Category Archives: Behaviour
My understanding of coaching is that it is a bit like art – you may not be able to define it but you know it when you see it. Or was that pornography? Some people try and narrow down its definition by specifying what coaching is not. Coaching is not training, leading, managing, facilitating or mentoring. Training implies that the trainer knows something that the trainee doesn’t know but needs to know and it’s up to the trainer to fix that. Managing is about tasks and things and almost certainly has an actual or implied hierarchy and power imbalance. Leading is about hearts and minds, providing inspiration and motivation to someone, who in the leader’s opinion, requires more motivation but seems to be unable to generate it themselves. Facilitation involves directing or controlling an individual or group. Mentoring demands a relationship between an experienced expert and someone inexperienced and / or inexpert who wants to do or be what the mentor does / is.
A common metaphor for coaching in business is coaching in sport; it’s easy to say that. People get it quickly but it’s not a fitting comparison. Sports coaches are the boss. They’re in charge. They’ve got extensive expertise and experience. More likely than not, they’ve been in the team being coached and after their playing career, they’ve logically moved into coaching. Though not every player has been able to make that transition.
Business coaching or professional development coaching are different. There’s no power imbalance (or there shouldn’t be.) There’s no expertise imbalance. A coach is an independent force there to observe, listen, reflect, probe, prompt. A coach probably doesn’t know the answers or have the direct experience of the issues and opportunities of the person being coached. You need permission to coach. The coach is not in control. The coach need not have all the answers and better not pretend that they do. The coach does need to keep the person being coached honest, focused and aiming at development that is genuinely necessary and attainable.
Most employees, most of the time, will do what they are directly told to do. That’s management and if that is all there was, then managers would have to be omnipresent because that’s the limitation of the command-and-control hierarchical power-based model. The reality is that managers have lots to do and places to be. Tom Peters wasn’t wrong when he said that the true test of your leadership is what happens when you’re not around. (Unless it wasn’t Tom Peters who said that? In which case, it’s me who’s wrong. Leave Tom Peters alone.) The baseline assumption behind coaching is that it’s ongoing, progress is expected, that progress is the responsibility of the person being coached, and the coach is responsible for the coaching process. Ongoing professional development can genuinely benefit from an effective and frequent coaching programme. A Bersin study found that companies with an effective and frequent coaching programme improve their business results by 21 percent as compared to those who never coach.
Can a manager also be an effective coach in an employment context? Sure, why not? They’re doing everything else. Bosses can wear rotating hats with labels like ‘coach’, ‘manager’, ‘leader’ or whatever and that’s probably pragmatic. But, there’s a value especially for coaching in a real and / or [perceived independence, coupled with a perspective and helpful naiveté born of being an outsider. Sometimes, it’s worth hiring someone to do the coaching. (I don’t do much coaching myself. It’s hard work. Genuinely that’ll put me off most things. But I do some coaching. Client companies sometimes ask me to coach after I’ve spoken, facilitated or trained. They like the other things I do, the results I get and just plain like me. ‘Like’ is probably the wrong word. Both the client company and the individuals being coached have to trust and respect the external coach. There have definitely been times where whatever emotion was being directed at me, it wasn’t ‘liking.’)
Coaches are about ‘ask’ not ‘tell’. A coach’s focus is the employee not a task. Coaching is not fixing anyone. Coaching has clear accountability. Coaching can be scheduled but it’s more an ‘as need when needed’ thing. Coaching is about a set of processes, more than it is about a coach. That said, a coaching toolbox is useless, and sometimes dangerous, if operated by someone calling themselves a coach who lacks the wisdom to know when to use which tool. In that regard, coaching is like every single DIY activity I’ve ever done that resulted in a heated towel rail power switch being installed upside down, a door handle going in inside out or a chainsaw that’s now more functional as a doorstop.
Coaching is a journey, like ‘Lord Of The Rings’ was a journey. And like ‘Lord Of The Rings’, not everyone finishes the journey. And if you’ve got giant eagles available for your coaching process, use them right away, not at the end when otherwise all else seems lost. Duh.
Conflict conjures up images of stress and battles on the job but managed well, it can stimulate employee engagement and productivity.
Stanford’s Professor Robert Sutton undertook a massive study into organisations and the majority of them were displaying ineffective behaviours when it came to building and maintaining teams. The angle of his research worked backwards from those repeated ineffective behaviours to the leaders’ mindsets and preconceptions that drove them, over and over again. One of those mindsets was a belief that team harmony was crucial to success. It isn’t.
The theme of this month’s issue is conflict resolution. I’ve run the occasional training session around conflict resolution. Often, I’ll ask the group for the pro’s and cons of conflict in the workplace. The cons are obvious enough and people are adept at quickly amassing a swarm of negative thoughts. But if provoked a little, people can work up quite the list of advantages of well-managed conflict in the workplace. And this is what Sutton concluded about team harmony. At one extreme, constant battles are unhealthy and unproductive but at the other extreme, the illusion of constant peace and tranquillity need not be all fluffy bunnies and rose petals either. Often, that veneer of civility is a facade for repressed conflict and passive aggressive behaviour. Zero conflict is unrealistic and not very productive either.
