Coaching and the Three Degrees of Organisational Change

First-degree Change: An Illustration from Healthcare

Medical healthcare has traditionally focused largely on providing remedial or “curative” treatments for acute conditions. A patient with bacterial pneumonia is typically diagnosed based on presenting symptoms, and then treated with a course of antibiotics to “fix” or eradicate the health problem. We could call this approach a “first-degree” intervention and it is of course necessary and essential in the management of acute conditions.

But how well does this approach work in the treatment of ‘lifestyle-based’ health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease?

A first-degree medical intervention can, to some degree, limit the progression of these lifestyle-based diseases, or defend against further complications. But the underlying socialpsychological and environmental systems that perpetuate the development of the disease symptoms are often neglected by a first-degree approach.

For instance, gastric-band surgery is a first-degree medical procedure for the treatment of obesity. Without nutritional education, shifts in the patient’s lifestyle, or addressing the psycho-social and environmental factors that reinforce disordered eating patterns, gastric-band surgery will in itself not lead totruly improved health – even if the patient does initially lose some weight. What’s more, there are accounts of gastric-band patients gradually and painfully “re-stretching” their stomachs to accommodate binge eating episodes.

It is tempting to criticize and blame patients’ inadequacies for not adhering to medical treatments and advice. But interventions that do not address the patient’s bio-psycho-social system of influences are in fact inadequate! Of course we want to invite greater responsibility from people in managing their lives better, but we have to help them identify and transcend the restraints and unconscious patterns that undermine their ability to do so.

First-degree Organisational Change

The same applies to creating lasting change and “health” in organisational functioning.

Traditional first-degree approaches to organisational change have focused on providing “curative solutions” that attempt to fix problems such as poor performance, lack of productivity, lack of engagement etc. In a typical first-degree change approach a poorly functioning team of employees is in a sense “treated” by “administering” leadership skills courses, team-building workshops, communication skills training, and many other well-intentioned programmes that provide a temporary “fix” to the identified problems. Although these first-degree change solutions can to some degree limit the further deterioration of employee relationships and performance, the underlying individual and organisational-systemic patterns that gave rise to breakdowns in communication, leadership, poor team morale etc. are left unchanged.

The problems will re-occur, perhaps in a different form.

First-degree Change – Coaching in an Organisational Context

Phil is a manager in your organisation who is known for the ultra-high standards he places on himself and his department. Under Phil’s leadership his department had initially become more quality-focused and reliable. Phil easily spots how things can be improved and works very hard and long hours to show, by example, how a job can be done well. But a number of employees under Phil’s leadership are complaining about Phil’s recent and more regular critical and angry outbursts. Phil’s exacting standards and “one right way” approach have his team feeling incompetent, under constant stress, and micromanaged. The team has a very ‘negative vibe’ in the office and this is affecting the rest of the organisation’s atmosphere.

You recognize a change intervention is required and so you bring in a well-known consulting company. The company’s executive coach decides to help Phil with his leadership style. The coach (adopting a first-degree change approach) firstly teaches Phil to give more constructive feedback to his team. The coach encourages Phil to notice when he is being critical and to “reframe” criticism into a statement that is more positive and encouraging. The coach also teaches him a relaxation technique to apply in situations where he notices the anger and frustration rising. Realizing that the team also needs a change intervention, the coach arranges for her colleague to come and do a team-building day where the team learns about conflict management and better communication.

Phil, who is always open to improving himself, responds well to the intervention. He works hard to perfect his feedback skills, and practices the relaxation technique three times a day in an attempt to improve his mental state. Phil’s team reports that he is friendlier and less critical, and for a while the morale is good.

But eventually what seemed too good to be true is exposed.

Phil is booked off from work for what the doctor describes as “burn-out”. Phil had been taking more and more responsibility for tasks in his department and had been working twenty hours overtime a week! To avoid situations where criticism of his team felt inevitable, Phil had delegated as little tasks as possible while working himself beyond a state of fatigue. Now the team was without a leader and the huge load of Phil’s work was creating a great deal of conflict and confusion amongst his ‘abandoned’ team – leaving them feeling incompetent!

