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Coaching Case Study - working with control issues

Helen was a well qualified, competent L&D Manager in the retail industry. Having reached the top end of middle-management she was looking to move up to a Director position but was disappointed not to get promotions on two occasions ...

The feedback was that they felt she would find it hard to delegate and she seemed to want to know what was going on all the time, which would not suit a senior leadership role. They were also concerned that she had put these forward as strengths in the interview.

Helen’s team reported her as funny and charming but a ‘total control freak’. On good days she would laugh about it but under pressure she become ‘a nightmare’ to work for, interfering in areas that weren’t even her responsibility, sometimes not even an L&D responsibility.

Her relationships with external suppliers and department leads was strained as she would take over things that were in their remit and insist on input in everything that touched her department. Helen reluctantly agreed to some leadership coaching and on her first session couldn’t really see what the problem was. She identified control with being in charge, and thought that people were jealous because she always had a handle on what was going on.

The Coaching Work

Coaching someone with issues around control is not easy, partly because they will also want to control you as the Coach. Let that happen and there’s no hope for growth, push back too hard and you’ll lose the relationship needed for the work to be done. It’s like walking a tight rope.

Helen couldn’t see any downside in her behaviour. I got her to stand in other people’s shoes and see it from their perspective and even though she recognised it was tough to work with her, she didn’t really care, providing the job got done. ‘Surely that’s being a Leader,’ she said. I helped her see the future consequences of her not tending to relationships but she couldn’t see that it was an issue.

As Helen reports, ‘it was a stroke of luck’ that the day before our fourth session, her boyfriend told her he was leaving her. She turned up at our session in tears and very angry. He had told her he felt trampled on and unable to be himself in his own home. At the time it was devastating for her but it opened her eyes to the consequences of her behaviour and realising that she would be very lonely in life not just work. We got to work in breaking up the double bind of control.

Control is hard to work with because it’s linked to trust, it’s a vicious cycle of ‘I won’t let go until I trust’, which of course you never can because you can’t trust until you let go.

This is how we did it:

  • She started with small things: she let the team choose where to go for a birthday lunch, let someone else type up the minutes only Helen sees, let her boyfriend decide on dinner (they got back together after she opened up). Each time, debriefing it gave her more learning and understanding.
  • She needed a lot of self-forgiveness. Once Helen had the bombshell from her boyfriend she went through a period of regretting a lot of her actions, I taught her some forgiveness processes to help her let go of that.
  • We did some work on the triggers of the control ‘feeling’: when did she feel the urge? What was happening? We identified some key trigger points and put alternative strategies in place.

Helen will always go to control when she is under stress, but now she is much more aware of herself and able to take a deep breath or get some space to think through her next step rather than sticking to the autopilot of the past.

Looking for a Coach? Make sure you’ve done your homework. Read our guide to choosing a Coach.

Are you thinking of training to become a highly effective and successful Coach. Find out more about our Mind Mastery for Business.

Read the first chapter of Karen & John’s award winning book Real Leaders for the Real World.

All case studies are published with the explicit permission of the coachee and the name and any identifying contexts have been changed to protect client confidentiality.

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