Great management coaching can be a significant factor in creating sustained organizational productivity and success. Though there are many programs that teach managers how to coach, it seems that few managers know how to coach well.
Cerebyte Inc., a company that focuses on creating high-performing organizational cultures, analyzed the coaching role to get a better understanding the factors that prevent and promote great coaching and found many causes for the lack of good coaching (Editor’s note: The author is CEO of the company).
First, there is a lot of confusion about when a manager is in a “telling role” or a “supportive role.” For many organizations, coaching is a telling role in which the manager dogmatically instructs people what to do. This coaching style is typically used when teaching employees basic functions of a job.
In contrast, coaches are also expected to play a “supportive role,” which is all about guiding exploration and learning from real-world experiences to help people develop desired attitudes and capabilities. This seems to be the most sought-after form of coaching.
Few managers know when to be telling and when to be supportive. As a result, telling usually dominates, and coaching becomes less effective because people learn to passively wait to be told what to do.
Second, managers tend to have an incomplete and ineffective model of how to be a great coach. They don’t usually understand the passion, purpose and mental models that drive success in a role. Additionally, they have little understanding of the specific capabilities required to perform the function. Lacking more comprehensive knowledge of a role, managers assume their personal experience is the model for coaching others because it’s the only model they have. As a result, managers coach by explaining their own personal experiences, which too often has only minimal connection with actual success factors. In the end, what gets communicated is, again, done through telling, and what gets told is often incorrect.
Third, the limited coaching training provided in most management development programs stresses the tactics of coaching. The classic coaching model taught in many programs is to assess a person’s attitudes and skills, identify an area needing improvement and guide the coachee to reflect and try to improve in this area.
This focus on “fixing” someone’s weaknesses creates neural resistance to the coaching, which reduces the effectiveness of the coaching and, once again, drives the coach to tell more and support less. Such “deficit coaching” is actually counterproductive, as it reinforces weakness and creates a negative dynamic between the coach and coachee.
Lastly, because of so many short-term pressures, managers are often left feeling like they don’t have the time to be supportive. Ironically, the phrase “what gets measured gets done” causes a narrowing of focus to a few, often exceedingly narrow and mostly irrelevant measures that are supposed to be the basis for coaching. These cause managers to stop coaching, adopt deficit coaching or increasingly practice what Cerebyte has come to call “dump-and-run coaching.”
Dump-and-run coaching is where a manager has a very brief technical discussion where the coach tells the coachee about something to improve (the dump) and races away to do something else (the run). In the absence of time and skills to be a supportive coach, good coaching will never happen.
Knowing what was preventing great management coaching was, of course, the easier part of the problem. Cerebyte’s primary role in many organizations was to create and implement manager development programs, which included developing managers into great coaches while overcoming these barriers. This led to four simple steps that consistently created great manager-coaches:
1. Focus on process, not content. The simplest and most direct way to avoid a conflict between telling and supporting is to make a distinction between “content coaching” and “process coaching.” The best way to do this is to consciously and systematically separate the technical content of a role, which requires telling, from the coaching process, which should be mostly supportive.
Action Tip: Leverage the top performers in a role to develop clear, specific best practices to be used by the coach. This provides a foundation for supportive coaching. These best practices should include a compelling purpose and operational excellence. Cerebyte uses a three-day workshop process that produces in-depth content that is reliable and effective and, most importantly, means that a coach does not have to be a content expert and can focus on being supportive.
2. Create experiential stimulus for learning. Coaching works best when there are real, practical experiences to discuss in the coaching process.
Action Tip: Rather than leaving the experiences to chance, identify a series of short, practical and highly experiential development exercises that require the coachee to learn and practice the attitudes and skills defined in the best practices. Completing one or two 30-minute exercises like this per week generates experiences that are very meaningful for the coachee. This becomes a sound basis for guiding the coachee to extrapolate meaningful learning: the reason for coaching.
3. Leverage social learning. The neuroscience of learning has shown that social learning is one of the most powerful and effective methodologies for developing people. Social learning releases neurotransmitters that increase openness to new ideas and speed internalization of new attitudes and behaviors.
Action Tip: Place your employees into social learning groups of six to eight peers, who are led by a coach. Have the learning group meet one hour per week to discuss their experiences and record their learnings. The role of the coach is to ask many questions that cause people to be more thoughtful. However, the coach should not actually participate in the substance of the discussion.
4. Drive written reflection. The neuroscience of learning has also shown that systematic reflection, particularly written reflection, is also among the most effective ways to learn. Similar to the current approaches to mindfulness, written reflection quiets portions of the brain that disrupt learning, and it promotes a sense of empowerment.
Action Tip: Require the coachees to keep a written journal of both their experiences of doing the exercises and learnings they identified in their group discussions. This drives reflective learning, producing a deeper and more profound effect on improving performance. Here the role of the coach is to ensure deep thought and application of knowledge and not to tell people what to do or how to do it.
The coach in this approach is entirely a process leader and never the content expert. Not surprisingly, this is both in sharp contrast to the standard coaching models and is often difficult for managers to learn. Because of the infrastructure provided by the separate best practices, exercises, social learning environment and reflective learning in journals, managers soon realize that this is an easier, far more effective and a substantially more rewarding way to coach.
The best part is that it actually works. In certifications of managers functioning this way, Cerebyte found that more than 90 percent of the managers consistently display the attitudes and behaviors of great coaches. The managers themselves report that the coaching experience is “transformational.” Finally, in 360-degree and employee morale surveys, the coachees all report much higher productivity and job satisfaction — which is why we want managers to be great coaches.