Monday, 25 February 2013

Coaching and management - like mixing oil and water?

Situational Leadership (SL) - Hersey and Blanchard
Capability/Motivation grid (AIT) - AIT Consulting Ltd (UK)

Coaching  and management - like mixing oil and water?

When I talk to managers about coaching what always strikes me is the diversity of how this concept is understood.  We are living in a time when the notion of coaching has seeped into our lexicon and is being applied in sport, business and personal development as a universal nostrum to cure all performance issues.  I think this is interesting.  My observation, particularly in the business domain, is that coaching is being used somewhat uncritically.  Its practices and skills are quite specific and, to some extent, are in contradiction of traditional notions of management concerned with the efficient control of resources.

There are surprisingly few formal programmes that take a critical look at the particular challenges of combining the roles of leader and coach.  More typically coaching programmes for managers focus quite narrowly on a single framework like GROW and attempt to develop questioning and listening skills only, often with actors and contrived role plays.  These produce short-lived results.

I've been thinking about this for some while, but the topic feels particularly relevant as I am right in the middle of two programmes of personal development about coaching: one looking at professional coaching practice and the other at the role of a coaching leader.  This post is a reflection of some of the things that I am noticing as I am learning.

Leader as coach - a shift from challenging leader to challenging coach

Coaching is just one of several roles that managers are being asked to adopt alongside that of leader, mentor, trainer and performance manager.  Doing any of these roles well requires a good awareness of the boundaries and this is especially important for coaching.  There is a kind of mental switch required to move from being a challenging leader to a challenging coach, the essence of which is about 'letting go'.  From what I am noticing about my own learning, this distinction is not something that can easily be taught.  To make sense of what's required it needs the manager to pay close attention to the experience of coaching in the context of three areas: 1) who they are as a leader 2) how they interact with others, especially with those that they are managing and 3) the culture of their workplace setting in which coaching is being applied.

Managers talk about coaching - what do they mean by this and what is it that they are doing?

From the many conversations I have had with managers about coaching my sense is that they have misappropriated its practices as a method to manage underperformance.   I have noticed how coaching type questions are being used frequently to facilitate and challenge areas of underperformance. The issue here is that if the questions used 'lead the witness' and are in the category of 'questions with a known answer' they can feel  disingenuous and manipulative.

The alternative approach and, in my view, the one that has stronger integrity, is to give direct feedback to highlight the underperformance.  I've met lots of managers who are quite uncomfortable with giving direct feedback.  Instead they are opting for a coaching style approach in the hope that the the underperformance will be self-correcting.  This is optimistic, at best. 

Capability/Motivation - Skill/Will matrix - when are we truly coaching vs doing something else?

I've overlaid two models designed to help sort out when and when not to coach.  In common, they both use the same skill/will dimensions.  The differences come in a) the labels used and b) in their understanding of when coaching is used.

The Situational Leadership (SL) model has been widely adopted worldwide and so is something that is familiar to managers through their training.  Of interest is the term 'coaching'.  In this model it is referring to a style of leadership that is both directive (tells, instructs) and supportive (asks questions) for dealing with 'followers' (the model's description of those being led) whose capability and motivation is below par.   In practice, this combination of 'pushing' and 'pulling' is complex and to be done well needs managers to have understood the differences in their own role as performance manager versus that of a coach. I think the term 'coaching' is misleading.

In contrast, AIT's Capability - Motivation grid makes a much clearer distinction between the management practices at each stage, which I think this is much more helpful.  Instead of SL's Coaching, AIT use the term Under Performance. 

I'm not trying to split hairs here.  What AIT is making clear is that coaching is an approach that should be reserved for high performers only, i.e. people who already have the skill and the will to stretch their own performance.  Everything else is about something else.  This should not and does not rule out the use of good questions and effective listening skills to manage underperformance, but what it is not is coaching.  

Contracting and the management of expectations

For me the absolute crux of the matter is about making a clear 'contract' with the individual or team as to whether a conversation is about the management of performance or whether it is about coaching.  The primary difference is about who is controlling the agenda.  The complexity in this for the manager is the need to stay alert to shifts in the boundaries within a conversation.  What might start out as being contracted as being a coaching conversation might well switch to a conversation about performance in which the manager has a legitimate right to direct. I talked about the ABC of managing expectations in my last blog.

Ongoing reflections

Coaching has become part of the management hegemony.  I think its practices, whilst useful and part of the day-to-day work of a manager, contain a number of distinctive qualities that do not sit easily with this role.  My sense is of a need for much greater emphasis on raising the critical awareness of managers to work out for themselves how, when and in what ways coaching might be applied in their context.  To focus solely on the skills of coaching, within a simple framework like GROW, is to relegate its value to the brushing up of questioning and listening skills; not unhelpful, but missing the central point of coaching practice: supporting people to draw on their own resources to determine their own solutions.     

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