Coaching is a relatively new field of research. Even though Socrates formulated some basic principles of contemporary coaching as long as two thousand years ago, coaching has only become fashionable in the last two decades. Eighty percent of organizations invest in one or several forms of coaching and the International Coaching Federation breaks records every month.
To date, there is no one universally accepted definition of coaching; there are dozens. Some definitions are short, others are nearly a page long. My favorite definition of coaching is the one by Tim Gallwey, the author of several bestsellers on sports coaching. It goes as follows: “Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It’s helping them to learn rather than teaching them.”
Do not confuse performance coaching with therapy. Coaching is work-related, proactive and aimed at awareness. Therapy is a different branch of sports. Therapy is not work-related but reactive and aimed at the individual’s subconscious. If you cannot distinguish between the two and confuse them, you are doing more harm than good. In his article ‘The Very Real Dangers of Executive Coaching’ (Harvard Business Review), Steve Berglas points out the risks and – sadly enough – the habit of uneducated coaches to discuss psychotherapeutic issues in more depth than they are capable of.
The essence of coaching
You can achieve limited success by diligently applying a coaching model. But without a proper sense of the underlying dynamics you will never unlock the model’s full potential. Sadly enough, this is the case with a lot of people who call themselves ‘coach’ nowadays.
So what is the essence of coaching? As a coach, you are helping someone heighten their awareness – to make them see how things work or to achieve an epiphany or ‘Aha Erlebnis’, as it is sometimes called, and to take responsibility afterwards.
Awareness: the collection of qualitative, relevant input
Our brains can only process a limited amount of information at any given time. We have a mechanism in our brain that filters all incoming signals and only allows the most important ones to seep through. We cannot function without this mechanism. The selection process takes place automatically, without any conscious effort. What we do is nourish our brain with better input and thereby influencing the value our brain attaches to certain information.
By being aware – or, in other words, by activating your senses and your brain – you are determining the quality of the input that your brain receives and the value added by your senses.
What does this have to do with coaching? Performance coaching aims to improve performance – the output. The output improves when the input is better. And the latter is stimulated through better awareness. This means that by helping coachees improve their awareness and gather better input, you are considerably improving improve the odds for better performance.
As a coach, you cannot force others to improve their awareness; the ball is in the coachee’s court. Coachees must guide and activate their brain by focusing. You can facilitate this process by asking the right questions.
Sense of responsibility: the choice of the coachee to take responsibility
Sense of responsibility is the second important element of performance coaching. When you take full responsibility for your plan of action, commitment will increase and this inevitably leads to better performance.
Your performance does not improve when you are forced to be responsible, or if this is expected of you – or even if you have been assigned responsibility. Perhaps you will execute the task to avoid adverse consequences or punishment, but it is unlikely that your performance will be optimal.
Then what do you need to create a sense of responsibility? Free choice. Because the ability to choose is inextricably linked with responsibility. As a coach, I can help the thinking process along by asking questions, but in the end it is you who must decide whether or not to act. It is always like this, even when you decide not to take action.
Conclusion? People do not feel a sense of responsibility when they are merely asked to behave responsibly. This is connected with the act of making conscious choices. Because being able to choose whether or not to take responsibility for an action is a great stimulus for a sense of responsibility.
Ask the right questions in the right order and… listen to the answers
You now know that generating awareness and a sense of responsibility are the most efficient tools to help your coachee achieve optimum performance. Awareness and a sense of responsibility are the two key elements on which to base and focus your coaching.
Asking questions instead of dictating terms is the best way to get your coachee involved mentally. And since you are looking for the highest possible commitment, asking questions is your most important tool of communication.
“But what questions should I ask?” may be the next question that comes to mind. Well, your questions have to create awareness and a stir a sense of responsibility within your coachee. It is useless to ask random questions.
An efficient approach consists of two aspects: asking the right questions and asking them in the right order. To better control the latter, you can resort to coaching methodologies such as GROW.
In their book ‘Coaching, Mentoring and Organizational Consultancy’, Peter Hawkins and Nick Smith describe the seven different phases in the development of a coaching culture. Not only do they help you determine your current position, they also give you an idea as to what steps should be taken next:
- Phase 1: The organization introduces external coaches on a senior management level.
- Phase 2: The organization develops an internal coaching and mentoring capacity.
- Phase 3: The organization actively supports different coaching initiatives.
- Phase 4: Coaching is the norm for individuals, teams and the company as a whole.
- Phase 5: Coaching is embedded in the HRM policy and the organization’s performance management.
- Phase 6: Coaching is the prevalent management style throughout the company.
- Phase 7: Coaching is ‘how we do business with all our stakeholders’.
Get to work: 4 tips
The old ‘carrot and stick’ management style has had its day. More and more companies are starting to realize that people perform better when they take responsibility voluntarily instead of involuntarily. This evolution is a growth process for the individual and for the company. Such a transition is not accomplished from one day to the next.
Even though coaching has boomed, it is still primarily considered and used as an individual intervention. Let me be clear. While individual coaching offers numerous advantages, your organization can take it one step further. And this step can really help you implement your strategy.
Would you like to reap the benefits of such a step? Because you can. You will achieve the best results by introducing coaching principles in the management style of every manager in your company. In other words, coaching becomes the prevalent management style within your organization. The ‘manager as a coach’ helps to remove any and all individual obstacles for his or her colleagues in order to facilitate the implementation of the strategy.
Below you will find four tips that will help you remodel your organization into a coaching enterprise.
Tip 1: Develop and communicate a mutual coaching vision
As I stated before, there is no one universally accepted definition of coaching. If you were to ask every member of an organization what this term means, you would most likely hear myriad definitions and approaches.
Take your time to collect the various ideas, definitions and models, then choose the definition that best suits your organization or create a new one by combining the best elements. Keep it simple and focus on what is really important – the context of a sense of responsibility and awareness.
When you reached an agreement on the general coaching frame and its definition, your next challenge consists in communicating that definition.
Tip 2: Unravel the secrets of the drama triangle
In most cases, coaching is a conversation between two people, it is one-on-one interaction. However, the advantages should not be limited to those two people in the room. Coaching must also create added value for the company.
This creates the need for a three-way partnership between the organization, the coachee and the coach. This is often called the drama triangle – with the coachee as the victim, the organization as the culprit and the coach as the savior – because achieving a win-win situation is a major challenge.
Be aware of this challenge and discuss it with your colleagues. You can undertake different actions to solve or reduce tension. A few examples:
- Make sure your coaching is not merely a bit of fun for a limited number of staff but make it the cornerstone of your development approach.
- Organize collective meetings with internal and external coaches on a regular basis.
- Allot the lion’s share of the coaching budget to those areas that can make a difference to the future of the organization.
- Develop an approach to mapping the added value coaching creates for the organization
Tip 3: Build a coaching development platform
Coaching is a skill anyone can learn. It only takes time, effort and some persistence. If your organization takes coaching seriously, then it is a good idea to devise a structured development approach – a coaching development platform.
Tip 4: Coach the coach
Use the coaching approach if you want your employees to coach themselves. Experience has taught me that learning how to coach through coaching is a great way to make progress quickly. And once you have gained some experience, then the coaching of others on the topic of coaching will give your learning curve another boost.
Reflection Prof. Dr. Ans De Vos