Research has shown that people perform at higher levels when they are coached as opposed to “managed”. So, you might be asking, what is coaching, in a nutshell? What are some of the tools I can use as a leader? How, specifically, do I have a “coaching” conversation?
Coaching is about inspiring and empowering others through meaningful conversations and effective questioning. It trusts that people possess the wisdom they need to discover and realize their own potential. Coaching meets a certain need for many people: it’s a forum for objective conversation and full exploration. It’s a rare opportunity for an individual to focus solely on him or herself for a full hour on a regular basis. It’s a conversation different from what you would have with colleagues, family, or friends. It’s a place to get support when counselling isn’t really the answer. It’s for people who are already doing well in many areas, but are seeking renewed opportunities for growth.
Coaching is both a science and an art. It’s about the combination of theory, practice, and interpersonal finesse. There are some good coach training programs that address these components in depth – which one article on the topic could never hope to duplicate.
There are, nonetheless, some coaching concepts of which to be aware: some ‘nuts and bolts’ that you can begin to incorporate into your own style of conversation and leadership. These, in my humble opinion, are the essentials:
Most importantly, you need to engage the interchange from a place of genuine curiosity: asking questions (and more questions) without anticipating or providing the answers, and listening carefully without assuming or rehearsing. It’s not about your interpretations; it’s about the coachee finding his or her own answers as you ask the questions that foster the search.
This is often easier said than done, but it’s a skill to be refined.
The other components of a typical coaching conversation, on top of active listening and purposeful questioning, include supporting and acknowledging, making requests, and providing the structure of accountability (the coachee is ultimately accountable only to himself, of course, but tends to stay in action when he knows that he will be reporting back to you on his successes).
These components in action might look something like this – a basic six-step coaching model:
1. Setting the stage:
- Why are we having this conversation? What brought you here?
- What are our respective roles?
2. Formulating and focusing the issues:
- What’s going on?
- What specifically do you want to change or accomplish?
3. Asking questions for further clarification and deeper exploration:
- What does that really mean?
- What area(s) do you want to work on first?
- What is important about this to you?
4. Developing goals through solution-focused questions:
- What will it look like when it’s how you want it to be?
- What exactly will you be thinking/feeling/doing when you reach your desired state?
5. Developing an action plan (making requests and offering feedback if appropriate):
- What do you need to do to make this happen? What strengths do you need to draw on, and what supports will you need?
- What is the first step?
- How will you know that you’re moving toward your goal?
- Can I ask you to experiment with…?
6. Following up (the process begins again)
- What went well last week, and why? Congratulations! How can you do more of that?
- Where did you get stuck? Why?
- What do you most want to focus on now?
- What do you most need to do to keep moving forward?
The important thing to remember throughout the process is that the relationship is key, and that you don’t need to have the answers. Getting caught up in doing it the ‘right way’ and worrying too much about the questions you ask will only impede the process. These concerns quickly become non-issues as you develop trust and rapport, and when you truly approach the conversation with genuine interest, concern, and selflessness.
Are you in a position to influence others – at work, at home, in your community? Is having influence important to your position or cause (as a manager, or a parent, or as someone with a vision who’s trying to create something better)? Do the ways in which you exert your influence tend to work well; and do you know how to be more influential?
The ability to influence is a wonderful tool that can be strengthened and refined. To do so begins with an understanding of where our power lies – and to what degree it matches the situation. When we understand where our power comes from, we can learn to use it more effectively and in the most appropriate way – thereby improving the breadth and scope of our influence.
Management and psychology textbooks often describe French and Raven’s five distinct types of power: Legitimate, Reward, Coercive, Expert, and Referent. Look at what these mean to you – particularly in regard to how you can develop and combine them to match your environment and your goals…
Do you have legitimate power – i.e., are you in a position of authority? How strong is your legitimate power? If you’re a high-ranking officer in the military, for example, you might not concern yourself much with the other bases of power. People listen. Period. If you’re the boss at work, how much legitimate influence you have depends on things like the level of authority you actually hold, and what type of people you lead in which type of environment. At home, the rationale “because I’m the mom” may or may not fly depending on many different factors.
Understanding your own leadership preferences and being open to experimentation, assessing your true level of legitimate power, defining clearly the goals you wish to accomplish, and knowing your audience are all critical components of effective leadership. Here are some other things we might think about in regard to the bases of power:
How much rewarding might you need to do to improve motivation or maintain a desired level of behaviour? What types of rewards will work best? (Everyone has different motivators, so the best thing to do is ask). We also know that offering rewards consistently and regularly helps to shape a desired behaviour, and that rewarding intermittently helps to maintain it.
Do you ever engage in a coercive style of leadership when it’s not absolutely necessary (like necessarily forcing a child to comply when his safety is at risk, for example)? Forcing others to do things through the use of threats may work sometimes, but it’s also clearly not the socially acceptable thing to do – and it might end up backfiring in the form of disloyalty or revolt.
