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How to Overcome Barriers to Coaching In Your Organization

One of the questions that comes up quite regularly when we’re talking to our clients at Box of Crayons is this: So, what are the barriers to coaching in the workplace?

Coaching is a foundational skill for managers and leaders. And there’s also no doubt that there are some really clear barriers that stop people changing their behaviour from advice-giver, “Let me tell you what to do,” to a more focused on the person approach, rather than focus on just the task at hand.  Check out my latest podcast that explores the various barriers and offers up some tactics for improving the quality and frequency of coaching in your organization.

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Full Transcript

So one of the things that comes up quite regularly when we’re talking to our clients at Box of Crayons is this question: So, what are the barriers to coaching in the workplace? Sometimes it’s my clients asking that. Sometimes it’s me asking the clients, what are the barriers to coaching actually sticking and thriving in your organization? And there’s no doubt that there are barriers.

It was back in the year 2000 that Daniel Goleman, who you may know is the guy who popularized the whole sense of emotional intelligence. He wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review called Leadership That Gets Results. It’s a great article. And he basically posits that there are six different styles of leadership. There’s things like visionary leadership, there’s telling people what to do. One of those six leadership styles was coaching. And what they did is they did some research about which leadership style had positive impact on the culture, which drove bottom-line results. And they all had their place.

In fact, that was one of the key findings, was, a great leader knows how to use all six of those leadership styles at the appropriate time. What they found is that most leaders used one or two or perhaps three, and that was all. And with coaching, one of the six leadership styles, they found it was the least utilized of the leadership approaches, even though it had a positive impact, it drove employee engagement. I think it was number two or maybe number three in terms of impact on the bottom line.

Now that was the year 2000. Even though coaching has become much more popular since then, and much more kind of bigger buzzword, I still don’t think that it’s working particularly well in organizations. So there are definitely barriers.

It reminds me a bit about the Marcus Buckingham work. Now some of you all know Marcus Buckingham’s work. It’s all about that focus on strengths. And it’s all about, “Look. Help managers build on—our employees build on and work to their strengths, and you’ll have a more engaged, more successful workplace.” And he’s a great champion for this work. And recently I saw him say, “You know, I started this work 15 years ago and only 30% of people were using their strengths. Now after 15 years, we did the study again and it’s now 31% of people using their strengths.”

I mean, those numbers are slightly wrong. But you get the point, which is, even though a good work’s being done, it hasn’t really taken traction in terms of really shifting our corporate cultures. So, what are these barriers to having coaching thriving in organizations in general, and perhaps in your organization?

Well, let me start with the first one, which is, I think, executive coaching is a terrible role model for managers coaching. And even though they sound the same and you kind of think, “Well, we’ll just take one and apply it to the other,” it doesn’t work like that at all. When you’re an executive coach, in other words, you’re an external to the organization, and you’re hired and you’re brought in, actually you have a very different power relationship to what’s going on. You have set times, you’re getting paid money, you have a degree of confidentiality, you have a disconnect to actually the specifics and the subtleties of the culture.

Executive coaching is important and powerful. But it’s a terrible way of thinking about managerial coaching, which is when, as a manager and a leader, you need to think to yourself, “I need to be more coach-like with more of my people. I need to build that into my leadership style.”

And actually the skills for one are quite different from the other. At Box of Crayons, our big piece is this: If you can’t coach in ten minutes or less as a manager, you don’t have time for coaching. So I think that’s the first barrier, which is just, there’s this collapsing of executive coaching, managers who coach are the same sort of things. They’re not. And I think when you’re looking at bringing coaching into your organization, you need to understand that you need to equip your managers and your leaders with quite different skills and a different mindset than you might if you were training an executive coach.

The second barrier, I think, is that most organizations, although they may say differently, put an emphasis on doing rather than thinking. You know, there’s this—just a sense in most of our organizations that it’s all about go, go, go. It’s all about busy, busy, busy.