How and why did this happen?

A Second-degree Look at Phil and his Team

What had remained unchanged by the first-degree coaching intervention was Phil’s underlying framework of beliefs about himself and the world. Phil was driven and motivated by the belief that he and the world were full of imperfections that needed to be improved or corrected. His core belief and the accompanying need to avoid criticism and mistakes, was fuelled by his habitual focus of attention on what was ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ in himself and the world. Phil’s critical and angry approach was merely a symptom of a deeper and limiting worldview. Ultimately, his attempt to perfect himself as a manager by “fixing” his critical leadership style had played straight into the hands of this limiting worldview.

No one in the team saw Phil’s ‘breakdown’ coming, since he worked hard to suppress and internalize his negative emotions and anger, which in itself resulted in a wearing down of Phil’s resources and energy. The first-degree team-building day had also not been able to address the inevitably recurringsystemic problems, since the “real issue” had not yet been uncovered. The team was most certainly not functioning at its optimal level before or after the intervention by the coach. In fact, despite their complaints about Phil, the team had been lulled into his taking responsibility for many areas of functioning in the department, for which they now felt ill equipped.

Second-degree Coaching and Organisational Change

First-degree coaching interventions that encourage individuals and organisations to overcome their difficulties by learning new skills, theories and techniques, tend to leave the system’s underlying patterns unchanged (if not reinforced as with Phil and his team). In a sense, first-degree change requires very little of both coach and client, since the underlying rules of engagement aren’t fundamentally challenged.

In order to shift individuals, teams and entire organisations out of the grip of long-standing, complex and habit-driven problems, coaches need to help clients identify and critically evaluate their, often unconscious, behavioural patterns, driving assumptions, rules and beliefs. This is a ‘paradigm shifting’ approach that aims change interventions at a deeper or second-degree level. Second-degree change is more uncomfortable and challenging than first-degree change, because it requires a commitment to ‘letting go’ of not only the usual ways of doing things, but also the safety and comfort of our dominant worldviews.

Second-degree change requires a leap into unchartered territories where we feel more vulnerable and uncertain, since we may have to experience and confront what we have been avoiding. However, when the usual ways of doing and seeing things has become uncomfortable enough, and when they have been shown (by the coaching intervention) to cost us more than they are benefitting us, then we are ready to embrace second-degree change. Let us consider the case of Phil and his team to illustrate what second-degree change might ask of both coach and client.

Phil, His Team, and Second-degree Change

Let us imagine that a coach who works at the second-degree change level had been invited to come and work with Phil and his team.

To begin with, the coach would’ve systematically established, by means of a thorough psychometric assessment and interview process, what was driving and motivating Phil’s behaviour. The assessment would have, from the outset, engaged Phil in a conversation that helped him identify the beliefs and assumptions about himself and the world that informed his approach as a manager and leader.

The coaching conversation would have then used practical and behavioural examples (identified by Phil) where his “narrow focus on error and needed improvement”, his “avoidance of criticism and mistakes”, his “lack of delegation”, and his “harsh and selective inner critic” were having a significant negative impact on his leadership style and on his team’s performance. Phil could have been invited to assess how his habitual patterns were actuallyworking against his goal of improving workplace relationships and the functioning of his department. Ideally, the coaching conversation would have have encouraged Phil to identify how his view of himself and the world was driven by an early internalized message that he had to be perfect and beyond reproach in order to be acceptable and loved.

The coach would’ve invited Phil to acknowledge how his fear of being criticized or judged as bad or corrupt was driving his criticism of himself and others. Rather than encouraging Phil to improve and correct himself, the coach might have invited Phil to become more tolerant and accepting of himself and others, while acknowledging the good and positive.

