Why Your Coaching Isn’t Working?

By Tom Davidson

As my Dad used to say, “Working with people is like shoveling smoke. Just when you think things are going in one direction, they go another!”

As a supervisor and leader at any level, one of your most important jobs is to coach others to higher levels of performance, but it can be a bigger challenge than you might think.

After over 35 years as a first-line supervisor, manager of managers, executive and volunteer leader, and after 15 years as an executive coach, I’ve learned that there is a hidden hierarchy of needs that can thwart even the best leadership coaches.

Use this template to determine why your coaching might not be working.

  1. Are they smart enough?
  2. Do they have a learning mindset?
  3. Are they aware of their impacts?
  4. Do they care about changing?
  5. Do they know what to do?
  6. Do they do it?

Putting the hidden hierarchy to work
Let’s assume that your coaching skills are excellent, the conditions and terms are right for coaching, and you are the best one to do the coaching. In assessing your coaching situation, answer the questions above “yes” or “no” – in the order presented – and you are very likely to discover why your coaching isn’t working.

  1. Are they smart enough? Even if your associate has fancy college degrees, analytical skills in their current job and high self-confidence, they may not be sufficiently able to recognize assumptions, evaluate arguments and make accurate deductions. Critical thinking skills can be developed, but without a sufficient baseline, you’re stuck before you even get started.
  2. Do they have a learning mindset? Your subordinate needs to have a learning attitude, best described by Dr. Carol Dweck in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Without a learning mindset, even the best coaching will fall short of its potential. The good news is that we can all choose to have what Dr. Dweck calls a “growth mindset” rather than a “fixed mindset.”
  3. Are they aware of their impacts? It’s been said a thousand ways: “Leader know thyself, first.” Without sufficient awareness, your coaching won’t work because your client remains in the dark. To change the outcome, successful supervisors need to gather and share feedback, employ coaching tools like 360-degree feedback, and bring in experts on personality typing, to name a few options. The harder the case, the more data you need.
  4. Do they care about changing? “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” goes the old saying, and it’s just as applicable to coaching. If your direct report is smart enough, has a learning mindset, is aware but doesn’t care to change, then don’t bother going on. All you can reasonably do is help them see how their impacts are getting in the way of something they want for themselves. In this situation, the manager is helping the person see the alignment or misalignment so the associate can make better choices.
  5. Do they know what to do? This is where most managers begin their quest for improving the performance of others, by sending people to training courses, exposing them to leadership models, and giving them step-by-step instructions. Before your coaching can stick, the team member has to have relevant principles to apply, new skills to practice and an action (or development) plan. If they have cleared the four previous hurdles, then you’re coaching might just work if your client also knows what to do.
  6. Do they do it? As a manager or supervisor, your coaching still might fail your subordinate if they don’t follow through and do things differently. Albert Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” It’s entirely possible for someone to be smart enough, have a learning mindset, be aware of their impacts, care about changing, know what to do but fail to do it.

Knowing where you are on this hidden hierarchy might just be the secret as to why your coaching doesn’t work.

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