Jon Dean clarifies the importance of coaching to managers
Workplace coaching is widely considered to be a great performance tool but is consistently underused by many organisations. This gap occurs because many managers and team leaders don’t know what coaching really is and so don’t have the ability to correctly value the time required and the rewards to be gained.
When questioned, many managers across the UK workplace admit that they see coaching as a ‘nice-to-have’ which is provided only to fast-tracked stars at other, high performing companies but probably not something they’d do. “We have other things to get on with, right?”
The truth is that these managers are reading the cause and effect the wrong way round.
The reason ‘other’ organisations perform well is precisely because they maximise their resources and the most costly resource for many organisations, of course, is their payroll.
Providing the tools for key employees to be more focused, to make better decisions and to perform better is precisely how coaching is used as a tool by successful organisations to drive and retain their best people.
Coaching increases motivation, helps to generate new ideas and can have significant and quantifiable effects on performance. However there are other tools available to managers which may be better to use at different times. So what exactly is coaching and where does it fit in a manager’s repertoire?
Coaching isn’t training
Mistake number one is that managers will say they’re coaching their staff when what they’re actually giving training. Training is where you’re giving specific instruction and ensuring that the person or people you’re training can do what you’re training them to do.
Training is a vitally important tool in any workplace and can be done very well by managers. Its best use is at points of induction and organisational change.
Coaching isn’t mentoring
This is a much bigger area of confusion and something that many managers can initially struggle with as they learn to coach – particularly if they have experience of sports ‘coaching’. Mentoring is where you’re working alongside another individual or a small group and are watching their performance and guiding them to use best practice or best ways of thinking.
Again, mentoring is a great tool for managers and can certainly be done using some of the skills of coaching but it’s a very different performance tool to coaching.
Mentoring is ideal for performance maintenance or for the development of junior or technical staff.
Coaching is different to these and should thus be chosen as a tool by managers accordingly. Coaching is a process of allowing your subject (the person being coached, the ‘coachee’) to examine their own thoughts, priorities and challenges. It’s about allowing them to consider and reconcile their priorities and should be free of instruction or judgment. Thus, coaching is a structured way to help an individual to choose a path of focus that they have bought into and feel they can execute.
Some people find it helpful to think of training as a ‘gear 1’ for their staff, mentoring as a ‘gear 2’ and coaching as a ‘gear 3’ or ‘overdrive’ if they’re old enough to remember such a thing!
One of the challenges for the unconverted at this point is that coaching opens up how people feel about things and the word ‘feeling’ can cause unease for many managers. They don’t want to pretend that feelings have an influence, they just want people to get on and do what they should be doing. However, when managers embrace the coachee’s feelings towards their roles and challenges they’ll find new ways to engage or re-engage them. Managers can also help the coachee to unblock self-limiting beliefs which can seriously hold them, and their own teams, back from doing their best in the workplace.
So coaching is not a one-size-fits-all method and should be used in the right place with the right team members. Here’s an overall guide to understanding when and how to coach to best effect.
Coach the right people
Coaching takes time and so, in most workplaces, it would be difficult to coach many people on an ongoing basis. Coaching is also something that the coachee – by definition – has to want to be involved in. The good news then is that if people want to be coached for higher performance, you can select the people who are most worthy of the investment.
Good prospects are those who need to develop quickly either due to the challenges of their role or because of career or succession events. A programme of coaching also works well alongside management or leadership training so that the coachee can be clear on when and where to use their new skills.
Those who are underperforming can be coached too but the will from the coachee needs to be there.
See coaching as a multiplier of output. So as a rule of thumb if you’re going to get an extra percentage out of the individual it’s worth getting it from somebody on a higher salary than a lower one.
Establish a coaching contract
Coaching usually takes place over a series of coaching meetings. These could last for a fixed or minimum number of sessions and should have clear purpose. A coaching contract therefore, is the understanding set out between the coach or manager and their coachee at the beginning of this period. It’s an essential framework for both parties and thus both should be happy with it otherwise the full benefit won’t be enjoyed.
The ‘contract’ will typically be a short document written between both parties covering; purpose, intent, the parties’ commitment to the process and the organisational goals, the number and duration of sessions, roughly what the content of those sessions might be (allowing room for flexibility and issues), where the sessions will be and importantly confidentiality.
Be careful to exclude expectations and the work that might need to be done to achieve goals in between sessions as this is the output of the coaching and not the contract.
