It's essential for me as a coach--and, I'd argue, for all of us when we're in any position of influence, particularly a leadership role--to distinguish between investment and attachment. It's a distinction that has a significant impact on our relationships in those roles, our mutual feelings of autonomy and independence, and our ability to support and lead others effectively.
We invest in people, and being invested in someone means we care about them and want them to succeed. We convey our investment in ways large and small, from being available to being vulnerable, from providing support and consolation to stepping into challenges and pushing back when necessary.
But if we invest in people, we're attached to outcomes. We want something specific to happen, and the successful accomplishment of that goal can be an important source of meaning and fulfillment to us, so we'll expend a lot of energy and exert a lot of pressure to insure that it's achieved.
As a coach, I need to be invested in my clients' or students' success without becoming attached to any particular definition of success. As they progress toward (or away from) certain outcomes, I pay careful attention to how I respond. If a client or student is succeeding in accomplishing a given goal, do I feel good because I'm invested in them as a person, or do I feel good because I'm attached to their accomplishment of that goal for some reason, perhaps because it would make me feel more effective as a coach? Whatever the cause, when my investment turns to attachment, it's a clear sign of bad coaching, and an invitation to explore 1) why I'm attached to that particular outcome, 2) how I might relinquish my attachment, and 3) how I might increase my investment in the person.
The calculus for a leader is different, of course. In almost all leadership roles, we have to balance our investment in people and our attachment to outcomes. If we care only about the people and are indifferent to the goals, it's either a very unusual leadership situation...or we're coaching and not actually leading. But if we don't sufficiently invest in our people while remaining deeply attached to achieving our goals, that unbalanced emphasis inevitably has a pernicious effect on engagement, commitment and retention. People sense that they're valued solely as means to an end, and if they can find equivalent compensation elsewhere while feeling valued as individuals, they'll pursue those options.
So while coaches have to be careful to avoid becoming unduly attached to outcomes, leaders must as well. We all draw the line in different places depending on our role, the context, the urgency of our goals and the relationships we have with our people, but we all have to find the right balance.
A vivid example of this dynamic is an aspect of my role as a Leadership Coach at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB). I work with 11 Leadership Fellows, second-year students who've been accepted into a competitive program in which they each work with a total of 9 first-year students in small groups and one-on-one to help the first-years develop their leadership and interpersonal skills.
I'm intensely attached to the goal of insuring that the 99 first-years who are being served by my 11 Fellows have a meaningful learning experience. That's an outcome that matters a great deal to me, and not only because it's a function of my role, but also because I believe deeply in the value of this curriculum, and as a GSB alumnus I want the school to do the best job possible of developing better leaders and managers.
But at the same time I work very closely with those 11 Leadership Fellows, in small groups and one-on-one, a process that involves not only (or even primarily) my managing their work with their first-year students, but also coaching them on a wide range of professional and personal issues during the course of the 8 months we spend together. It's impossible for me not to become deeply invested in my Fellows as individuals because of this level of engagement.
Admittedly, it's an unusual situation because 1) every year the Fellows I'm privileged to work with are an incredibly dedicated group of people, 2) my goals as a Leadership Coach are tightly aligned with my Fellows' goals, and 3) the Fellows' primary relationship to their students is as a coach, so even when I'm coaching them on issues unrelated to their work, they have an opportunity to learn work-related skills.
But even in this context I have to bear in mind the balance between investment and attachment. I do have to insure that we collectively deliver on our commitment to support those 99 first-years, and I'm firmly attached to that outcome. At the same time it's essential that my 11 Fellows know how deeply invested I am in them as individuals and how committed I am to their own growth and development. If I were to view my Fellows as means to an end, it would compromise my values and undermine my ability to work with them effectively. And yet if we were to lose sight of that end, it would essentially turn our 99 first-years into lab rats--highly complex rats, to be sure, but the subjects of an experiment all the same.
Photo by nosha. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.