client in the use of this Power Tool to support strategic, intentional decisions about the role a client wishes to play.
 Dictionary.cambridge.org. (2020). RUBBERNECKING | definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary. [online] Available at: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/rubbernecking [Accessed 18 Feb. 2020].
 Chicago magazine. (2020). 23 Phrases You’ll Only Hear in Chicago. [online] Available at: https://www.chicagomag.com/arts-culture/August-2018/24-Phrases-Youll-Only-Hear-in-Chicago/ [Accessed 18 Feb. 2020].
 Gallup, I. (2020). 10 Gallup Reports to Share With Your Leaders in 2019. [online] Gallup.com. Available at: https://www.gallup.com/workplace/245786/gallup-reports-share-leaders-2019.aspx [Accessed 18 Feb. 2020].
 Erin, A. (2020). Rubbernecking: A form of distracted driving | Life Lanes. [online] Life Lanes. Available at: https://www.progressive.com/lifelanes/on-the-road/auto-rubbernecking/ [Accessed 18 Feb. 2020].
 Duncan, R. (2020). What Are Your Blind Spots?. [online] Forbes.com. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/rodgerdeanduncan/2018/10/06/what-are-your-blind-spots/#18f3a3710f84 [Accessed 18 Feb.2020].
 Pleasure Principle. (2015, August 17). Retrieved July 6, 2020, from https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/pleasure-principle#:~:text=Pleasure Principle-, Pleasure Principle, of psychological weakness or vulnerability.
 Glaser, J. E. (2014, October 30). Conversational Blind Spots. Retrieved July 6, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/conversational-intelligence/201410/conversational-blind-spots-0