Ten Themes from Coaching Tech Workers

Coaching is a non-directive dialogue to support insight and action. Coaching is not advice giving or therapy. Coaching is a life affirming practice that empowers the client to find their own answers and solutions. I have coached 700 professionals in tech from around the world, many from Google. Here is what I’ve learned about their private struggles and suggestions on how to break free.

  1. Binary thinking is choking possibility. This is the right/wrong, good/bad, better/worse thinking that stifles creativity, motivation, and resilience. I should be XYZ by now. I can’t ask for help – it looks weak. I can only do ABC if XYZ, they said. I can’t hire a nanny. I can’t ask for a career conversation. I can’t leave, stay, look, ask, speak, search, think because they said so. Any sentence from a coachee that involves should, would, only, and they said are red flags for one-way-only thinking and stifling assumptions. Taxes and death are the only certainties in life. Whatever the root causes – family norms, social norms, the past, fear, fragility, toxic masculinity or femininity – a good coach challenges the dualism. Ask instead – how accurate is your thinking? What assumptions are you making? What evidence do you have? What relationship do you have with the unknown?
  2. Perfectionism is alive and well. Ambitious, type A personalities bring strong work ethics but also risk burnout when they cannot discern good enough from perfect. This is especially acute with women or people of color, and working mothers because their lapses are judged more harshly due to institutional bias. Fear of disaster and control are at the root of perfectionism. I cannot tell you how many clients confess to not being able to disconnect from email or their phone at the dinner table or at home because they need to be on top of everything. Saying no, negotiating, reprioritizing, delegating, or (gasp) choosing good enough is unimaginable. Systematic bias needs to be addressed but individuals can experiment and rehabilitate perfection patterns. Plus, research shows that satisficers (people who embrace good enough) are happier and healthier than maximizers (perfectionists). Letting go, embracing the grey, and valuing happiness over perfect is the key to well-being and one of the most important lessons to learn as you become senior. Ask instead – what’s the highest and best use of your time? Where is good enough enough? What is the greatest good here? What’s so bad about XYZ?
  3. Critical transitions are neglected. The most emotional sessions I remember are the tears and suffering of new graduates entering the workplace and new parents adjusting to their new lives. I am constantly surprised by their surprise at the scale of change involved – they never expected it to be so hard and the office to be so cold. These transition periods are massive identity shifts – and coachees lack the perspective and social support required to navigate through them in healthy ways. They don’t need problem solving, they need mattering and emotional support. They often look and sound deeply alone.  Loneliness has the same mortality risk as smoking by the way.  Ask instead – what social support do you have? What are your spiritual resources? What do you need and how can you fill it? How have your overcome transitions in the past?
  4. Feedback is an abusive relationship. Corporate feedback systems and culture are broken. Period. And managers and leaders are sorely, painfully ill-equipped at the conversation. And worse, coachees overidentify with feedback (positive and negative) and become puppets to some stranger’s words or these external signals of success and failure. Again, too many sessions involving tears, self-hate, or fixation to public accolades. Coachees at all levels lose opportunity to reason, dispute, sort, and filter the information to become their own person. Focus on strengths instead. Make time to know thyself – understand your preferences, principles, role models and seek out their perspectives. Filter. Tara Mohr’s Playing Big and Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead offer modern research about feedback for givers and receivers. How to get ready to give and receive feedback and how to pick and choose what to listen to.  Feedback doesn’t need to be so fatal.  Ask instead – what’s most important to me? What do I know to be true about myself? What are my strengths? Values? Goals? Who do I respect and why? What feedback will I take or toss?
  5. Agency is scarce. I’ll never forget this client. Mid-thirties, many years of successful management consulting experience, and wanted to work on navigating a new team effectively. Finally admitted / blurted that, “I need to be called upon to speak”. It took all of my will to not burst into tears on the spot for her self-imposed subjugation. How do grown adults arrive at this place where agency, efficacy, authorship, power is bereft? This is a rhetorical question because all kinds of socialization and experiences arrest the voice – and research supports that this is particularly problematic with marginalized groups conditioned to believe that subordination means safety. An adjunct to this is the forfeit – the coachee that asks me to tell them what to do. In healthy development, self-authorship is the mind-state that blossoms in the teenage years. Unless nurtured, minds can stay in the socialized frame which is governed by peer pressure, external forces, and group think. Coaches must do pure coaching which is enable empowerment and freewill. The best thing a coach can do is repeat – what do you want?
