Empowering Leaders Through Metaphors

by Bonnie Gallup

Background: The Trouble with Feedback

The client story below involves a situation I frequently deal with as a leadership coach: A leader receives feedback they do not understand. They resist it; they don’t seem to “get it” because it is so at odds with their good intentions and existing beliefs. Until they accept and understand the difficult message, they are unable to change their behavior and get a different outcome. Often it is not new feedback. They may have heard it before but have continuously discounted it. They truly do not know what to do with the feedback. At some point, the issue may become career limiting and not knowing what to do becomes a critical dilemma.

For those of you that may wonder how coaching can make a difference in leadership, read on.

Dawn’s Critical Dilemma

Dawn was incredibly successful as Director of Customer Service in a high tech firm. She had dramatically increased customer satisfaction scores by setting up innovative processes. When I interviewed her staff, they told me she was extremely talented and bright. Then one by one each interviewee admitted that communicating with her was a nightmare. They avoided asking her questions at all costs. They claimed that Dawn would drift off track and start dumping incredible amounts of information that seemed to be unrelated to their question. Staff meetings were filled with her long monologues and data dumps. Her staff was growing more frustrated and their avoidance of her was impacting teamwork and productivity.

Dawn engaged my services as a leadership consultant and coach to discover why her direct reports were not actively participating in staff meetings. From Dawn’s point of view, the staff appeared to be resistant and uncommunicative. She had given them every opportunity to run the meetings and take more ownership of the issues and challenges their department faced. If her team didn’t step up and become more proactively engaged, she was considering making some big changes in her staff.

When I reported my findings to Dawn that her team found it difficult to communicate with her, she was bewildered. She had always been commended for her speaking skills, her ability to communicate complex ideas and to make people feel at ease. How could she be the cause of the communication issues in her own group?

Clarifying the Message

My challenge as a Coach in situations like this one is to support my client in three ways:

  1. To deliver clear, direct feedback using specific examples
  2. To help them understand and accept the feedback
  3. To create a strategy for doing things differently

I’ve learned that #1 and #3 can be easier to accomplish than #2. How can a difficult message get through the thinking and belief systems that formed the behavior in the first place? This critical linkage between the external data and the individual’s ability to understand it clearly requires a major shift in thinking.

Often, clients get the feedback; they accept it, understand it and then actively engage in practices to change their behavior. For example, Feedback =”You always interrupt people when they are talking.” Response = “Oh, I didn’t know I was doing that.” Action = Practice noticing when I interrupt, ask for more real time feedback, practice non-interrupting behavior. Now the person has another possible way to interact in a conversation, one that doesn’t include interrupting.

Shifting the Thinking

It’s when I see a helpless, bewildered look in the feedback recipient’s eyes that I know there is some “bridge” work to be done. They don’t know what to do with the data. So before denial and resistance have a chance to discredit the feedback, I begin a complete discovery process to gather data about the thinking and beliefs behind the behavior.

Let’s go back to Dawn’s story. Dawn and I explored the issue of how she might be talking too much, giving too much information and as a result getting reactions she didn’t want. The belief we surfaced was that: “If I don’t demonstrate how much I know and share all the data at every opportunity with everyone, I won’t be creating value as a leader.”

When Dawn heard herself say this she realized this belief would actually compel her to talk a lot, share too much information and even include topics that were connected but not relevant. However, she wasn’t able to shift her thinking enough to want to try something different.

Metaphors Create New Meaning

One of the key tools I use to shift thinking and create bridges between the hard data of feedback and the individual’s ability to understand it clearly, is the metaphor. When the person can’t take the “direct information” and make sense of it, the metaphor is a form of symbolic language that can convey an idea in an indirect yet paradoxically more meaningful way.

I had noticed over the time we had been meeting that Dawn wore a different pin on her jacket and usually a matching bracelet, she appeared to have a lot of jewelry. I asked her if she did, and she confirmed it. I then asked her if she would wear every piece of jewelry she had at the same time? Would she put all her pins on and all her bracelets and earrings and wear them to work or a special occasion?

Dawn, obviously puzzled by my question, replied, “Why would anyone do such a thing? It would look absolutely ridiculous. Besides, how could you get the same effect if you wore your jewelry all at once? It’s much better to pick out the right pieces for the right occasion. Actually, half the fun was selecting the right piece.”

Dawn began to talk more slowly and thoughtfully as she listened to her own words. I then asked her how wearing all her jewelry at the same time was similar to the feedback she had received? After a discussion of similarities, she formed a new belief: “Sharing the most relevant information is more valuable than dumping everything I know about the situation.” She kept seeing the image of herself standing there talking to someone with every piece of jewelry that she owned pinned to her clothing and dangling from her body. That wasn’t the image she wanted others to have either.

New Images, New Possibilities

The metaphor’s image of “wearing all her jewelry” had created a new way of looking at her behavior. Simply telling her the facts of how people were reacting to that behavior was like knocking on a locked and bolted mindset. The metaphor also introduced humor. The rest of our work could then take place in an almost playful space. In the course of the two-hour feedback session, it was possible to move from tense anticipation, bewilderment at some of the data, through resistance into discovery and then using metaphor into a lighter, more creative space. In that creative space, we could work together to create new possible beliefs and behaviors to practice and reinforce.

The Results

The strategy we ultimately developed involved talking openly to her staff about their feedback and her new understanding of it. Dawn requested “in the moment” coaching from them when/if she provided more information than they needed. She also talked to her direct reports about how they could become more engaged in staff meetings. Dawn tried out new behaviors that reflected her new beliefs about how she contributes value as a leader. She finds listening has become a powerful new behavior for her, one that had been difficult in the past. She tells me she is still amused by the image of herself wearing all her jewelry at once and it’s a great reminder of what doesn’t work. She immediately imagines herself wearing just the right piece for the occasion.

Dawn shifted her thinking and her behavior through the clarifying power of a meaningful metaphor. Now Dawn is more in tune with her team than ever–– she listens and provides the appropriate level of information that they need. Her team is more comfortable stepping up to their leadership roles knowing that Dawn is genuinely interested in what they have to say.