How could you build a stronger leadership presence by developing your expertise – by sharpening the skills and knowledge important to your area of leadership? And, conversely, if you lead solely because you’re the expert, could you be mindful to draw upon other sources as well (i.e., making better use of the principles of reward and motivation; developing your ‘soft skills’ to improve your interpersonal attractiveness)?
Developing your ‘soft skills’ and interpersonal effectiveness speaks to the referent base of power (having influence because people like you, or want to be like you). Legitimate power may be inherent in your role; you may understand the principles of reward and motivation; you may be able to take command when needed; and you likely possess some high-level skills and knowledge. But the effectiveness of all of these can be greatly undermined without some attention to referent power.
Granted, we don’t all have that level of ‘charisma’ that draws others toward us like a magnet – but there’s always something more we can improve upon. While staying true to ourselves (because no one is attracted to insincerity), could we learn to be even more outgoing, friendlier, and more dynamic in a wider variety of circumstances with a wider range of people?
Try paying more attention to these five bases of power, and contemplate how they affect your ability to influence. Take the time to develop them, and learn to draw on them in a wider range of settings and situations. Leverage them to more effectively accomplish your goals and experience higher levels of success!
How much autonomy is appropriate to give? Empowering our children, employees, or anyone we’re leading is, we know, the best way to improve satisfaction, motivation, and commitment – but it also takes the right style and balance to pull it off successfully.
Do you tend to micromanage others: monitoring even the most routine tasks to ensure success (even if it’s done in the most gentle, people-friendly way)? Or do you allow others to express their creativity, make their own decisions, and learn from trial and error? Or do you do a bit of both, depending on the person and circumstance?
Chances are your answer is the latter: that’s what most of tend to do as leaders, and it’s probably the right thing. This is where our intuition comes in: we adjust our style based on what we see, what we know, and how we feel – as well as how we perceive the weight and probability of the potential outcomes.
But we all know people who micromanage when it’s unnecessary, as well as those who tend to give full rein when it might be inappropriate to do so.
So why might we micromanage when it’s not necessary? Often times it’s because we haven’t learned to trust – or because we don’t feel we can handle the stress inherent in ‘letting go’. And why might we give unbridled freedom when it may not be appropriate? It’s usually because we have blind spots: because we have too much faith either in others’ abilities to respond adaptively; or in the system or task itself to provide the structures and cues to keep behaviours in check.
Whether our belief system generally supports a more or less autocratic, participative, or free-rein style of leadership is largely a matter of personality and habit: preferred and comfortable ways of leading based upon our past experiences – either directly or through observation – and the interpretations we’ve made about those experiences.
The truth is that what’s needed in any given situation is more objective than subjective. It’s the interplay between the complexity and characteristics of the task itself, and the interpersonal styles, habits, and skills of the people we’re leading. The key is to observe these dynamics in play before jumping to an automatic style of leading the situation and players.
If we learn to provide more ‘management’ where it is needed, and to back off where we should, we allow others to experience increased feelings of efficacy and success – which strengthen the internal reward system that fosters motivation. Appropriate levels of autonomy also support and enable more effective skill development, critical thought, and innovation.
I’d like to say that when I was younger I knew exactly what I was doing with my life and where I was going – but the truth is that in the early years I really just sort of ‘wandered about’ without any clear direction or defined goals. And I do believe that some of the paths I did have in mind back then would likely have led to a destination I wouldn’t be happy with today.
But how do you know what you don’t know?
A colleague had asked me the other day about my professional trajectory, which prompted me to reflect on the extent of other peoples’ influences on my life. This is a point I think I conveniently tend to forget – after all, doesn’t it feel better to take all of the credit for your positive choices and successes?
But in my reply to my colleague I reflected on two separate conversations I had in my early 20’s: one with a more experienced coworker, and one with my boss at the time. I won’t go into the details, but I will say that a couple of 20-minute discussions truly did change my life.
These two people apparently recognized my strengths and understood my struggles. Their suggestions for my professional development came unsolicited; and as I look back I know I probably would never have asked.
If I hadn’t taken advantage of their wisdom when it came to me, I wouldn’t be in the place I am today. It’s impossible to predict just where I would have ended up, but I do know that I am very happy with how it’s all played out so far…
So, to me, those two short conversations were powerful mentoring moments that shifted the course of the rest of my life. I’ve learned that mentorship can come in the form of a structured, formal program; or that it can show up as an impromptu 20-minute conversation while throwing the football around during a work break.
Who’s helped you out through their words of wisdom? How did that change your life? Were there moments in your life in which you wish someone had offered up their knowledge? When have you been a mentor, and how could this have potentially changed a life?
The point is to not hold back. Share your wisdom. You never know the impact you may have with your words. And the bonus is that the more we give, the more we get back – and the happier we are!