From Core to Core: Coaching With Compassion for Professional Growth
Researchers examine what really helps educators modify behavior and feel engaged in their work

Richard Boyatzis is the lead author of a new book, Helping People Change: Coaching with Compassion for Lifelong Learning and Growth, that illustrates motivational practices within organizations. 
John Spivak paced his office. Like many public school superintendents, he was about to take a controversial step to address a typical problem: how to motivate teachers, principals and staff.

During his monthly meeting of the school district’s principals, assistants and central-office leaders, Spivak announced the need for a new approach to motivation. Eyes rolled as the people in the room thought, “Here we go again.” One principal responded, “John, we respect you and trust your instincts. [People laughed to themselves.] I recall an episode of Ricky Gervais’ ‘Office’ in which he parodied management training. It was hysterical because the training was useless. We have been here before. What is so new that it warrants another training program?”

In fact, this was the opening the superintendent was hoping to get.

Spivak (which is a pseudonym to protect his identity and that of the district) smiled and said, “We are exhausted. Between changing curricula, reduced budgets and increasing diversity of families in our community with a wide range of demands, it is easy to forget the joy of learning. We forget the sparkle in a student’s eyes when they get it. That is what I want to change. We don’t do this for ourselves and each other. We do it for them.”

Heads nodded. He didn’t hesitate before continuing. “We have to be part magician, part juggler, part educator and a lot of politician. I want us to play to the joy and compassion for our students, as well as the commitment to them and each other that we have all felt many times.”

Spivak, who was in his eighth year as superintendent of the 6,000-student suburban district, opened his hands wide, palms up and asked, “If your life were perfect, absolutely ideal in 10-15 years, what would it be like?” Silence ensued. “Really, that was a question. If you feel comfortable, what might some aspects of your personal dream be?”

He waited. Finally, a principal offered an image of living part time on a lake with a boat and fishing. Another talked about cooking meals with her partner and children. Another referenced reading fiction and not feeling guilty. The conversation picked up speed. The mood began to feel lighter, even playful. “That’s what we should be feeling each day!” he said.

Life Experiences

In his quest to inspire his district colleagues, Spivak discovered research on professional coaching that we and our colleagues at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve conducted.

Through a conversation with one of us (Boyatzis), the superintendent also learned about training programs we conduct. The programs are based on empirical studies of longitudinal behavior change and neurological and hormonal research on how to help an-other person experience or re-experience hope, compassion and mindfulness.

Spivak brought the information back to the leadership team. The program prompted each member to reflect on her or his passion, purpose and values and then knit those together into a personal vision. The aim of the personal vision was to capture and express the individual’s dream for ideal work and life 10-15 years into the future.

The personal vision statements also encouraged the administrators to build ways of interacting with each other that cascaded the same feeling. Participants learned about an approach to helping others that we call “coaching with compassion,” which invokes the other person’s dreams, hopes and mindfulness.

The training involved a lot of practicing in “real plays.” These are similar to role plays but involve someone’s actual life and desired future rather than a script of a concocted character. Spivak explained this took place over about five days with some action learning (homework projects in between).

He asked them if they were interested and how could they participate in the program in a convenient way and not add to the stress of their daily lives. The group agreed to proceed. Within a short time, they began the program, opting to do it in small groups of about 12-15 at a time and spread out the sessions over a 10-week period.

Within several years, the school district was leading the surrounding communities in educational outcomes, and word began to spread. Administrators from area school districts called Spivak to benchmark what they were doing. His leadership style always had been one of engaging others and asking questions. He truly wanted to bring out their best. His curiosity and engagement excited those around him.

He explored various ways to do this by discovering new ideas, often from fields outside K-12 education. He was especially energized to familiarize his team with the research on the role of emotions in connecting with others and how his team could build more effective relationships with each other, not just students.
 Ellen Van Oosten

Compassion Prioritized

In our new book, Helping People Change: Coaching with Compassion for Lifelong Learning and Growth, we tell stories of educational leaders similar to Spivak, along with others in leadership roles such as managers, physicians, teachers and parents who are aspiring to motivate others to develop, change and perform.

What they often notice is that when they try to get others to comply with their directives, the effort tends to be short-lived. People’s motivation and sense of engagement drop over time. They lose hope and stop short of applying their talent at work every day.

Based on 30 years of longitudinal studies of adults changing their behavior, including neuro-imagining and hormonal studies, we have discovered a better way to motivate and even inspire others to learn and change.

We call this approach “coaching with compassion” — that is, connecting with others in a way that generates positive emotion and motivation. It helps the other person reconnect with her or his values and purpose and move closer to personal dreams. It sounds counterintuitive. You want to motivate learning and change, but you don’t address the specific problem head on. By attacking the problem directly, you impose your solution. The human brain reacts with defensiveness and closes down in response.

Coaching with compassion activates a neural network that our colleague Anthony Jack, a neuroscientist, calls the empathic network and the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the endocrine system that activates when we are feeling renewed. Engaging the empathic network enables an individual to open up to new ideas and people and envision possibilities. It helps the person feel excited. They become positively infectious and others catch the enthusiasm. In these moments of connection and inspiration, the individuals become grounded in who they are authentically and are encouraged to bring their A-game to work.

First, though, you have to decide whether you want to focus on tasks and short-term gains or relationships and long-term results. The former will seduce you into using more of what we call coaching for compliance or coaching to the negative emotional attractor. It turns people off, reduces engagement and seems to have a positive result only when people want to be told what to do, which is rare. Adults change when they want to or need to, but mandated change rarely sticks.

 Melvin Smith
Activating Emotion

If you decide that your long-term health and adaptability will depend on people feeling excited, engaged and motivated to learn and change, then you shift your primary focus to their development. You focus on how to develop their motivation and excitement. If you choose the latter, then coaching with compassion is the approach you want to use.

Parents, teachers and school leaders all care about their students. In the midst of the many demands to help students learn, however, educational leaders can easily be seduced into thinking their role is about budgets and problem solving. They don’t realize that in the process, they repeatedly activate that neural network, hormonal system and affective state that we call the negative emotional attractor, or NEA. The consequence is they adopt a style of pushing for well-intended change.

In the process, this activation of the NEA closes people down to new ideas and other people. Others around them become infected with negativity leading to a defensive posture — the exact opposite of what they want to do.

Although well-intentioned, even educators can become helping bullies. They default to using a “you ought to do this” model, which suppresses openness to new ideas, learning and more caring relationships with each other. It is easy to slide into coaching for compliance. We know better but lose sight of our reasons for becoming an educator in the first place.

That is not surprising. When people activate the NEA in themselves, they become defensive either mildly or strongly. This impairs their cognitive functioning and perceptual openness to others and their attention to what is going on around them. So most of the time, this approach to educational administration results in dysfunctional relationships.

The good news is that an antidote exists. By being intentional about having conversations rooted in compassion, you create a contagion of inspiration, hope and openness and unleash a tidal wave of positive emotions in yourselves and each other, strengthen relationships and magnify learning and growth for all.

RICHARD BOYATZIS is the H.R. Horvitz Professor of Family Business and a distinguished university professor of organizational behavior, psychology and cognitive science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. MELVIN SMITH, professor of organizational behavior and ELLEN VAN OOSTEN, associate professor of organizational behavior, also are at Case Western Reserve. The three are co-authors of Helping People Change: Coaching with Compassion for Lifelong Learning and Growth (Harvard Business Review Press).