Bringing Demons To Work: An Executive Coaching Story

Growing up and learning to cope with her mother’s alcoholism had created habits that were destroying her work relationships. She was both unpredictable and volatile.   Some days she was collaborative, other days she was distant and biting. Most days she avoided those people she did not like, or more aptly put, those people she hated. After several people complained to HR, the CEO considered getting rid of her, but HR and the executive VP lobbied to save her job. Their first step was to send her to supervisory training even though she was in a higher position within the company. Four weeks following the training, not much had changed. That’s when HR called.

“Should we think about some team coaching or team building just to help her team understand and accept her?” she asked.   Perhaps some type of leadership development that we haven’t considered?”

After listening to the accounts and conditions of her “blow-ups,” I had a feeling that there was something that even my soon-to-be client was unaware of; something that was an old trigger for her. I convinced HR to let me meet with her first.

She was nervous the first time we met. Her lower lip trembled when she spoke and her swivel chair was angled toward the door as though readying herself to bolt at any moment. As I sat and studied her, I already knew that she was highly valued for her job-skills. That, in and of itself, was saving her job for the time being. But no employer could put up with behavior that instilled fear, destroyed trust, and angered those around her.

“Have you been told why we are visiting with each other,” I asked.

“Not really,” she answered. “I will say this though,” she blurted. “I have a huge problem with my counterpart on the creative side of the firm. He pi_ _ es me off! He’s arrogant and ambitious and I think he wants to be CEO someday. I cannot stand to be in the same room with him.”

“OK, but before we talk about him, let’s talk about what you hope to gain from our meetings.”

She paused for a long time as her eyes welled with tears. “I just want to learn how to not let people like him affect me so much.”

“How long has this sort of thing happened?”

“All my life.”

Although we met for two hours that first time, I had a hunch within the first five minutes. She had some unresolved triggers—probably from her upbringing—that created old, protective, and destructive responses.   It was not hard to foresee the ultimate outcome in her employment if she failed to change these automatic reactions. Despite some in the organization who were bent on saving her due to her industry knowledge and talent, they would eventually have to wish her well but send her out the door.

Although I had quite a challenge before me, her issues were not in the least unusual. Almost everyone I’m contracted to coach is being victimized by their own unrecognized and unconscious triggers. In truth, all of us possess these things under the skin that cause us to react and “shoot ourselves in the foot.” The issue is not whether we have these triggers, but whether we can manage them through awareness, choice, better habits, and insight. Through coaching and mentoring, these triggers can loosen their grip. Sadly, without help, these triggers continue to stimulate ingrained and negative lifelong patterns in employment, marriage, parenting, and friendships.

She told me that her mother cycled through love and affection when she was sober, hypercritical and rejecting when she was drunk. Her father was a perfectionist although not around much. She remembered seeking his approval but rarely receiving it. “Good enough was never enough.”

Through our meetings together, I was struck by her courage. Instead of running from her memories and experiences, she tackled them in an effort to gain an understanding. It was as though her life depended on it.

In a later meeting, she told me that regardless of what she did, she was supposed to do more. The only way she knew how to connect with her father was through achievement. But she never felt satisfaction or pride regardless of her accomplishments. “I think I’ve always just walked around with this frustration and hurt, expecting that I will ultimately be a disappointment,” she admitted.

“You were doing the best you could do under the circumstances,” I said. “Children don’t have the capacity to problem-solve something so complicated. When children learn to cope, it sets up all sorts of destructive patterns later on.”

“Yes, I think I’ve always sought approval from significant people. But the moment I do; the moment I place my feelings in their hands, I get angry.”

The room fell silent and I could tell that she was putting some things together. “My reactions are not really about my colleague, are they?”

“No.”

Her eyes again filled with tears. “What are you experiencing,” I asked.

“I feel sad and also a little scared.”

“Why so?”

“I think I need to let go of being so hard on myself…maybe I should work on my assumption that I am automatically going to be rejected. But if I do these things, I’ll open myself up to that very thing.”

“You will also be opening up to closer relationships.”

“That seems nice. It feels good to imagine that possibility.”