Fortune Telling: Perils in the C-Suite

Fortune Telling: Perils in the C-Suite

By Dr. Merle Riepe, PhD
President, SOLVE

Among the executives with whom I coach, collaborate with, and call friends, the most common source of frustration, anxiety, and grief is the distortion referred to as fortune telling. Fortune telling is one of several thought distortions that I’ve referred to in the past. Thought distortions are false beliefs and narratives that automatically appear in our reasoning and regulate our behaviors and decisions.

Fortune telling involves drastic and upsetting predictions that aren’t necessarily based on evidence. Fortune telling is often a strength overdone since many of the leaders with whom I work are better than many others at predicting the future. For many executives, being directionally accurate about the future leads to a bias that they are precisely accurate. And, when events don’t unfold as they predicted, their reaction can surface in various negative behaviors that impact their reputation, team cohesion, and the success of the enterprise.

Grant was a COO in financial services. I coached Grant in his ascension to the C-Suite. Several years later Grant was reduced as part of an acquisition and reorganization. In that acquisition, the acquiring company had a high-performing COO and Grant was no longer needed. Most objective outsiders would acknowledge the decision made business sense. However, when you lose your job, negative thoughts flood your mind and result in feelings of bitterness, insecurity, hurt, and the like. For Grant, the prevailing thoughts were, “I’ll never find another worthy COO opportunity,” “any chance for promotion to a CEO is over,” and “I can’t show my face at the country club without being judged.” All these thoughts involve fortune telling – a prediction about a future state shaped by Grant’s core beliefs that (1) good COO positions will be hard to find, (2) other COO roles will not present opportunities to promote to CEO, and (3) others will no longer like me because I was terminated and unemployed.

We can all relate to Grant (or know someone who has been in a similar position), and it is an unfortunate, scary, and sad event to navigate. You can likely see the distorted thoughts Grant maintains and how they might negatively impact his ability to move onward. So, what is Grant to do?

In cognitive-behavioral executive coaching, I have approximately forty techniques that might help Grant. Personally, the excitement of coaching is I have absolutely no idea which of those forty will work in this situation (that would be me succumbing to fortune telling!). Instead, Grant and I explore various techniques until we find the one that eliminates the negative feelings he is experiencing around his termination (a process called joyful failure – every dud gets us closer to resolution). Techniques include truth-based, humor-based, role-playing, motivational, and exposure approaches and have fun names like Examine the Evidence, Rejection Practice, Externalization of Voices, and the Acceptance Paradox. One of the simplest approaches (and one that was effective for Grant) is the Double Standard Technique.

The Double Standard Technique is a compassion-based technique that implores us to be kinder to ourselves. For Grant, I invited him to imagine he was meeting his friend, Grant, for happy hour. “Fake” Grant informs “real” Grant that he has been terminated and shares all the concerns associated with his termination.

Then, I asked (real) Grant, “what would you say to (fake) Grant in response to all he shared with you?” Grant smiled coyly, as if recognizing his erroneous thinking immediately, and said, “I would probably tell him, ‘You’re a successful executive who works well with others. I’m certain you’ll land on your feet. Heck, you might even find yourself in a happier place. I recall the last time we met that you were pretty sour on your boss. At a minimum, you’ll have more availability to meet me for happy hours!”

I interjected, “you wouldn’t tell Grant he’s a failure and you don’t want to be friends anymore? Or he should admit himself to the nearest university to begin pursuing a new career? Or to avoid the country club for fear of embarrassment?” We were both laughing at this point and bantering through the worst-case scenarios Grant had previously imagined.

Practicing the Double Standard technique enabled Grant to gain new perspective on his situation. He recognized he was being harsher on himself than he would ever treat anyone else, particularly someone for which he cared. He also recognized he had a choice in how he scripted the narrative, and any negativity, at this point, was his own deed.

After this revelation, Grant was eager to explore additional techniques to eradicate the remaining negativity regarding his termination. Through the course of a couple of months of coaching and lots of practice, Grant remained resilient. Grant endured several months of unemployment after his severance ended before finding a senior operations role in a parallel industry. He is currently among a cadre of leaders being considered for succession to CEO. When the merciless, disapproving voice returns, Grant is equipped to escort it out.

As for his friends at the country club, they never made him feel bad about his professional struggles – he labored plenty on the course and they didn’t require additional material!

Certainly, dreadful things happen, and it is appropriate to be sad, angry, afraid, and/or disappointed. Similarly, we benefit from recognizing we control our focus and the meaning we attribute to our life experiences.

Ultimately, we attribute meaning to events. We choose to live in the future – a fantasyland of sorts. The meaning we attribute determines how that “certain” future shapes our emotional experience of life. We can gain from the seemingly bad, or we can spin fortune into distress.

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Wishing you good fortune!