A Coaching Power Tool By Olga Kurek, Transformational Coach, NETHERLANDS
The Relationship Between Rigidity vs. Flexibility
Some people have high standards and are as hardworking as busy bees. Rigid people pride their productivity and performance, even though achieved at the cost of other life areas. They love rules, structures, and details, but their precision causes extra time and is at the root of feeling overwhelmed and stressed out. Adapted attitudes of “I know better” and “my way or no way” comes from the fear of criticism and negatively impact their people skills. Working with them never relaxed. Their subordinates fear but respect them; bosses think of them as valuable defiant assets, and spouses call them bull-stubborn.
Some aspects of rigid managers can be helpful in some managerial positions. However, most of the time, they are difficult or even toxic.
Definitions: Rigidity vs. Flexibility
Something is rigid when it is stiff, fixed, impossible, or not permitted to change, persuade or bend (Cambridge, no date). Rigidity is “a personality trait characterized by strong resistance to changing one’s behavior, opinions, or attitudes or by the inability to do this” that consists of three components: cognitive (thoughts), affective (emotions), and behavioral (acts) (APA, no date).
Flexibility is the key to well-being, work performance, and mental health, which is crucial to master flexibility to succeed in dynamic and uncertain modern times. Flexibility defines a capacity for objective appraisal and appropriately flexible action, also named “fair-mindedness” (APA, no date). It helps change easily or to be changed according to the new situation without breaking (Cambridge, no date).
Flexibility can be mental, psychological (cognitive, affective, behavioral), or understood as a stress coping. Mental flexibility enables shifting your thoughts to adapt to new, changing, unplanned or uncertain events. It refers to the skill of creating helpful and breaking unhelpful ways of thinking. Psychological flexibility is full awareness and acceptance of thoughts, emotions, and sensations orientated to actions and values. Flexible or active stress coping is called guiding your thoughts and actions toward problem-solving, managing emotions, and having meaningful relations. Irrespective of definition, there is an emphasis on its role in navigating uncertain and stressful times.
Mindset: Rigid vs. Flexible
A “mindset” consist of two words: “mind” and “set” – a mind is the part of you that makes it possible to think, understand and feel. It combines individual beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, and knowledge and forms our worldview (Ruhl, 2020). A set refers to being fixed and certain when putting things in a particular position/condition/situation that makes them stay there. It underlies your attitude reflecting how you interact with the world around you. A mindset is a set of beliefs, attitudes, opinions, intents, and knowledge backed with emotions resulting from earlier experiences that define how you see, behave, and interact with the world (Davis, no date).
Your mindset is a unique construct holding something fixed but neither being single nor permanent by its nature. You have more than one mindset, and it is possible to change it.
So What Are Rigid and Flexible Mindsets, and How Do They Differ?
A rigid mindset is a set of pessimistic beliefs, attitudes, and opinions that stay on the way to reaching the goal. Achieving goals requires learning, growing, changing, and adapting. People with rigid mindsets are allergic to any of them. How they think about the change is resistant and stress-provoking. People with such a mindset believe in keeping one safe by protecting from uncertainties and losing control. It manifests in actions out of fear.
A rigid mindset thinks in black and white: good or bad, right or wrong, success or failure. Stuck with a negative perspective, it assumes the worst. It is often critical, fearful of stress, change, failure, rejection, loss of control, being judged, etc. But most of all mind fears uncertainty.
Having a flexible mindset allows shifting the sets (beliefs, assumptions, opinions) and is capable of seeing the world from multiple perspectives with no prejudices. The flexibility of the mind contributes to problem-solving, decision-making, and communication. It is associated with curiosity, optimism, and thoughtfulness. It is comfortable with life’s complexity and knows when and how to zoom out. The world is neither black nor white – it is balanced. The behavior is never limited to one choice of stress coping.
Leadership style: Rigid vs. Flexible
Your mindset impacts your leadership style. There are more rigid leaders than you might think. A career in management, law, and medicine is like bees to honey for them (Lubit, 2003, p. 209). They become successful despite being difficult for their bosses and colleagues.
Leadership style reflects in one’s behavior and interactions with others. Could it be rigid, flexible, or both? One might say that a good leader has it all because he is good with structures and people. In my opinion, it is necessary to differentiate between being comfortable structuring from being rigid and unwilling to change, compromising, being creative, and letting go of control. Below are seven pairs of personal characteristics and observed behaviors distinguishing rigid and flexible leadership styles.
Comparison of Rigid and Flexible Leadership Styles Table 1
George, 35 y.o., married, one son
Finance manager and team leader in a large multinational corporation
George has rapidly worked his way up to mid-level management. As his career became steeper, his responsibilities (larger team, more projects=more work, business trips) seem to have grown. He started feeling stressed out, overwhelmed and irritated more often.
George is very detailed-oriented, analytical, and structured. He is a “go-to” person for technical and regulatory how-tos. George is a good project manager, which makes him take on complex projects. His schedule is busy, and he expects things to go according to plan. Otherwise, George feels frustrated, pressured, and tense. As an expert, he has a good reputation among peers and bosses. His subordinates fear him, especially when noticing things are not running smoothly, which causes tension with colleagues. He loves his job but feels overwhelmed and drained by it at the same time.