And it’s amazing that when we do the work we do with organizations, with our coach skills training, how wired people are to leap into action. It’s like, “I don’t really know what the problem is, I don’t really know if we’ve got any good ideas, but let’s start doing something as fast as we can.”

I think coaching is actually all about slowing down the rush to action and creating a little curiosity and a little ability to think more deeply about the experience. And you can imagine in your own organization, I’m sure, that if you walk by somebody’s cubicle or their office and you saw them just sitting there staring out the window, staring at the ceiling, part of you goes, “What are they doing? What’s that about?” Even though part of you may going, “Oh, that’s what thinking looks like.”

So I think that’s another one of the kind of cultural barriers to coaching, which is, we love doing so much that creating a practice that encourages thinking actually feels a little counter-intuitive, even though that ability to think is what our organizations are actually paying for us. I mean, there’s plenty of people who can do stuff; there are fewer people who can think great thoughts.

My guess, if you’re listening to this podcast, is you’re one of those people who can think great thoughts. Are you giving yourself enough space and time to do the thinking?

And I guess that leads us into the third barrier, which is just understanding the difference between expertise and curiosity. As we become more senior, as we become more learned, experienced in the work that we do, our—we become invested in our own sense of expertise. And what happens when we have a sense of expertise is we move into, “Let me give you the answers as fast as I can. Let me add value by telling you what to do. Let me add value by telling you my story and sharing my experiences.”

And shifting from expertise to using that expertise to fuel your curiosity is actually another one of those simple-sounding behaviour changes that are actually quite tricky in terms of driving a more coach-like experience in your organization. So seeing the subtleties and the seduction of expertise, and actually as a manager or leader being able to put aside that sense of, “This is how I add value, by my expertise,” and leading with curiosity is a very powerful act.

And I think the fourth and final distinction I would make here in terms of thinking about barriers to coaching in organizations is the sense—and again, it’s connected to some of the ones we’ve already covered—that sense of the difference between performance and development.

You know, the language I come across regularly is coaching for performance. But as far as I can tell, in most organizations, coaching for performance is still basically just telling people what to do. It’s like the old controlling command approach to leadership, but kind of slightly nicer. Still basically saying, “Let me tell you the answer. Let me tell you what to do.”

And the other distinction about coaching for performance is it’s still focused on getting the stuff done. It’s still focused on that doing side of it. Coaching for performance is actually when you turn the focus to the person who’s doing the thing. And part of the barriers here is that we often think coaching for performance conversations have to kind of be slotted into the ghetto of our annual performance appraisals. And actually, we all know how broken performance appraisals are at the moment.

So I’d say the other barrier to tackle here is understanding that everyday conversations can actually have elements to them that are about performance, fixing the thing that needs to be fixed and development, building on expanding the capacity of the person who’s dealing with the task. And then when you start to understand those distinctions, you actually understand that coaching can actually play a powerful role in everyday management.

There’s no doubt about it. Coaching is a foundational skill for managers and leaders. And there’s also no doubt that there are some really clear barriers that stop people changing their behaviour from expert, advice-giver, “Let me tell you what to do,” to more curiosity, more focused on the person rather than just the task at hand, more willingness to actually give power over to the person you’re managing and leading so that they expand their capacity, have more impact and become more self-sufficient.

There are barriers there, but they’re definitely palpable. And the benefit—and this takes us back to the Daniel Goleman article I talked about right at the start—the benefit is that you build that strand of leadership in you that is actually one of the key drivers for engagement, for bottom-line profit and for helping people and organizations do less good work and more great work.

One Response to How to Overcome Barriers to Coaching In Your Organization

  • Khalid Joomaye

    Thanks for this article. I certainly recognise the ‘I’m the expert’ trap. Having moved to a new role in a new organisation and sector, I soon realised that conceptualisation was no longer valid and I had to adopt an approach based on curiosity and not on having all the answers. Luckily, I have a manager who allows me to not have all the answers. Leaders at the top need to give the whole organisation the permission to be curious, but with constantly increasing pressure on time, money and resource, the answers need to come quickly, which means that often new initiatives are not really solutions or ways forward.

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