I’m Sort of Sorry: Coaching the High-Level Harasser

Fran S.

Fran S.

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Of all the work I do, some of the most maddening and satisfying involves coaching High-Level Professionals (HLP’s) — usually physicians, attorneys, CPA’s or CEO-types — whose behavior has reached a point where even the timid have decided that something must be done.  These are usually extremely high-performing individuals who trail behind them a low-level hum of mild to moderately inappropriate conduct.  Not the stuff of scandal or outrage, this kind of behavior might be isolated to the occasional sexist comment, inappropriate joke, or racially wince-worthy reference. 

Because of the level of status, power, and authority waged by HLP’s it is safe to assume that many incidents of inappropriate behavior were not reported or addressed directly, and those incidents that did come forward were slightly below the line in terms of anti-harassment policies.  Not pervasive or severe, the conduct might have been addressed by a letter of reprimand or a stern talking-to.  Nevertheless, eventually, the HLP with a propensity for off-color humor, inappropriate flirtation, sexist comments or bullying management style reaches a tipping point.  Someone, often in-house counsel, decides that it is time to call this HLP to account, and to tell them the time has come to clean up their act as a condition of employment.

As a coach, one’s first impression might be extremely positive.  How wonderful to have the employer insisting on the coaching, and even suggesting that the HLP’s future employment relies on successfully making change. Leverage is a great thing!  Then, as I contemplate further, I realize the dilemma; this is the same employer that permitted and even enabled the conduct all along.  Inevitably, when I begin the coaching, the first thing I must help the HLP work through is their feeling of betrayal by their organization and their perfectly understandable frustration in trying to really grasp what the problem is.  I often hear, “I’ve been behaving this way for years and years.  Why is it a problem now?”  I try to have them understand the cumulative effect of their behavior, and often point out that when one gets pulled over for a speeding ticket that telling the officer you’ve been speeding on this road for years, and therefore should not get a ticket, is not a helpful thing.  Nevertheless, I recognize that they are coming to the table with some myopia, and try to be both empathetic and tough-minded.

To coach the HLP, rich and deep data is essential.  I will read all records of complaints against them, and interview others who work with them and for them.  I will spend the first hour of our time together asking them to give me a detailed understanding of how they show up in their workplace and why we are having the session. I will push and provoke those accused of bullying to see what their triggers are and how easily they can be activated, and I will inquire about their sense of humor, quality of their workplace relationships, and conflict style.

These HLP’s generally aren’t sorry.  They are practical.  They want to know what they need to do to get past this speed bump and get back to work.  A good coaching process will change this.  One of the outcomes I look for is appropriate regret or remorse, and one of the ways we get there is to have the HLP play the role of someone whose boundaries they crossed.  Amongst the writing assignments, HLP’s get in my coaching is to write a one page narrative of an incident that has been reported from the perspective of the target.  We read that together, and if they don’t get it right, they do it again.  Not being accustomed to being called out for failing to fulfill an assignment, the high achieving nature of the HLP often emerges, and it usually doesn’t take more than one new draft to get it right.

Finally, I have found that HLP’s do very well in the concrete, behavioral world.  Together, we generate a list of things that constitute “bad habits,” and we put together a plan for extinguishing them.  Just like quitting smoking or dieting, we put together a plan of substitutes for the inappropriate behavior, identify a support system to provide feedback and prevent backsliding, and use a variety of tools for monitoring change and progress.  When, for instance, the impulse to make a humorous remark emerges, we might substitute an open-ended question or a self-effacing comment.  Or the HLP might check in with a designated support person after a meeting to find out how they came across.

Over the years, I have found that there are several essential components to successfully coaching HLP’s. They are:

  • Cost. Highly compensated people won’t value the coaching unless it is priced for its value.

  • Payment. The HLP’s must pay for the coaching themselves, or at least split the cost with their employer

  • No confidentiality. While they are the client, a report will go back to the employer describing the coaching, insights, and the likelihood of re-offending.

  • Directive Coaching. The counseling, polite, supportive, politicized world of the HLP means they rarely get direct, critical, unvarnished feedback. As a coach, I have to have the courage to make these big players very unhappy with me.

  • Work. Assignments need to be made and evaluated at a very high level.

  • Time. The value of HLP coaching is that it neither goes on for months nor does it take big chunks of time. Short, intensive sessions of a total of 3-4 hours are the norm.

  • Rigor. Using instruments such as personality inventories and conflict style inventories to provide insight is helpful to break down blind spots.

  • Clear outcomes. The session begins with the HLP committing to certain outcomes. At times, they will ask for additional or different outcomes for personal reasons, this is fine, but one outcome that is essential is “manage behavior to ensure neutral or positive treatment of others.”

  • Support. The organization is asking a lot of the coach. They need to understand that miracles don’t exist, nor do personality transplants. The organization may be part of the problem, and may need to agree to do a better job of monitoring and feedback going forward.

If you are interested in HLP Coaching, please feel free to contact Sepler & Associates.


Fran S.

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