He is happily married. But he is not much at home and is often unavailable for his family. He used to exercise a lot. But now he seldom can find time for it in his busy schedule. He used to plan dates with friends regularly, but recently he has been rescheduling a lot of them.
Addressing Four Pillars: (Self-)Awareness, Willingness, Self-Belief, and Commitment
Clients like George complain a lot about lack of time, overwhelm, uncertainty, pressure, tension, and not being balanced. They tend to overthink and over-plan. They might have one f the following underlying beliefs:
- The boss’s way is the way things should be.
- When I have control – I feel safer.
- Only structures can ensure productivity and efficiency (Lubit, 2004).
- Mistakes are signs of weakness and are unforgivable.
- There is always a right and wrong way to do things.
- I have to control everything, or everything goes south.
- It is the only way since trying a new way will be hard.
When coaching such clients, focus on supporting your client in gaining more flexibility by addressing four pillars: (self-)awareness, willingness, self-belief, and commitment. It helps create the foundation for the client to shift and stay committed to a more flexible mindset and behavioral pattern. The client needs to gain awareness about alternative ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. When coaching, you might want to consider the following:
- gaining awareness around the impact of the current mindset;
- regularly challenging the client’s biases, assumptions, attitudes, and beliefs;
- identifying inflexible thinking patterns (should-statement, all-or-nothing, catastrophizing, exaggerating, mind-reading, etc.) and associated emotions and behaviors;
- supporting the discovery of the client’s willingness to change or adapt;
- supporting the discovery of the client’s belief in their capabilities and skills necessary to manage uncertainty and succeed in attaining realistic goals;
- supporting turning alternatives into attainable, actionable, and value-oriented commitments to act.
- encouraging the “learn fast, often learn” principle and new flexible ways of thinking and doing.
- acknowledging learning, flexibility, and openness rather than achievements, talents, and fixed qualities.
Some Helpful Coaching Questions: Shifting Perspective From Rigidity to Flexibility
- What are the benefits of this (rigid) way of looking at things?
- How does this perspective in alignment with what you want in your life?
- I observe some black-and-white (all-or-nothing) thinking here. How does it look/feel from a perspective of a gray zone?
- If you were to change your perspective, what would change? How would you think/feel/be?
- What are the other points of view here?
Some Helpful Coaching Questions: (Self-)Awareness
- What are the beliefs/assumptions you have about this issue/situation? How true are they?
- How does this belief/assumption impact your life?
- What would you rather believe? How does it feel?
- What do we need to tackle first to overcome your fear of [name specific fear]?
- Where do you think you would be now if it were not for your fear of XYZ?
Some Helpful Coaching Questions: Willingness
- What are you willing to gain/give up?
- What are the benefits of changing this limiting belief/assumption?
- How will your life be better when you attain this?
- How much effort are you willing to commit?
- How much risk are you willing to take?
Some Helpful Coaching Questions: Self-Belief
- What do you need to believe about yourself that will support you?
- What strengths (know-how) do you have to overcome (potential) obstacles (e.g., stress, fear)?
- Consider a time you overcame an obstacle in the past. How did you do that? How did it feel?
- How can you turn your weaknesses into strengths?
- How can you help yourself improve the things that make you feel out of ease?
Some Helpful Coaching Questions: Commitment to Action
- What does “commitment” mean/look to you?
- On a scale from 1-10, how would you describe your level of commitment?
- What structures/resources can support you in staying committed?
- How can you make this commitment a part of your life story
- What are you doing to stay committed – spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically?
Final Considerations for Coach
- How can you prepare to work with a rigid client?
- What can become challenging? How can you handle it?
- How might the coaching of rigid clients impact you?
APA Dictionary of Psychology (No Date). Cognitive Flexibility. Available At: https://dictionary.apa.org/ (Accessed: 27 July 2022).
APA Dictionary of Psychology (No Date). Rigidity. Available At: https://dictionary.apa.org/ (Accessed: 27 July 2022).
Cambridge Dictionary (No Date). Flexibility. Available At: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/Dictionary/English/ (Accessed: 28 July 2022).
Cambridge Dictionary (No Date). Rigidity. Available At: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/Dictionary/English/ (Accessed: 28 July 2022).
Cambridge Dictionary (No Date). Set. Available At: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/Dictionary/English/ (Accessed: 28 July 2022).
Davis, T. (No Date). Mindsets: Definition, Examples, and Books (Growth, Fixed + Other Types). Berkeley’s Well-Being Institute. Available At: https://www.berkeleywellbeing.com/ (Accessed: 28 July 2022).
Lubit, R.H. (2003). Coping With Toxic Managers, Subordinates … And Other Difficult People: Using Emotional Intelligence to Survive and Prosper. Ft Press, 2003, P. 400.
Lubit, R.H. (2004). The Tyranny of Toxic Managers: An Emotional Intelligence Approach to Dealing With Difficult Personalities. Yves Business Journal, [Online]. Available At: https://iveybusinessjournal.com/ (Accessed: 29 July 2022).
Ruhl, C. (2020) Theory of Mind. Available At: https://www.simplypsychology.org/ (Accessed: 29 July 2022).