Quick SummaryThe comparing of coaching to other forms of workplace development that my previous articles have dealt with has helped us understand coaching relative to other approaches, but this article seeks to refine our understanding of coaching in absolute terms.
Coaching Today: What Coaching Is And What It Isn'T
Coaching is about helping people move out of their comfort zones. By definition, we are working in our comfort zone when we are performing tasks and activities we find relatively easy and straightforward. Many would argue that there is absolutely nothing wrong with people operating in their comfort zone provided the job gets done and that not everybody is hell bent on climbing the greasy pole chasing promotion after promotion. This is true, but it is less true than it once was. In these turbulent times the nature of the work that people do will change even if they don't and we are obliged to help our teams constantly renew their skills and knowledge. All too often we handle this badly and move people too quickly from comfort zone to panic zone without recognizing the learning zone in between.
Coaching is about releasing potential. As coaches we make the assumption that people come equipped and hard-wired with all they need to succeed. The coaching principles and techniques we'll explore in depth later on are about removing the barriers to that potential coming through. Thus coaching can be thought of as more concerned with drawing out than putting in.
Most conventional training and development concentrates on teaching people things; the skills and knowledge they need to perform. Coaching follows on from this and concentrates on giving people the means to develop their knowledge and skills; to have access to them even when under pressure and to apply them in a diverse range of situations. Coaching then is more focused on helping others to learn as this is a much more enduring outcome and one which creates independence.
Where it is done well, coaching will be motivational and enjoyable for coach and coachee alike. The coach will get their kicks from observing their people blossom and noticing the delight people feel as they grow, develop, solve and innovate within a coaching relationship. In a work situation, coaching has to be performance focused. There are targets to be reached, sales to be made, costs to be contained, clients to serve, changes to be made, policies to implement and so on. It is only because coaching has proven such an effective contributor to these ends that it has endured and not fallen away in the manner of so many fads. But coaching is also people centred; Ultimately, it is people who perform (or don't) and we must accept that people come with feelings, hopes and fears, emotions, etc. and that any approach to dealing with people that ignores this fact is doomed to fail.
Coaching is not...
telling people what to do and how to do it, which is more like instructing or teaching. That's not to say that there's never a place for 'telling' in a work situation, it's just that we shouldn't call it coaching. It may well be that if someone is new to the team or just generally inexperienced that our management style needs to involve more telling at the start. However once the people that we work with have a decent level of knowledge and skill, telling becomes counter productive because those same people will instinctively want to use their knowledge and skills as best they can and seek to exercise a little initiative and independence. If we carry on telling, we stifle those instincts and end up with a frustrated team of 'yes men'. We can use coaching to help people develop their knowledge and skills in their own unique way and encourage them to develop further still.
Coaching is not about offering uninvited feedback. Many of the organizations I work with claim to have an established coaching set up but are mystified by its patchy results. Closer examination reveals that what goes on in the name of coaching in anything but. Staff are observed in action and then a manager or a so called coach - usually clutching a clipboard - takes them off to a private room and runs through a list of mistakes made or opportunities missed. This kind of clumsy feedback does more harm than good and at worst can stoke up resentment and a desire to seek revenge or 'get management back'. A coach, on the other hand, would be offering any feedback free from judgement and placing much more importance of what the staff member had noticed during the interaction in question.
As a coach you are not obliged to rescue people and have all the answers. This is an easy trap to fall into for the inexperienced coach and creates a lot of pressure. It may well be that despite a lengthy coaching conversation or a series of them, a problem remains unsolved or a coachee is no further forward. This does not mean that the coaching has failed or that the coach has done anything wrong. I stress again: coaching is not a magic panacea to cure all work place ills. Some work problems are complex, multi-part and not easily solved. Some people that you coach may have given up in spirit if not in body and put themselves beyond the reach of even the greatest coach. You can rest assured that a bit of decent coaching can't do any harm and will usually do at least some good.
Coaching is most certainly not only for poor performers, and to position it as such is a mistake. A sure way to kill off coaching in its infancy in an organization is to introduce it alongside a performance management system or disciplinary process. Alternatively, to introduce coaching by encouraging the already top performers to develop even further, sends much more positive signals and positions coaching as about moving forward; irrespective of from where you start.
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