Both popular and clinical psychology believe that emotions drive behaviors. In principle this theory is simple, widely accepted and enjoys the benefits of tradition. The most frequently used example is that fear causes a person to run away. If our ancestors lacked a fear response when approaching a dangerous snake or tiger, they would have been killed. It makes intuitive sense that fear drives action, that emotions drive behaviors. But it’s now revealed to be not only seriously inadequate—but dead wrong.
That finding turns much coaching and development on its head. Rather than coach or counsel about fears, insecurities, frustrations and emotions that hold leaders and workers back, the actual beginning place is with the relevant and needed behavior. In short, for the organization the talking therapy is largely a waste of time and money.
In an extensive study of relevant research, a meta-analytic study, Baumeister, Vohs and colleagues analyze over 4,000 studies. To briefly summarize their findings they first surface the traditional theory and then define the new theory.
In a nutshell, the two theories are as follows...
The second theory, in contrast, holds that conscious emotion tends to come after behavior and operates as a kind of inner feedback system that prompts the person to reflect on the act and its consequences, and possibly learn lessons that could be useful on future occasions. People may choose their actions based on the emotional outcomes they anticipate. The influence of emotion on behavior is thus indirect.
Emotion’s role, then, is to operate as a feedback system. After behavior has occurred, emotion drives appraisal and reflection . . . which can promote learning. Moreover, people learn to anticipate what actions will lead to what emotions, and they adjust their behaviors accordingly. Behavior pursues emotion.
How will this work in coaching?
Fully aware of the traditional theory, I made a calculated decision in favor of the second theory more than 45 years ago. The data points that drove and ultimately confirmed that decision are numerous. But the basic data point is illuminating. On numerous occasions I’ve told the story of that “paradigm shift” to friends, only to hear them say it was “unbelievable.” I’ve had numerous people flatly say, “Dan, I don’t believe what you’re telling me. It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.”
Whether they knew me well before that “conversion” or only after that “conversion,” the shift was unbelievable—but for different reasons. I’m using the term “conversion” in a technical sense, as the adoption, wholesale, of a belief identified with one particular way of thinking to the rejection of another. In my instance, I rejected theory one and accepted theory two.
Here’s my story. When I was in high school, I decided to become a christian minister in a denomination that “glorified” preaching. Terrified of standing in front of people and clueless about how to put a speech together and fearful I could never reflect that “calling” through my preaching. So much so, that even in college I skipped speech courses. The first semester of the graduate seminary program included basic preaching, just the thought of which was terrifying. So early on I told my preaching professor about my fears and insecurities. He assured me he’d give me plenty of help and time to develop. In classic deliberate-practice form, I followed his instructions, learning every step in great detail. After each preaching experience, my personal debriefing supported continual growth. Certainly, I was unaware of emotions driving the debriefing, but I’m also certain now that’s exactly what was happening. I grew so well that upon graduation I received the honors award for my preaching and continued graduate school through a doctorate in the field.
My rule rather simple: change the behavior and the emotions will follow. That rule has driven my growth, my teaching and my consulting business.
Fifty years after graduating from high school, I attended our first reunion. Sitting with a group of people whom I hadn’t seen in over 50 years, I was babbling, jabbering, interrupting, engaging in the conversation, adding to it and laughing. One of the women who had gone to grade school and high school with me suddenly stopped the conversation and asked rather blatantly,“who are you?” The group and I engaged in a very direct interaction and their universal response was that “the Dan Erwin they knew was shy, quiet and withdrawn.” If I tell the story to friends whom I got to know after my “conversion,” emphasizing those early characteristics of shyness and fear, they find the story absolutely unbelievable. Some of them actually laugh at me in unbelief.
It’s all about behavior, not emotions
So in coaching, I simply ignore or set aside the emotions, define the needed behavior with the manager and assist in the behavioral changes. If a client wants to talk about her fears and other emotions, I’ll listen briefly. But fairly soon, I’ll shut that conversation down, push it off, or brashly tell them that as important as they thought it was, it’s ultimately irrelevant. The emotions-first issue occasionally surfaces with new or low-level managers, but rarely with executives. In short, behavioral successes mean that a wise coach can “get away with murder.” Truly help that person--and make a friend for life.