After helping Phil evaluate and relax these dimensions of his team and leadership style, the coach could have moved on to helping Phil find alternatives to the “one right way” approach that made it difficult for him to delegate tasks. By helping Phil see that his over-responsibility and micromanagement of the department was actually creating disengagement and poor functioning, the coach could have shown Phil how risking more and allowing for so called ‘mistakes’ along the road of progress would actually empower his team to take more responsibility for their tasks and performance levels. As you can imagine, this would be counter-intuitive and difficult for Phil and it would therefore require a careful balance of support and challenge from his coach.

As far as Phil’s team is concerned, the coach would’ve done well – as with Phil – to establish what each team member’s driving motivationsbeliefs andassumptions were, and how these were influencing their responses to the current problems. The coach could’ve used an accurate psychometric assessment, combined with individual or group coaching sessions, to help the team own their part in either fuelling or addressing the department’s difficulties. As with Phil, each team member could have been invited to challenge the assumptions and behavioural habits that reinforced the dynamic between the team and Phil, and amongst team members.

By, from the outset, locating responsibility for the needed changes and ‘paradigm shifts’ at level of every individual (rather than on the shoulders of Phil alone) any systemic blaming and potential disengagement patterns could also have been addressed.

As you can see the premises, practices and outcomes of second-degree change, by focusing on individual, systemic, motivational, and paradigmatic levels, are vastly different from teaching new skills or ‘administering’ team-building exercises. A fundamental assumption of second-degree change is thatindividuals, teams and organisations have the necessary resources and abilities to affect change and progress. The role of the coach is therefore to help remove habitual barriers that block the development of that potential. Of course education and skills training has its role in this development process, but (especially in complex multi-level organisations) that role is limited in scope.

Third-degree Change

A number of authors in the field of coaching and organisational consulting have advocated a third level of change often dubbed transformationalthird-order, or third-degree change. John Barrow has described this third kind of change as including and going beyond second-degree change in three important ways:

1.      There is an ongoing commitment to change

2.      No boundary is defended

3.      There is an agreement to create no avoidable and foreseeable negative impact

1. Ongoing commitment to change: In the example of Phil and his team the commitment to ongoing change would be reflected in a willingness to embrace and expect the unexpected, while being open to continuous change. An ongoing openness to changes in roles, responsibilities and perspectives is essential. Systems theory has suggested that all systems, such as individuals, teams and organisations, gravitate towards a state of homeostasis or ‘equilibrium’ where radical change is not easily embraced. The point is that even uncomfortable familiarity can seem more appealing than embracing difficult but empowering change. The coach’s role in encouraging this ongoing commitment to change is pivotal. But ultimately a ‘culture of change’ must be embraced by the client(s) in order for progress to be sustained.

2. No boundary is defended: Coaching at a second-degree level will generally reveal the fears and vulnerabilities that individuals habitually try to avoid as they manage their workplace relationships and tasks. In a sense there is an inherent defensiveness in the way we deal with work and life challenges. Phil was driven by the fear of criticism and mistakes and he defended himself against being found at fault by mercilessly driving himself (and those around him) to improve, perfect and perform faultlessly. However this defended boundary of “correctness” was limiting potential change and development in himself and his team. The second-degree level coach will (ideally through a longer term coaching intervention) consistently invite clients to soften their defences and ego boundaries in order to be open to ongoing change and development. Over time this softening and openness results in greater collaboration and a deeper transformation of organisational cultures, or third-degree change.

3. There is an agreement to create no avoidable and foreseeable negative impact: Although it is difficult to predict the outcomes of all the changes we make as individuals, teams and organisations, a commitment to avoid harmful consequences – call it respect, consideration, love, common concern etc. – is a guiding principle of third-degree change. When we let go of the need for certainty and predictability, while softening our ego defences, we can make individual and organisational decisions that create no victims or enemies. Third-degree change will lead to win-win changes rather than (as in the initial illustration of Phil and his team’s first-degree change) lose-lose outcomes.

Change is the essence of life. Be willing to surrender what you are for what you could become.


One Response to “Coaching and the Three Degrees of Organisational Change”

  • Wendy Quinn:

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