  6. Bias is pervasive. As a coach, I naturally only have part of the facts. However, in research, the principle of aggregation says that many different measures together can point to something happening. Many clients, companies, and hours later, I can safely say that patriarchy (I’m the only woman; they always ask me to take notes), sexism, racism, bias against non-English speakers (ESL workers getting the unhelpful work on your communication comment), toxic masculinity (men not asking for help and women acting like men to survive), xenophobia, ageism are all well and good in organizations.  One client, a CFO and black woman in a majority white space, use to have the need to ask for permission or say yes when she meant no.  A Wharton MBA CFO.  It took time to reclaim her power.  As a coach, my agenda is the client’s agenda but with permission, I might ask about these topics and what’s coming up for me as a listener. Phrase it as a hypothesis – is it possible that XYZ? Be in service of your coachee’s agenda and awareness of the field (in spite of how much you would love to change the world and the organizational culture). Ask instead – how do you feel about what was said / done? What do you know now that you will recognize a year from now? What don’t I know that may feel dangerous to say? What do you want to do?
  7. Self-awareness is not actively developed. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I even had a client say, “Career Services told me to be a product manager”. Many clients, even middle-aged and older, have gone from home to school to marital home, to following their friend’s careers or parent’s advice, and have not made the time to reflect on their own strengths, virtues, values, and dreams. It’s more than helicopter parenting, toxic masculinity, and smart device problems. And there is indeed a cultural component – collectivist cultures emphasize less individual will. Know thyself underwrites all of life’s pursuits. And yes, it’s scary to own your life, not have anyone or anything to blame, and be the only person accountable and liable at the same time. So I am not surprised when clients resist owning their decisions and ask me to tell them what to do.  But the rewards, oh the rewards of being the driver of your own life – freedom from resentment, regret, anxiety, and possibly depression, and most importantly: flourishing. Ask instead – what are your strengths (assessments like Gallup StrengthsFinder and VIA Strengths are great tools)? What is your body telling you?  What was a peak experience in your life and what made it great? How can you do more of that? What do you want to do? What do I stand for?
  8. Reaching out is unimaginable. Talk to someone??? I cannot count how many panic-stricken faces I’ve seen when clients consider the reality of having to network with others.  Yes, I can tell it is more work for them but mostly I can sense the social and cognitive anxiety.  And it’s not just the introverts.  Smart and successful people think they have magic – they think they have found the cure to cancer in our 60 minute sessions. Too many coachees talk themselves out of their hopes and dreams all while sitting across from me. They’ve done no researchtalked to no one but somehow – poof. They’ve managed to convince themselves of an outcome, an illusion. This “mind reading” is interconnected with assumption making. Fear or arrogance – the space between both ears is the most dangerous echo chamber. Life rewards positive actions, not assumptions. Social support is key to networking but critical to well-being. Ask instead – how can you find out? Who would know? How can you learn more? How can you reach out, build support, make connections?
  9. Hedonism is a dangerous narcotic. Free food. Nap pods. Private shuttle buses. Tech life can be very seductive at first. Couple external perks with competition and the hedonic treadmill is born. Chasing the dragon for a bigger title, more money, more promotions spells anxiety and depression. Many clients come to me stressed out, sleep deprived, deeply anxious about checking the box, getting all the grades, doing everything the rubric says exactly – and wonder why they are lost and unhappy.  This is worshipping a false god.  We call it the golden handcuffs for a reason. And science shows that after a threshold of income, happiness and life satisfaction plateaus. Lottery winners even revert back to old set points of happiness. Aristotle coined the term eudaimonia to name the good life – life grounded in intrinsic pursuits of virtues and excellent actions. Ask instead – what’s most important for you in life? What would your 90 year old self tell you? What are you saying yes to? What are you saying no to?
  10. People are hurting, scared, and under-valued. A lotus cannot grow without mud. Human suffering is a fact but does work have to add to it, still? It’s 2020! Numerous clients come merely 5, 6, 12 months into their new job – at all levels and ages – and are utterly lost and alone.  Are we still perpetuating the factory culture?  How can workplaces optimize those 40, 50, 60 hours a week to lessen human suffering? How can managers and leaders macro-manage – look at the whole person and focus on their strengths instead of their deficits? How can tech organizations build community, heal, and propel wellness, belonging, resilience, whole-person, life-centered leadership? Let’s free the coaches of their secrets and have everyone know everyone’s struggles, dreams, and superpowers safely so everyone thrives. Once I was told, “Where is the greatest talent in the world? Answer: In our graveyards.” Ask instead – what is life like for you? How is life outside of work? Where does it hurt? What is your most important unmet need? What is a talent you have that no one knows about?

You are correct in thinking that many of these themes are not unique to tech, overlap, and my sample is skewed.  I agree.  Perhaps we should blame bad parenting, media, western culture, broken university systems, smartphones, or geopolitics. I don’t know and likely it’s all of the above. But the impact of tech on everyday lives around the world is unique, potent, and relevant. And for that result alone, paying attention to the mental and physical wellness of this workforce is everyone’s concern. Coach On.