Box of Crayons Blog


Three “Alternative Facts” about Coaching in Organizations We Need to Debunk

We’re all learning plenty about fake news and alternative facts at the moment, and not in a good way. But it’s not just Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway who are making sh*t up, though those two are doing it in a particularly egregious and terrifying way. There are all sorts of areas where it’s worth challenging the dominant rhetoric, and figuring out what’s true versus what’s just lies or myth.

There are more than a few myths about coaching in organizations that have been floating around unchallenged for too long. I’m picking a few and challenging them. As well, I’d like to hear what myths about coaching you think might be worth challenging.

(And to be clear, this isn’t close to being as important as challenging the #MuslimBan or fighting Trump’s attack on the judiciary. If it’s a choice between engaging in that and reading this … take Option 1, please!)

  1. You Need to Be a Coach to Be Able to Coach

Many of us are “all in” on the importance of coaching in organizations. I’m one of them. For me, coaching is a foundational skill for managers and leaders, no matter whether the organization is rising or falling, no matter what the sector, no matter what the size.

But for many busy manager and leaders, being told they now have to Be A Coach just makes them roll their eyes. They’re simply trying to be a good manager, a good person, and to get things done. They’re not anti-coaching. But they don’t harbour any particular desire to be A Coach.

And I’m with them. We probably have enough coaches in the world right now.

What I do want, though, is for managers and leaders to be more coach-like. That means two things:

  • To understand that coaching is just one of six leadership styles, and almost certainly one that’s significantly underutilized.
  • To know that being more coach-like boils down to this: Stay curious a little longer; move into advice giving and action a little more slowly.

This downgrade in expectations comes as a relief to many managers and leaders. It makes the whole idea of coaching seem more possible and less burdensome, more useful and less faddish. Now they don’t have to change their personalities, or abandon all the management tools they use that already work. They just have to stay curious longer and offer up advice giving and action more slowly.

In short: Don’t be a coach. Do be more coach-like.

  1. Coaching Is Done by “People People”

Then there’s the assumption that all of this coaching stuff is for the touchy-feely people who hang out in HR or maybe in Learning & Development. You’ve got to have feelings. You’ve got to talk about feelings. It’s a pastel-coloured love-in of appreciation. Incense might be a useful addition.

And of course, that’s ridiculous. The purpose of coaching in organizational life is twofold. First, to get the right stuff done in an effective way (i.e., task-focused). Second, to ensure the right person is doing that right stuff, and that they’re learning as they go — so they can increase their confidence, engagement, competence and autonomy, so they’ll do it faster, better, more easily next time (i.e., person-focused).

None of this requires a special insight into people’s souls, the ability to see auras or a preference for music by Enya.

It does, however, require the discipline to ask good questions (here are the seven I recommend). It does require the willingness to stop jumping in and giving the answer, offering the solutions, suggesting the action. And, it turns out, everyone — not just “people people” — can do that.

In short: If you interact with other human beings, you can be more coach-like.

  1. Coaching Takes Too Much Time

Let’s start with what research tells us is the biggest barrier to why busy managers don’t coach: they feel they just don’t have the time.

That’s not unreasonable. In the first place, nearly everyone’s feeling stuck in the swirl of overwhelm. Too many emails, too many meetings, too many “strategic priorities,” too many dotted lines, too many direct reports. Even with a gadget by our side day in and day out, we’re feeling behind. We don’t feel we have enough time for anything.

And then, coaching comes with the added burden that it’s assumed to be a slow, meandering, slightly ponderous experience that takes 30 minutes or more to conduct. You even schedule coaching sessions in your calendar, a surefire way to have the coaching expand to take the time allotted to it.

But it doesn’t have to be so. In fact, for coaching to work in an organization, it can’t be so.

Our belief at Box of Crayons is you can coach in 10 minutes or less. For this to happen, a few things need to be clear:

  • There’s no correlation between the length of a coaching conversation and its impact. (And the science backs this up.)
  • Being more coach-like is not about adding coaching to what you’re already doing (that’s like pouring water into a glass that’s already full). It’s about transforming what you’re already doing. Transformative, not additive.
  • Drip irrigation beats a flash flood. In other words, a little bit of coaching every day has more impact than the occasional big shove.

We’ve worked with tens of thousands of managers in all sorts of organizations around the world. They’ve all discovered that coaching is not only something they can do quickly but something that can have a significant impact in 10 minutes or less.

In short: Coaching is at its best when it’s fast, every day and transforms the way you currently interact with others.

Coaching Is Essential in Organizational Life

The Conference Board’s 2016 Global Executive Coaching Survey notes that only 20 percent of the 181 companies participating in the survey were not actively trying to build a coaching culture. It’s clear: managers and leaders need to up their game on coaching. But persistent myths are part of what makes it harder for these managers to shift their behaviour and do things differently.