The contract should be mutually agreeable and feel unenforced for both parties. It can be quite loose or quite tight but should be agreed and written out at some level. Once agreed it allows a clear passage towards establishing the required trust for successful coaching.
Know when not to coach
Done well, coaching provides a way of engaging people in a way that’s very difficult to explain until experienced (delegates in coaching training classes are often surprised when they first use their skills) but trying to use coaching as a one-size-fits-all tool is likely to lead to wasted time and frustration.
Managers should seek to use training and mentoring techniques to provide learning and install best practices in the workplace, and use coaching to help individuals who have the drive to succeed to get there more quickly.
Know the questions to ask
This is the key to coaching well. Your questions should follow some basic rules although this is a subject that can run deep.
The questions you ask will form the coaching conversation and each conversation should follow this logical flow: GROW (Goal, Reality, Options, Will). In other words, the questions a manager asks should establish what the overall goal or goals are, where the coachee currently feels they are against these, what pathways are known or could be researched to achieve these goals, and what effort and resources are they going to commit to achieve them and when.
A great rule of thumb is to ask very open questions initially and then build upon the answers from the coachee with more direct questions until you have their specific goal (as long as it aligns with the agreed organisational goal). Then repeat until you have their version of reality, then their options and commitment.
Mix in questions about how they feel about these things, as well as what might hold them back. However if the coachee talks a lot about their feelings and little about ‘fact’, suggest that you examine why they feel the way they do and ask them for ‘facts’.
Now shut up!
If asking the right questions is the key, then being able to listen is how to open the door.
Listening in coaching involves a trait which many managers find very difficult to master – knowing when to say nothing. That means not just being quiet but also not looking like they want to butt in, not offering direct opinion when they do speak and certainly not being judgmental in response. Very difficult.
Many managers ask at this point how they’re actually supposed to coach. This is coaching and exactly why it’s different to training and mentoring.
While a manager listens to their coachee, they should be very carefully listening for some signals which will come out in their speech. Does the coachee think in big-picture or detail terms? Are they internal thinkers – if I think it, I can do it and I am right – or external thinkers – I need to find out more about what others think? Does the coachee more readily look for sameness and patterns or differences?
Listening and not judging, and building a picture of how the mind is working gives the manager as much information about how the individual is thinking or might be motivated as the words that they are saying.
Understand the subconscious psychology
Performed well, coaching is a powerful tool for two simple psychological reasons. Firstly, the coachee has signed up to it and thus they want a positive outcome. With the ground rules of the contract, this is all then moved forward in trust. Second, there’s the psychology of words. In one’s brain is – and this is not a deeply scientific explanation – a jumble of thoughts created by our experiences, understandings, habits, fears and desires. To describe these we put them into a code called language which allows us to communicate.
As we go through the process of talking, we have to decipher these thoughts and memories and distil them into words – the coded ‘bricks’ which make up our speech. In laying out these bricks we often find gaps in our thoughts or two bricks which we believed filled the same space. Thus, just by talking things through in depth we analyse our own thoughts more closely. This is why it can feel good talking through a problem with a friend, even if they don’t give you any helpful suggestions as to how to resolve the issue.
So in coaching it’s important that 80% of the talking is done by the coachee and that the manager uses their influence to guide the conversation rather than interject and block this process.
Once a coachee has been through a well–structured coaching conversation they will feel that they are solving things themselves and will be far more engaged and committed to following through on their actions. Just the result you both wanted.
Can’t I just tell them what to do?
Yes you can. But that’s not coaching. If an engaged employee needs direction then tell them what to do (training). If a manager is looking to generate a higher level of engagement then there’s no substitute for proper coaching.
Of course you can use some of these skills to improve meetings or one-to-one sessions. That’s perfectly valid. However, if you’re going to maximise the power of coaching doing it in a structured manner will provide the best long-term results.
The challenge for managers, then, is clear. If you want to get your best people performing at a higher level, there is little that will give you a better return than coaching. Sure you’re busy now and it’s difficult to find the time but it depends whether you want to be one of those ‘other’ high-flying companies or not.
The alternative is to find that the organisation is always short on ambition and/or talent. Without the tools to drive peak performance it’s difficult to find and retain the people who can deliver the results.
If that’s the effect you’re looking for, coaching might just provide to be the causal force.
The first two pages of Jon Dean’s article as it appeared in Training Journal