Lean Transformations Group

Coaching is Work

In fact, coaching is almost always hard work, at least when it is actually helpful and effective. 

Coaching is not about making ourselves feel good through sharing knowledge and wisdom; coaching is about helping others arrive at their own knowledge and wisdom.

As a coach, I’m hyper-aware that I want to be “value-added” to my coachees and the efforts they have already made to improve their own work. Unfortunately, being helpful in this way is seldom as easy as it sounds. Why? As coaches, we have to watch the ways we can be misguided by our own very human habits and instincts.

Indeed, some of self-inflicted barriers to being effective as coaches are hard-wired parts of our human nature reinforced by culture. For example, the fast thinking part of our brains leads us to believe what immediately comes to mind as fact. Expressions such as the following “program” our expectations for what it means to a good manager or leader:  

  • “Good leaders are decisive.” 
  • “The manager’s job is to decide, plan, delegate, and control.” 
  • “As a manager, you are supposed to know what need to be done.” 
  • “Leaders who acknowledge uncertainty and ask for help lose the respect of others.” 

Similarly, here are some of the instinctive, habitual responses that I see decrease every leader’s effectiveness. (You may have heard yourself say some of these things).

  • As coaches, we tend to assume that we know what’s going on in a situation someone tells us about or what’s going on with another person just by observing their behavior. “I know exactly what you’re talking about! I had the same problem with an employee three years ago. Have you gotten HR involved?”
  • Based on our assumptions and first impressions, we jump to judgments, conclusions, and solutions. “When a team starts taking sides like that you’ve got to step in quickly, sit them down, and tell them it’s going to stop before it turns into real conflict.”
  • Once we believe we know what needs to be done, we tend to stop looking for facts and seek evidence that confirms the ideas we already have. “Don’t you see! That’s exactly what he wants you to think? Of course he says he ‘didn’t know that was the process.’ You can look at the training records. I bet they’ll show that he had to know.”
  • While we may think we are good at listening, most of us lose contact with what another person is saying within just a few seconds. Instead, we mostly listen to our own “self-talk”, the chatter of our own personal ideas. This naturally leads us to interrupt others to express our potential solutions. “I know that’s what they said, but I doubt that’s really the cause. I’ve seen lots of breakdowns like this and all of them could have been avoided if people were doing the preventive maintenance when was scheduled.”
  • When we start to “coach” another person, most of us tell people what to do rather than ask open-ended questions to first learn what they know and think about their own work or problem situation. “I think it’s important to show people who’s in charge. You’re the project manager. They signed off on the plan. You can’t let them talk you into changing it now!”
  • When we do think to ask questions of our coachee, we tend to ask “sneaky tells,” or yes or no questions, that subtly point to what we want people to do or think. “We’ve asked Purchasing to let us check with the supplier first. Nothing’s going to change if you have another meeting, will it?”

Why are these responses ineffective ways for dealing with problems? Consider the impact of the following scenarios on the coach-coachee relationship (not to mention the coachee’s learning):

  • Your coachee has already been working with HR about an employee issue and is miffed that you would assume she/he wouldn’t know to contact HR.
  • Your coachee knows about the situation with the team and the disagreement is complicated, with legitimate points on both sides. After listening to you, he/she is concerned that you would suggest a solution so heavy-handed and simplistic.
  • Your coachee realizes that you are arguing for assumptions that you have made about his/her employee and believes that you aren’t interested in hearing what she/he knows and wants to first explain about the situation.
  • Your coachee is irritated that you have interrupted what she/he is trying to tell you about the problem situation. You jumped in with your own idea without listening to him/her describe what she/he thinks is going on.
  • Your coachee feels “talked down to” and believes you are essentially taking over the situation (the real problem solving thinking) by telling him/her what to do.
  • Your coachee realizes that you are telling her/him what you want them to do and feels insulted that you think he/she isn’t smart enough to figure something out.

In these cases, what are the chances that your coachee will actually find you to be helpful? Far too often, people feel disrespected and lose respect for and trust in their coach. To be clear, few coaches intend to be this directive or condescending. Most sincerely want (and try!) to be helpful. But as coaches, we do coaching the way we’ve seen it done before. We are just more eager to share our own ideas than to listen.

Now, if a person genuinely does not know how do something, then we need to tell them what they need to know and show them what we know how to do. That’s teaching, and it’s different from coaching for development. Coaching is helping others improve their ability to do something (that they know how to do and are able to do with some proficiency). With this distinction in mind, compare the coaching behaviors below to the ones earlier. Consider how these may help a person think differently about his/her work:

  • Rather than assuming you know what’s going on in a situation and acting on your assumptions, pause and ask, “What do I really know about this situation?” Then ask for more description of the situation from your coachee’s view. Then ask what help she/he wants. “We’ve all had employees with performance issues. Maybe if you describe his/her responsibilities and behavior in more detail the situation will be clear. Then you can say what help you want from me.”
  • Before taking a flying leap into a solution based on your intuition, check yourself by asking, “Why might I think my experience or idea will help in this situation?” Then ask your coachee what he or she knows or has seen. “So the project team is divided into two factions that don’t agree how to proceed. What do you know specifically about what the split is about and how it got started?”
  • If you find yourself trying to convince a problem owner (or yourself) that your solution is the absolute right one, try to remember, the more we try to “sell” an idea, the more we take over the problem solving thinking for others. It’s also the way we take on responsibility for the problem. “I’m sure you’ve checked his claim that he didn’t know that part of the process. What more have you learned about the circumstances when the mistake occurred?”
  • Actually listening to what your coachee tells you is the most respectful thing you can do. Show that you are truly listening by acknowledging what you hear to confirm that you understand. “The breakdown occurred at one of their processes, but they’re saying that the cause was a part that was welded wrong back up the line. But you think that from what you saw, it’s more likely the robot crashed because they weren’t keeping the arm lubricated? What did you see that gave you that impression?”
  • Ask questions to prompt your coachee to recall more of what they already know. “I understand how frustrated you are that he didn’t follow through on his part of the plan like he promised and then acted like he didn’t know what you were talking about. How did he react when you said you had the plan with his initials on his part?”
  • People recognize when they are being manipulated by “sneaky tells” and tend to find this disrespectful. Ask open-ended questions to communicate that you are genuinely interested in what your coachee knows. Make a real connection and don’t only focus on the problem! “We know Purchasing wouldn’t let you talk to the supplier about adjusting their schedule last time. What are your thoughts about how to approach asking them this time?

The big idea here? Refrain from assuming that you know more than another human being does about their own work! When you can do this, you shift how you talk with people, ask so many more questions, and help everyone (yourself included) learn. Simple, right? Sure. But again, doing this consistently is hard work.

Why are some of our coaching habits so hard to break? Research tells us that habits are neural pathways in our brains laid down over time, which is also why they are easier to make than break. The more instinctive and unconscious our habits, the deeper the “ruts” they have already made in our brains. We can’t erase our habits, but we can make them become less automatic with disuse and replace them with new learning about new, more desirable habits. As a coach, the key is to not beat yourself up if you find yourself acting on old bad habits. Instead, consciously experiment with more helpful and effective coaching behaviors. Then seek your colleagues’ observations and feedback to help you build your coaching habits and improve your capabilities over time.

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operational performance.

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