The answer isn’t even halfway, its north of that. Conflict occurs as it will normally with reasonable people. The conflicts are resolved professionally and courteously but they have to occur because it is from those ashes that innovation arises. This is where new ideas occur, problems get solved and sacred cows are challenged. This zone is called ‘Productive Conflict.’ Are you wondering if your workplace is in Sutton’s magical zone of productive conflict? The litmus test is this – Can the lowest ranked, least paid or newest member of your team speak up and say anything, challenge anything to the boss without fear of consequence? If they can, that’s a sign of the state of productive conflict. If they can’t, it’s a sign of something else. And that’s not good.
Most hiring failures occur due to attitude. Some of those failures result in employees leaving. Most result in employees staying but in a disengaged state, doing no more than they have to because they have to with all the performance management workload that entails. There are a lot more dimensions to this thing called ‘attitude’ than just trying to hire those with a ‘good’ one rather than a ‘bad’ one. One attitude to search for and target with your structured behaviour-based interview questions and so forth is a non-avoiding and mature attitude towards conflict.
My kids aren’t perfect and neither is my parenting but we’re all in a good patch at the moment. We have our share of family conflict. My son has had a weekend job at our local Pak n Save the past ten months and got seriously great feedback from his performance review. My daughter went with me to a Warriors game, got to talking to a woman she’d never met and walked away with a job interview appointment for a summer job. The point I’m trying to make here to parents and people who have ever been a teenager that are also employing young people is that young people can chose their attitudes as easily as they can choose their body piercings and tattoos. And that includes their attitudes toward conflict.
I’ve spent the past couple of months delivering thirty presentations to six thousand business people around the country. I’ve shared a bunch of research and a few stories and case studies on team building. A lot of stories came back at me, many involving conflict. Most were realistic about it being a process, a tunnel with a light at the end, albeit with absolutely zero idea of how long the tunnel is.
There’s the old joke that goes like this:
During a visit to a mental asylum, a visitor asked the director how to determine whether or not a patient should be institutionalised. “Well,” said the director, “we fill up a bathtub, then we offer a teaspoon, a teacup and a bucket to the patient, and ask him to empty the bathtub.” “Oh, I see,” said the visitor. “A normal person would use the bucket because it is bigger than the spoon or the teacup.”
“No,” said the director, “a normal person would pull out the plug. Do you want the bed near the window?”
When people are presented with a situation as a problem with a number of solutions, then that’s how they see it. Conflict need not be a problem but it will be if that’s how you choose to see conflict.
Conflict is inherent in human interaction so people must love it, right? Xbox is hugely popular but there is no game called ‘Gears Of War: Conflict Resolution.’
Solomon Asch is a great name for an Xbox villain but it’s also the name of a psychologist who ran a now-famous 1951 study on social conformity. (If you’re visualising this as you read, do so in the grainy black and white newsreel style of the day.) Groups of participants were seated at a table while a moustached man in a lab coat with a clipboard told them they were part of a programme of assessing visual judgements. All but one of the participants were in on the scam and it was that one person per session who was the actual subject of the experiment.
Each group was shown two large cards at once. On one card was a single vertical line. On the other card were three different vertical lines labelled a, b and c. Each person was asked to say out loud which of a, b or c was the same length as the first line on the other card. The process was repeated again and again. For the first two rounds, the researcher’s confederates gave the right, and obviously right, answers and so too did the subject. From the third round onwards, the confederates gave the same wrong, and obviously wrong, answer. The subject, who was in the middle of the group, got to hear the incorrect answers being spoken before and after it was his turn.
Initially, most subjects stuck to their guns but it didn’t take more than a couple of rounds for most people to scrunch up their faces, weave their eyes back and forth and go with the group. There were eighteen sessions and three quarters of people conformed at least once. One third went along every time.
I don’t know if would’ve influenced the science but all the participants were men. They were student volunteers and maybe there weren’t many women at university in 1951 or maybe women had better things to do with their time? (Insert your own joke here about women lying about the length of things.)
The thing about experiments like this is that, if they prove anything at all, they prove it about most people and I’m sure you are not most people. However most people are most people and they’re the ones you’re employing, leading, developing and depending on for your success. Thinking about your workplace, how conformist are your people? What innovations aren’t happening? What sacred cows aren’t being challenged? What problems aren’t being solved? All because of too much of what seems to be an overly human trait of conflict avoidance.
One of the themes of this month’s issue is conflict resolution. Some people, perhaps even most people, see conflict as a problem that needs to be prevented, avoided or minimised. I see it as a tool to be managed. By definition, ‘resolution’ does not mean prevention, avoidance, minimising or even ending. It means the act of resolving or determining upon a course of action. We need to acknowledge the conflict and choose to deliberately do something about it. I call this, “Going ugly early.”
