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

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, ones 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 affect 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 at 952-646-6181

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

  1. Marc Brenman says:

    I think this assumption is wrong: “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.” These matters need to be based on facts, not supposition.

    I am not comfortable with this technique: “I will push and provoke those accused of bullying to see what their triggers are and how easily they can be activated.” Two wrongs don’t make a right. I worked with a person years ago who did this, and the results were lousy.

    This feels self-serving from the perspective of the coach: “Highly compensated people won’t value the coaching unless it is priced for its value.”

    This sounds like Chinese Communist brainwashing: “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.”

    All in all, I think Fran is making some good points, but some of her techniques border on the unethical and improper. In fact, they sound bullying and harassing.

  2. Fran Sepler says:

    Wow Mark. WIth 25 years of investigative experience, I can almost guarantee that the high level players who are referred to me get away with all sorts of bad behavior because people are terrified to report it due to reprisal. By the time they hit the corporate radar, they have reputations, and my work interviewing others to set up the coaching validates that one hundred percent of the time.

    In coaching, it is essential to create opportunities to view people’s blind spots. This is well established in the literature of coaching and a standard technique. By asking tough, provocative questions, often the coachee will have an immediate insight into his or her own hypersensitivity to certain types of character traits of patterns of thinking. I have had coachees actually burst into laughter when they realized that they got triggered by my open-ended questions in response to their questions. This is not bullying. This is promoting insight and self discovery and it is part and parcel of good coaching.

    Asking people to take anothers perspective is also a standard technique. It is powerful and effective to have someone say “this happened,” and ask them to write it again with “this felt…” nothing bullying or unethical about that. I find that many of these HPLs are unable, blinded by their own hubris or their unfortunate proximity to a zillion “yes people” have let whatever emotional intelligence they might have had whither away. If they can’t imagine how someone would feel being demeaned by the highest ranking person in the organization, well, I say back to the drawing board. It’s hard work, but these folks are in big jobs.

    As far as pricing, I’m simply sharing the reality that the lawyers who have hired me to do this over the years insisted I was not charging enough, and therefore making coaching clients think they were not getting “the best.” I wanted to share that perspective, which, by the way, gains me nothing but vulnerability to criticism like this, but is truthful and contributes to the dialogue.

    You may disagree with my methods Mark, but slinging “unethical,” “harassing,” and “bullying” at me goes a bit too far, and I would ask that you modify your remarks.

  3. Sharon says:

    Fran I found this article insightful and interesting, with some good tips. Thanks for sharing

  4. […] Sepler recently posted an insightful blog, “I’m Sort of Sorry: Coaching the High Level Harasser” discussing coaching a high-level performer regarding harassment, poor behavior or insensitivity.  […]

  5. […] Sepler recently posted an insightful blog titled, I’m Sort of Sorry: Coaching the High Level Harasser, that discussed coaching a high-level performer regarding harassment, poor behavior or […]

  6. […] a pattern. For this reason, it isn’t uncommon to find high-level professionals to be less than apologetic, according to Sepler & Associates. After all, they reason, why should they […]

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