Why Coaching works

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About the author:
Julie Unite is an Organizational Psychologist, Coach and Consultant. You can contact her at junite@humbermm.com

Have you ever been in the situation where you have to tell a friend, family member or work colleague some difficult information, and you are worried about their reaction? Or maybe you are in the situation in which you can see a friend is engaging in something that is really not helping them. How do you raise this and help them to see what your concerns may be? These instances are a little bit like the beginning of a coaching engagement. You get a phone call from a manager who tells you they have an individual who is struggling at work. It is clear that there is a problem, and maybe you have some idea of what may be causing the problem. However, you are faced with the challenging predicament of how you effectively communicate this to the individual, and engage them to do something about it.

I practice as an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist and a large portion of the work I do involves executive coaching. Organizations will refer employees they have identified as needing development in some way. The employee may need to enhance their leadership effectiveness; they may need “grooming” for a more senior role; or, we may work with a team who is not performing to their full potential. Very often at the beginning of such a coaching engagement we will collect “data” about that individual/team, which helps us to understand where the problems may be occurring. We draw from a range of psychometric instruments that tap into personality dimensions, values, drivers and even cognitive measures to understand how individuals think and process information. Individuals complete such measures and feedback is then given. The intention behind such data collection is to provide self-insight for individuals about their unique style and work habits. It draws out areas of strength that can be leveraged more effectively, as well as bringing to light development areas that could use focus, particularly as they relate to improving job performance. The assumption behind such a process is that with greater self-awareness an individual can act more purposefully.

I was struck the other day by a particular coaching engagement in which we were asked to help a small group of leaders to work more constructively together. Conflict had arisen in the group and it was impacting the performance of the business units below. We started the process by collecting data. We carried out an in-depth 360 survey in which we interviewed peers, direct reports and supervisors pertinent to each of the leaders. We also had the leaders complete a personality inventory and a motivation/values questionnaire, which identified their significant career drivers. The data was compiled and the coaching engagement started with an interview and individual feedback session. As I reviewed the data on my particular individual, I saw a conflicting picture. The personality and motivational drivers reflected an individual who had the capacity to lead, who had well-developed emotional intelligence skills, who valued developing others and believed in being genuine and authentic in his actions. However, the 360 data described an individual who lacked credibility, who appeared untrustworthy, who seemed motivated by his own success more than that of his team, and generally an individual who lacked integrity, impact and influence in his department. It was difficult for me to reconcile the results, and I was apprehensive about how the feedback session would proceed. Ultimately what happened, however, was very positive. Upon reading the 360 results, the individual was shocked by how others perceived him. However, he was uplifted by the self-report data that clearly described how he saw himself and defined the important “self metrics” that he used to guide his behavior at work. During the coaching process, he achieved a stronger sense of self-awareness as to why some of his actions may have been “misperceived” by his work colleagues. He also used the feedback material to build a more robust picture of how he wanted to behave as a leader and set constructive goals to facilitate this. He actively engaged in the coaching process and was one of the team members who had the most positive gains.

When reflecting on the outcomes and process at the completion of the coaching engagement, I remembered Higgins’s (1987) self-discrepancy theory and some of the main tenants of social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1986). In essence, this particular individual saw two contradictory representations of his “self” concept; one reported in the 360 results; the other, in his self-reported data. Seeing these two conflicting pictures of himself created an emotional dissonance. With self-reflection, he made sense of this “discrepancy” and during the coaching process he worked to make adjustments in his behavior while defining new goals for going forward. Carver and Scheier (1981) suggest that when an individual perceives a discrepancy, some action is taken to reduce the discrepancy; individuals may change their behavior or change their goal. Similarly, social cognitive theory predicts that individuals will seek to reduce discrepancies between goals and the state of the environment. It also suggests that individuals will set new and more difficult goals once the discrepancies have been eliminated (when they believe they have the self-efficacy to accomplish such goals in the future). This mirrors much of what occurred in the above example.

From a Practitioner’s perspective then, the tools that facilitate such a process are an important consideration (particularly when time is of the essence). Tools that evoke dissonance can be powerful motivators for behavior change, and even more impact occurs when these tools bring definition or clarity to ideals and/or aspired to states within a particular context. This provides a set of self-generated “criteria” that one can look to for guidance and constructive action. It provides a frame of reference for positive outcomes rather than giving too much space for being swallowed by what is not.

The 5C Career Success Scale in many ways also acts as such a tool. It relates specifically to salient career dimensions valid for individuals in the workplace such as learning and development, work-life balance, positive impact and financial achievement. The questionnaire taps into each of these dimensions and asks participants two questions; 1). How important is a particular career aspect for you 2). In regard to this career aspect, to what extent have you achieved a level of this that you are happy with?” In this way, it evokes two career related “pictures” that an individual could compare, and determine whether any “discrepancies” exist. Tools such as this can be a useful way to stimulate self-reflection. It can jump start the conversation between coach/manager and employee around what action (if any) could be taken towards more desired outcomes.

For me, this particular coaching assignment was a reassuring reminder that even in the most challenging coaching situations positive outcomes can shine through. Individuals can surprise you. Working together there is room to create new possibilities. This promise for new possibility is probably what I love most about the work.

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