It’s time to debunk those myths. So:

Don’t be a coach, but do be a manager who’s more coach-like. That’s something everyone can aspire to.

Don’t think you have to be a “people person” to do coaching. You just need to stay curious a little longer and be slower to rush to advice giving and action.

Don’t think of coaching as an additional time suck but as a way of transforming what you currently do … and in way that takes 10 minutes or less.

25 Responses to Three “Alternative Facts” about Coaching in Organizations We Need to Debunk

  • Gabby

    With all due respect, these are simply misconceptions rather than “alternative facts.” These are not cases of purposeful fabrication to suit an agenda.

  • Andy Robinson

    Michael, At a recent team development day we were shown a slide of different development interventions (e.g. formal feedback, informal feedback) and whilst most interventions were backed up with evidence that they make a difference, Coaching was shown as 0% evidence of making a difference. I wonder if there is documented evidence and that we were just being presented someone’s lack of research.

  • Don

    Love your work, Michael! Great article, as always.

    A thought. Was it necessary to pick on republicans in your article? I support the Trump administration and am starting to tune out authors that pick on republicans while excluding democrats (pointing out Spicer and Conway). It’s your opinion that Spicer and Conway are making sh*t up, not a fact. Perhaps there’s already enough political division without adding one-sided opinions not necessary to make a point.

    • Michael Bungay Stanier

      Don – appreciate the note and the thoughtful way you ask it. Thank you. I think it’s the first time I’ve bought politics into an article, and I thought it might be, well, a leap. AND … I’m very anxious (even as a Canadian) about what’s happening, and I don’t want to “say nothing for the fear of offending”. Thanks again.

  • Cheryl Watson

    It seems to me that Alternative facts are often based on misconceptions and incorrect assumptions. Using them helps those espousing alternative facts to give them context and thus ‘truth’

  • Steve

    When you start off with a political perspective and make an assumption assigning negative motives you lose half your audience. Sorry, after “make s**t up”, I stopped reading. And, just so you know, I did not vote for Trump.

    • Michael Bungay Stanier

      Steve – appreciate you taking the time to write, and for your point of view. You’ll see a response to an early comment … I weighed up the risk of “being political” and realized that some people would be offended.

  • Jason Reed

    Great points Michael and definitely myths I have come across, that you are answering eloquently. I think another of the big challenges around coaching is in the definition. I am totally onboard with the non-directive style of coaching that you are advocating, however, there are a lot of people who consider it more directive (e.g. in the Bain situational leadership model), where asking questions is less of a need… any thoughts on re-aligning the definition?

    • Michael Bungay Stanier

      There are a LOT of definitions of coaching. It’s one of the challenges in this arena, because it means there’s no agreed definition. My goal is to make it an everyday useful way of behaviour that, backed by neuroscience, helps people step up, be challenged and find engagement.

  • Jamie

    It’s unfortunate that an otherwise helpful blog contains political commentary at the beginning. That sort of thing diminishes the professionalism of the service you offer. Thanks.

    • Michael Bungay Stanier

      Jamie and Mary – thanks for your comments. It’s not typical for me to make political comments, and it was something I knew I needed to weigh up, because of course people would have feathers ruffled.

      Let me ask, because I’m curious myself: why does mentioning politics diminish the professionalism of the service?

      • Jason Reed

        I can’t speak for Jamie and Mary. My own opinion is that your mention of politics doesn’t diminish your service. Your mention of alternative truths is topical and certainly by the looks of it provocative for some. Personally whether I agreed or disagreed with the political point I read the article and tried to synthesise what I could. Politics are part of life, with a small p as well as a big P. We all work in organisations that have politics and accepting differences of opinion and allowing people to express them is positive in my opinion.

  • DawnWE

    Thanks for the fun context for looking at these misconceptions! It also gave me that little boost to be more coach-like in some of my workshops. Thank you, Michael!

  • Sami Pajunen

    Read the whole link. Did not find the back-up fact for this. The link spoke about the length of the coaching programs. Need more info on this.

    “There’s no correlation between the length of a coaching conversation and its impact. (And the science backs this up.)!”

    • Coach Mike

      Yes, like some of the others who commented on the politics in this article, I think you should stick with what your expertise is. Poor judgement…wondering if reading your stuff in the future is worth my time though I enjoyed your book!

  • Andrew Horsfield


    I read the article, appreciate your work and like most things, never expect perfection in the people I seek out for wise counsel, advice or advocacy of ideas that could bring about positive change. Reading through your thoughtfully crafted responses highlights your ability to accept feedback regardless of how well, or poorly, it is delivered. Keep up the GREAT work.

  • Mark

    Lies are lies, they are not political. Opinions can be political but contain recognizable and agreeable truths on both sides. Making sh*t up is just making sh*t up. It will not be acceptable for people to confuse these things… keep up the GREAT WORK Michael.

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