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Has Coaching become the antibiotics of L&D?

We’ve all heard the sorry stories about how antibiotics are becoming ineffective because they’ve been used incorrectly over the last decade. I’m worried that Coaching is going the same way. Whether it’s a remedy, sweet treat, crutch or mantra, there’s lots of potential pitfalls. If any of these sound familiar then read on for my recommendations on how to avoid them and make sure coaching remains effective in your teams and organisations.

Top 4 ways coaching is misused in organisations

1. As a remedy for “problem” people

We’ve all had requests to the effect of, “so-and-so isn’t really performing at their job, can you get them a coach?”. But coaching isn’t about fixing someone and it won't work if the person doesn't want to be coached. Plus, if others in your organisation see someone getting a coach and then 3 months later they’ve been made redundant, you’re going to give coaching a bad name (just like 360 feedback).

What’s the antidote? Radical Candour. Give consistent specific feedback to this person about their performance. You can’t outsource this to an external coach because, unless they're working with them on the job, they're not observing these issues in action.

2. As a sweet treat for people you want to retain

In contrast to the above, I also worry when coaching becomes a reward or motivation tool in an organisation. This can lead others wanting a coach “because that’s what the talented people get”. And it can be frustrating for the person receiving coaching if it doesn’t really match what they need, “I wanted overseas experience but they gave me a coach instead…”

What’s the antidote? Find out what motivates them. From increased responsibility to learning new skills the list goes on. Try asking questions like, “When have you felt most motivated recently?”, or “What would make work even more motivating for you?”

3. As a crutch for senior leaders

Coaching can become something that’s reserved for senior people so the belief develops that once you reach a certain seniority, you deserve a coach. These coaching relationships can then continue indefinitely without clear goals or accountability with the leader relying on their coach for advice and becoming isolated from peers or mentors.

What’s the antidote? Be clear about the coaching goals up front and put a limit on how long leaders stay with one coach. Get them to take a break from coaching for six months and instead, use the time to meet one new person every month as a sounding board.

4. As a mantra to people managers on how to have every conversation

As soon as someone learns the basics of coaching they feel pressurised to coach their team at every opportunity. It’s like the pressure that some new mothers feel they receive from hospitals about breastfeeding. But the reality is that coaching isn’t suitable for every conversation, just like breastfeeding isn’t suitable for every mum or baby.

Don’t use a coaching approach:

  • When someone is new to a task and has no experience. They need clear direction as they genuinely won't know what to do.

  • When someone needs to follow a specific process and it can’t be done differently.

  • When an issue needs to be resolved urgently.

  • If you or your employee is angry or feeling under pressure. Neither of you will be able to think creatively or get anything out of the conversation.

  • When your relationship hasn’t reached a basic level of trust. If they’re going to share thoughts and ideas, your employee needs to feel they can trust you.

  • When someone wants to learn from your experience. Perhaps you're their mentor and so it makes sense to tell them what you have done in the past.

How and when to coach

Hopefully what I’ve written so far hasn’t completely put you off coaching as there are some clear opportunities when it is a helpful approach in everyday conversations with employees. Here's a few examples:

Task-based conversations

When someone asks you for advice (e.g. “What should I do next on Project X?”) but you’d like to encourage them to think for themselves and become more self-sufficient.

  1. Explore their ideas. What are your options? What have you already considered? What experience do you have that could apply here?

  2. Get them to evaluate. Which do you think is best? What will it achieve? What risks/barriers are there?

  3. Prompt them to think about next steps. What support or resources do you need to make this happen? What might get in the way of this working?

Development-based conversations

When someone wants to improve something (e.g. "I'm not confident in meetings") then coaching is a great way to empower them to own their own development.

  1. Help them clarify what they’re aiming for. If you were more confident, what would you be doing? What does 'more confident' mean to you in practice? How would you feel when doing it?

  2. Prompt them to learn from their own experiences. When have you felt confident in a meeting? What were you doing?

  3. Encourage them to explore their assumptions or beliefs. What's getting in the way of you feeling confident? What assumption have you made about yourself or the situation?

  4. Get them to think about what they could do. What could you try? Who could you learn from? What resources could you access?

Career-based conversations

When someone wants to make progress in their career (e.g. "I want to become a manager") and you want to help them find their own way forward.

  1. Ask them why this matters. What specifically interests you about becoming a team manager? Why does this feel important to you now? How committed are you to making this happen?

  2. Get them to think about where they are now. What skills or strengths do you currently have that would make you a great team manager? What do you still need to learn? If you don’t know then who could give you that feedback?

  3. Encourage them to explore how to progress towards their goal. How could you learn these skills now? Who could help you learn them? What experiences in or outside of work could help you develop towards this goal? Is there anything I could support you on?

  4. Help them commit to an action. What are you going to do? When will you do it by? Is there anything that might get in the way of you achieving this?

What do you think?

How else have you seen coaching being misused? What advice would you give to leaders about how to use coaching more effectively? I'd love to hear from you!