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Positive Behavioural Change

How to use Positive Intention and Metaphor to give someone a real boost to their interpersonal and relationship skills

I’m occasionally asked to help when a man in a senior leadership position is seen as being particularly challenging or negative in his relationships. Or similarly, when his interpersonal behaviour is having a damaging effect on other people or is just not getting the results that the business needs.

My experience has been that it’s almost impossible to help this man change his behaviour by starting out being critical of him. By the time things have got to the point where the business seeks my help, plenty of other people (and, sometimes, even the man himself) will already have been highly critical of him. Even if my being critical would have worked as a behavioural change catalyst (and sometimes it can), that option is often no longer available to me.

Instead, I often apply a change strategy based on two key aspects:

  1. the power of Positive Intention; and
  2. the use of Metaphor.

1. Positive Intention

Positive Intention works by seeking to understand, from the other person’s perspective, what was the ‘good’ outcome they were hoping to achieve by applying the behaviour that they used. Even if the actual outcome they got was highly negative, there will be something from their point of view that they were trying to achieve that, to them, would have been a positive outcome.

If I can understand what their Positive Intention is, as they see it, that’s halfway to creating the rapport and partnership we need for me to help them explore other behavioural strategies.

I’ve listed some of the examples I’ve come across of Positive Intention in the table below.

2. Metaphor

I’ve noticed that there’s something about metaphors in a coaching context that lets them fly right under a client’s radar, bypassing any resistance to change.

When we’ve found a metaphor that works well to either describe what the client’s positive intention was, or to picture how a ‘good’ interpersonal relationship might work, I can often see that it’s like weight has been lifted from their shoulders. See the table below for some examples.

Positive Intention and Metaphor


The Hero Shadow

The three steps to replacing heroics with genuinely useful decisive action

If you’ve ever done or said anything that you regretted, were ashamed of, or got negative feedback about, then this mini-series might be useful. Look for the shadow tag.

Sometimes we do and say stuff that comes out wrong – but we do it with good intentions. These behaviours are a kind of distortion of our true strengths, hence the term ‘shadow’.

The Hero is a distortion of the true masculine strength of being able to take action, with energy, decisiveness and skill.

You can spot a Hero in action if you see these behaviours:

  • He jumps into action with a reckless disregard for himself and others
  • The task is more important than the people
  • He needs (or possibly even causes) a crisis in order to feel energised
  • He gets way too far out in front, so that other people are unable to keep-up and therefore accidentally creates his own solitude.

I’ve sometimes found the Hero Shadow to be a tough one for men to work on. It’s such an addictive (but temporary) source of energy and purpose. And there are also quite a lot of social expectations for men to behave heroically. We ask them to sacrifice their bodies in war or in dirty and dangerous industrial jobs. We tell them to “suck it up” when it comes to emotional pain or thwarted ambition.

Heroic Leadership in the workplace is what sometimes happens when entrepreneurs are unable to take their business from the thriving start-up phase through to a sustainable company. Because that’s not something one person can usually do by themselves. In larger companies Heroic leaders create burn-out around them and fail to get the boring processes in place so that the organisation can function without them.

There are three steps to replacing heroics with genuinely useful decisive action:

1. Reconnect with the real heartfelt purpose behind why action is even necessary. That way it transparently becomes action for the sake of something worthwhile, not for its own sake

2. Deliberately create the kind of positive solitude that gives a longer-term top-up to energy levels (long, silent bike-rides are my favourite)

3. Unearth the compassionate, nurturing side of the hero; the part that can’t bear to see suffering and wasted opportunity in people, and teach them how to help others help themselves, instead of having to save them all the time.

Unhappy is the land that needs a hero

Bertolt Brecht


Men and Organisational Politics

The three kinds of men who fall foul of organisational politics and why

I’m sometimes asked to work with a man who has got on the wrong end of the small-p politics in an organisation. These men are often one of three types:

1. A direct, action-oriented type
This kind of man often has a great straight-forwardness about him and a high-level of intuitive, natural leadership. Sometimes these strengths make him frustrated and ineffective in dealing with what he sees as the cowardly caution and game-playing of people with different styles of behaviour;

2. A highly-principled, morally-astute type
This kind of man has a strong sense of right, wrong and justice; often combined with an ability to ‘see’ the outcome of complex decisions and chains of events. Organisations often seem to him to have ambiguous values – to say one thing and then do another, or to take the easiest, most expedient route, rather than the ‘right’ one;

3. A focused, do-the-job-right type
This kind of man has a gift for making things work well, for knowing how to tinker and fix his specific part of the organisation until it is running like a well-oiled machine. He might feel particularly lost when the bigger-picture objectives of the organisation are inefficient, or at cross-purposes or put the smooth-running of his territory at a lower-priority than something else – as they often do!

In these situations, I’ve found it crucial to remember that these are strengths that have got things to this point, not weaknesses. It’s just that they may not be the most appropriate strengths for him to apply right now. We need to step away from: “You’re doing something wrong”, which is what the organisation or the system seems to be telling him – just when he is trying very hard to apply what he knows. Then we can head towards new ways of looking at how other people behave and how to relate to that, or to new capabilities that broaden the range of strengths he can apply.


where is your leadership absent?

The Truant Shadow

Why some men are absent from their leadership at work and in families – and what to do about it

Sometimes we do and say stuff that comes out wrong – but we do it with good intentions. These behaviours are a kind of distortion of our true strengths, and one of the distortions that you might notice around you, is the Truant.

The Truant is a distortion of a someone’s strengths in being a nourishing and responsible leader who looks after the growth potential in the people and things around him. What happens is that our fear and shame gets in the way of being able to use our real strengths to lead and take care of people.

The Truant is what happens when we have a flight or freeze response to that fear and shame. We’re afraid of not being able to live up to our potential, of falling short of what people need or expect from us. And we’re ashamed that we’ve already not been ‘good enough’ in some way. Overloaded by the pressure of that fear and shame, we run or hide.

You’ll see the Truant response often in men when it comes to fatherhood. In the West, half of all children will spend time in a fatherless home. And similar issues arise at work, where men may absent themselves from taking long-term responsibility, or be dismissive of the day-to-day drudge work that makes organisations secure and prosperous.

The first step in helping men who have been Truant in some way, and are ready to return, is to stop being absent from the fear and the shame. After all, that’s what we’re really running from or frozen into inaction by. The good news is that fear and shame won’t destroy us, even if it feels like they might.

Here’s some questions that will turn people face-about to the hard issues:

  • What responsibilities have you ducked?
  • What have you failed to provide for?
  • Which people have you let down?
  • What has been the impact on other people of your ‘absence’?
  • What does the above say about you as a man?

My advice is to write down the answers to these questions often enough to be able to face the truth and to just ‘be with’ them for as much as they can, no matter how tough or bad it feels. Only then are people ready to come out the other side.

And remember, to some extent, everybody shares these experiences – it’s part of being human. You are not your behaviour and your behaviour can change.