The art of subtle coaching

Coaching is one of every leader-manager’s most important activities. You’re probably most familiar with coaching to improve already-good performance by gently tweaking someone’s behaviour to further enhance their results. My Describe–Explain–Suggest model is one way to do this, and my Flag–Example–Benefit model is another. Also useful is the Intent–Outcome model, where you help someone compare and contrast what they intended by their behaviour or actions with the actual outcome and then help them find ways to bring their intention and outcome closer together. Socratic questioning, where you help people find their own insights and solutions is another powerful coaching technique. (You can find examples of these models and techniques in Chapters 16 and 26.)

There’s another, more subtle type of coaching that I learned by reflecting on the way a former boss, Chris (let’s call him), coached me. It was my first job out of Uni, where my referent group was still that of uni students and I therefore dressed in ‘student uniform’ rather than ‘business attire’. Not a good look; enough said.

When we went to industry meetings together, Chris would introduce me like this: ‘This is Kris Cole, our safety and training officer. She’s very professional.’ That’s all, ‘She’s very professional’.

Chris was embedding a description of myself in my subconscious as being ‘very professional’. It affected my behaviour and yes, it affected the way I dressed, too. Without consciously realising it, I gradually began to grow into Chris’s description of me.

(You may be wondering why he didn’t just tell me, ‘Kris, you look like a mess; please fix up your image’. Well imagine my reaction to that: I can tell you right now I’d have crossed my arms, stamped my foot, pouted a bit and said, ‘It doesn’t matter how a person dresses; it just matters how well they do their job!’ I’d probably have tossed my hair, too. No, the direct approach would definitely not have worked. The subtle approach did.)

Chris subtly coached me in other ways, too. He’d pass on rules of thumb that I could easily follow. He’d relate illustrative personal stories or examples that gave me mental scaffolds to generalise from, to use to analyse problems or to make sense of experience. He thought out loud a lot, giving me insight into a really smart manager’s thinking processes and showing me how to consider matters from various angles before reaching a decision.

That was all incredibly valuable. But what I most treasure was the way Chris highlighted the positive, so I felt good about myself and willing and able to do my best work. I would like to think that every leader-manager makes time to regularly highlight the positive in people and give them something to grow into.

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