What to choose, how to choose? Supporting clients in “decision limbo” by Martina Weinberger (guest)

Last week at a book launch event a colleague mentioned that working on personal visions in 1-1 settings is becoming ever more important in her practice. She sees a major shift in the topics her coachees bring. Previously, people came to get ready for what they wanted to achieve, build the right skills, and fill potential gaps.

Today she says, it is all about answering the question:

  • Do I really want to be promoted?

  • Do I want to stay here?

  • What will happen to me if I do?

  • What if I don’t?

This struck a chord with me since I am experiencing very much the same in my practice.

Let me share some of my thoughts and experience on how we coaches can be helpful to people who are stuck in “decision limbo”. A state, which I define as being stuck in often unnerving but known situation, some sort of individually deeply “uncomfortable” comfort zone. Those who find themselves there are unable to find a “right” answer to this simple, deceptively easy question: “what next?”

What makes this such a difficult question?

In my experience, it boils down to Fear and Uncertainty.

  • Fear: Even outwardly very successful people are afraid that this – a job they are good at – might be the end of the line. If they stick their head above the parapet with an eye on that next promotion, they might, just might, be found lacking; despite doing everything they possibly could and should be doing. Add to this, the shame people sense to be coming their way in case they do try and then fail.

  • Fear: It doesn’t end there. If they succeed, they fear turning into a person akin to their highly driven, exhausted, personally detached leaders. The much lamented younger generation (those primed for taking on greater responsibilities and leadership roles) often attach greater importance to and are more connected with their personal values. (Whilst this is often lamented in the corporate world, IMHO[1], this is actually a credit to them and their parents, but this is beside the point.) They question the legitimacy of how they are being treated by their managers and companies. My coachees frequently question themselves whether they want to remain in environments that challenge or even disregard their personal values.

  • Fear: And then there is the ultimate fear: to rise to the top of the ladder, only to realize, the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.

  • Uncertainty: Beside fear, there is also uncertainty: will there eventually be a leading position for them when the time comes? There also is uncertainty around how they are actually viewed internally and if they have enough backing. Despite years of feedback training and elabroate performance review processes, conversations about performance remain ambiguous.

  • Uncertainty: About the loyalty of “the system”. Companies demand loyalty but give little loyalty in return. People are labeled and treated as “workforce”, “assets”, “head count”... Yesterday’s high performance is easily forgotten, today counts, your ability to succeed tomorrow will be questioned - again and again. There is no certainty and precious little safety.

Yet: Fear and uncertainty are lousy advisors when thinking about your future.

How can we support our clients to get unstuck?

The first step is often a closer look at “what is”. What keeps people where they are? Some of the most common themes I see are:

They are not sure whether they would enjoy another job, or another role with greater responsibilities

-      The issue here is often missing information. Can we help find suitable ways to explore their often theoretical options and assumptions?
-      Herminia Ibarra’s latest book“Act like a leader, think like a leader”, is an eye opener as to the necessity of having experience and input in order to learn and grow.
-      So they might want to go on a “learning journey”, e.g. by talking with people, learning what other jobs are really like, getting involved in different kinds of projects internally, talking with clients beyond the current projects… to add more data to indecision limbo.

Coachees often come back from an exploration like this, much clearer about what they want and what they do not want.

They like the job and they like the idea of rising further in their organisation, but they do not like the lifestyle that comes with it.

-      In my experience, many people, who bring this up, are using the worst work-life balance offenders in their environment as their negative example. We can help them look for different role models, “saner” approaches. (It has to be “saner” for them, not “sane” J! I have learned the definition of sanity varies widely and depends greatly on context.)
-      We can help them look into their current reality. How much do they actually enjoy the lifestyle they have, right now? More often than not I hear “It is pretty bad and I could not really work more…as it is”. So if they already work this hard? Is it really about life style?
-      And we can help them get real: many jobs that pay well and are intellectually challenging tend to come with intense working hours. Life is often a trade-off. We can support them in finding answers to what trade-offs are acceptable for them now and the next few years.

They do not want to be like the bosses in their company

-      We can help define their own way. A way of leading that is in line with their personal values and still fits in their corporate context.
-      We can acknowledge and share the pain that “systems” are indeed shaping people. Be with them whilst they are sorting through: what they want to absolutely hang on to, where they embrace being shaped (learning is often highly attractive) and where they want to draw the line.

They are too tired to look for other options

-      Depending on the environment of our coachees, this is not uncommon. If this is the reason they hang on, empathy is what is called for first and foremost. Having made it to be working with a coach is a first step to breaking that cycle!
-      Often there is shame that they cannot “make it”. That everyone else seems to like what they are doing and seem to thrive, they, however, cannot stomach it.
-      We can help clients reframe thinking of themselves as “lacking”. We can support them to find ways to “forgive themselves”. It is okay not to like “it”, it is Ok, not to be “right” for certain things. Often we help by reconnecting to personal resources.

What is my learning form these kind of cases? As Yvonne Thackray wisely put it “In every learning and growth cycle there is a plateau where decisions need to be made. Often at times when your private life changes. The question of how motivated you are to decide whether you want to engage and progress within an organisation with increasing leadership responsibilities, or not, is a natural one.”

I could not agree more with her:

  • We can first help our clients acknowledge that this is indeed natural.

  • We can then act as catalysts in going beyond decision limbo.

  • And support them to stop driving themselves crazy with finding a perfect solution, instead, help them find a good enough one – for now.

Update: I am glad to say that recent brain research seems to agree with me. One of the 4 rituals to greater happiness is taking – (good enough) decisions!

To summarise:

This is what I am seeing in my practice: The root causes of why my clients are getting stuck in their uncomfortable comfort zones.

This is how I see my coaching supporting my clients: A beginning of a way out from decision limbo by exploring their reality.

I’d be interested in hearing what you see in your practice?  

  • What keeps your coachees stuck?

  • How do you support them to explore their current reality? And move beyond it?

[1] IMHO = In my humble opinion

To connect with Martina:

Martina Weinberger

Martina Weinberger

Martina is a partner at Toguna Leadership.
t   +49 89 37962637                            
e   martina.weinberger@togunaleadership.com

An INSEAD MBA and APECS accredited executive coach, I started my career in marketing and strategy consulting. Today I delight in supporting international leaders in implementing strategy and positively impacting the bottom line. We design bespoke workshops and development programmes, coaching is always a major part of what we do and the underlying “mindset” to our interventions.

I truly love my work, when I can support people in achieving their (business) objectives whilst at the same time creating kinder, more sustainable environments for themselves and others around them. Contributing towards purpose and happiness is what makes me get up in the morning.