A lack of conflict may seem like a great idea but it’s more likely a symptom of organisational avoidance problems. It’s an unrealistic fantasy to have a conflict-free workplace.
Often though, the conflict on balance becomes destructive or unsustainable. Then someone needs to intervene.
One of the critical ingredients in anyone’s skill acquisition, personal development and long-term success is heightened self awareness – metacognition or our ability to think about the way we think. Nowhere is this more evident than how different people view and handle workplace conflict and conflict resolution. There are a number of different models simplifying conflict styles. “I’m an avoider. You’re a competitor. She’s an accommodator.” The key first step is to realise that, whatever the label de jour, when it comes to conflict you have a default preference style and others may differ. Become self aware, then look for clues in others. Only then can you tweak, test, evaluate and re-tweak an approach. Modelling and teaching this behaviour flows through into non-conflict communication, accelerating understanding of, and effective interaction with, others. It allows innovations, third ways and the emperor with new clothes finding out he’s naked.
When it comes to conflict, two wrongs don’t make a right (in the same way that two positives can’t make a negative. Yeah, right.)
This HBR article about debriefing is one I wish I’d written. (From meglomaniacal me, that’s high praise.) I’m often directing participants in my training workshops to conduct debriefs. I tend to use experiential models a lot. For non-trainers (muggles?), that means we do things, then learn from them in a structured way. I favour a 3-phased approach, repeated over and over:
- Frame the activity
- Conduct the activity
- Debrief the activity
I hear a lot of people using the word ‘debrief’ and its meaning seems to vary wildly. In that sense, the word ‘debrief’ is much like the word ‘spicy’ or the word ‘love.’ I try to consistently summarise the meaning of it in my workshops, not just because we’ll use it in the workshops but because it’s one of the most useful things you’ll ever learn in life, not just for work, but for situations where things happen and you’d benefit from learning afterwards. That applies a lot outside work (hopefully.) Relationships and families could well do with that skill. It’d certainly give us something to talk about over compulsory sunday night family dinners.
To do something and to deliberately learn from it is what successful people do. That might even be a great definition of what success is. To do something and maybe learn from it or not learn from it is what most people do most of the time. Don’t be most people. They’re nice enough but…
The HBR article gives a great structure if you want to either learn debriefing yourself or communicate it to others:
- Schedule a regular time and place (ie make debriefing part of the way things are done around here!)
- Create a learning environment
- Review 4 key questions: What were we trying to accomplish?; Where did we hit or miss our objectives?; What caused our results?; What should we stop / start / continue doing? (I’m a big fan of stop / start / continue; That’s the name of one of my books ‘Stop Start Continue’!)
- Codify lessons learned (People after us will learn from our mistakes, not theirs.)
I showed this video today in a time management workshop I was running. I had a pretty good idea that none of the participants had any issues themselves with procrastination – quite the reverse. But, it occurred to me that they might have others for whom procrastination was an issue. And I was kind of right. They did have other people they needed to help with procrastination but those people weren’t work people – they were family or friends. I often find it useful to make connections from workplace professional development topics to non-work uses, often social ones. Just another lever to get their brains on board.
The video is short and cute and hits 3 or 4 key points. Makes a lot of sense. Besides, who doesn’t like phrases like “temporal discounting”?
Here’s a neat DIY psych test for yourself, your friends or soon-to-be-ex-friends, and maybe colleagues. Don’t you hate people who are bottom-of-escalator-blockers & doorway blockers & non-indicating-drivers? They skew heavily towards being self-centric people generally, which is never much fun or productive in teams.There’s a neat amateur psych test you can do and covertly get targets to do. Get them to use their finger to ‘write’ a capital E on their own forehead. They’ll either write it so it’s readable from their own point of view or the point of view of others. Also relevant to those who tattoo their own faces but that’s a whole different psych test…
Here’s a recent podcast of mine about the Dunning Kruger Effect. It’s a useful phenomenon to be aware of when leading different types of people, especially when needing to give performance feedback of any kind. There are two sub-groups of people who are least accurate at assessing their own levels of performance: the very excellent and the very non-excellent. Most people are average or either side of it and their self-assessments are ‘there or thereabouts.’ The high performers become high performers because they underestimate how good they are (or should / could be) and try harder and smarter as a result. AND they continue to improve through deliberate and focused practice built on feedback.
The best illustration of the other end of the scale where poor performers never improve because they either never receive feedback (or effective feedback) or they are closed to it are the auditioners for any of those Idol-type shows where security has to escort them off the premises. They characterise perfectly the Dunning Kruger Effect. They simply cannot believe they’re being told “No” and that they’re not the next Mariah. Their dramatic OTT response is great for these shows and symptomatic of why they’re never going to get any better without a substantial external intervention in their lives. Or never. How many of these people have you worked with over your career? Here’s John Cleese’s interpretation.
All sweeping generalisations but an interesting lens through which to look at your team.