Change Work February 2009

It's not what you do ...

A phrase that sticks in my mind from many years ago was uttered by a manager complaining about the inadequacies of one of his team. "I can't teach him how to do the job," he said. On the surface, he was referring to the specialist technical knowledge that the team member had, and it was true that the manager couldn't be expected to add to that.  But underneath I think he was excusing himself from all responsibility. 

How much better to have coached the team member in how to apply his expertise?

These days, most people would accept that coaching is part of leadership. Responsibilty for developing teams and individuals goes with the job.  But I think that the idea of coaching has much broader application than just being something that the leader does.  It works in other contexts as well and I've encouraged many clients, not just managers, to take a "coaching" perspective.

For a mother working out how best to help her wayward son, it was a fairly obvious line to take.  It wouldn't help him in the long term for her to solve his problems for him - even if he was inclined to let her (which he wasn't).  Far better to guide him through a process of discovery that revealed what he actually wanted from life as well as how to get it.

Less obvious though was to take a coaching mindset in dealings with a bullying boss.  Thinking all the time, "How can I help this person to develop?" whilst asking good questions was much more effective (and satisfying for the "coach") than offering advice that would have been rejected.

Taking a coaching perspective, even when you're not "the boss" is extremely empowering.  When you do it, you immediately feel in control and less intimidated by the situation.  You'll be more effective in your actions: proactive rather than reactive.  But also, not least, the feeling of empowerment will remain even if the coaching doesn't seem to have made any difference!  This follows from the clear separation of responsibilities that the coaching relationship entails.  You do your best as a coach, you don't have to live their life for them.

So, as the coach, what can you say to your manager who habitually behaves in a dictatorial manner and at the same time bemoans the lack of competence or initiative in their team?  Perhaps you could gently ask them what it would be like if they acted more as a coach!

In my experience as a member of a management team, one of the most useful things we did for our own development was the "fishbowl" exercise.  In this, you take turns within a group of four or five to be the recipient of feedback from the others.  You sit to one side, but still within earshot, while they discuss what you should "do more", "do less", and "keep doing".  At the end of your session you can ask them to clarify anything you didn't understand, but there's no further debate.  You take your feedback and use it how you see fit.

What we didn't do, because we didn't know how, was to help each other to break the unconscious patterns, the habits, that determine most of our behaviours.  Changing these on your own, even if you accept the need to, is very difficult - otherwise you'd just do it!

For the members of a team to help each other to do this would involve sharing the nature of successful patterns at a level we don't usually deal with.  For example, what sequence of thoughts, images, feelings does an effective leader experience immediately before and during delivery of an inspirational talk?  Or when counselling someone who's unhappy?  Or coaching a poor performer?  It's at this level that the difference between effective and ineffective (or obviously false) behaviours arises.

It's the difference between delivering a script and actually convincing someone.  The words may be exactly the same but their impact is completely different.

The way to break old patterns and to install new ones is to practise.  The role of your coach is to help you to focus on the important factors, to hold you accountable and to give you feedback.

Who can you do that for?