“Making sense of how we define a coaching approach - part 2. Setting your mind on a coaching approach” by Doug Montgomery and Laurent Terseur

In our first piece as part of our mini-series, we explored each of our respective journeys to adopting a more coaching style in past leadership roles from within large organisations. Since stepping out from existing structures and becoming independent executive coaches, we became even more aware and certain of the added value of having a coaching approach that’s integral to being an effective leader and manager.

By encouraging leaders and managers to invest in their coaching approach in day to day conversations, we are inviting them to increase their options for how they inspire and lead. Drawing from our experiences, which involved several exploratory conversations, we singled out  two elements that we think are needed in order to grow and embed a more coaching style: 

  1. A change of mind-set

  2. A change of psychological contract.

1. A change of mind-set

We believe that leaders taking a coaching approach are setting a clear intention to encourage and stimulate individuals and teams to take more responsibility for solving problems, being creative and making an effective contribution. In other words, a genuine and tangible way to walk the empowerment talk!

From our ‘on-going’ experiences a shift in mind-set is required to convert a leadership style to a more coaching approach. The behaviours we’ve observed that demonstrates this change is occurring include,

  • noticeably telling a lot less

  • noticeably listening a lot more,

  • and asking more questions that draw out people's ideas and thinking

We describe this as a ‘coaching mind-set’; a trusting, non-judgemental and clear intention to be present with the other and curious about what they have to say. 

1.1. A trusting mind-set 

In each of our experiences, we both believe that the first choice to be made by leaders, who want to engage in a more of a coaching approach, is choosing to trust their colleagues' experience, skills, creativity and capabilities. 

This may seem a given, and yet we see many leaders struggling with this, just as we too confess that in our time we did not always trust individuals in our teams to be able to do a great job, or rather, we did not trust them to do it our way!

During our time as leaders and Doug’s experience teaching coaching skills to leaders, we have come across many assumptions that can be getting in the way of trusting colleagues. We’ve collected these assumptions and share some of the most common examples we’ve come across in Table 1 below. 

However, we learned that when these assumptions are gently probed, they can often be replaced by a more positive, trusting mind-set. Trusting others to come up with solutions and actions is then likely to see them buy-in to the actions and be more motivated to drive them through. Trusting leaders are then rewarded with freed up time and the confidence to trust their reports again next time. 

Table 1: We share here some common examples of trust-breaking assumptions and offer related questions that challenge these assumptions and open up a more trusting mind-set.

Table 1: We share here some common examples of trust-breaking assumptions and offer related questions that challenge these assumptions and open up a more trusting mind-set.

1.2. Non-judgemental mind-set

Another useful mind-set change we think is needed to support a coaching approach, is to become less critical and more curious about what others think and what can be learned from the experience. This means suspending judgment, letting go of the “my solution is best” habit, and instead encouraging the other person to offer possible solutions and use their own resources.  We both experienced and observe how much:

•    A sure way to stifle someone’s willingness to offer ideas is to critique them as they make them. It is demoralising to be asked for ideas and have them rejected before you’ve finished offering them.

•    A fear of harsh judgement and blame drive protectionist behaviours, playing safe, and hiding of failures - not what most organisations really need in challenging times.   

Our learning over time has been that by exploring ideas, by being open to learning from both successful or less successful experiences, i.e. by being kinder to others (and to ourselves!), leaders with a more coaching style can craft conversations that are more reflective and focus on growth and opportunities to drive improved performance. 

1.3. A Clear Intention

The third mind-set change we'd encourage leaders to adopt is to become more aware of their intention. 

We observed (including our own experiences) that those who succeed in unlocking performance through asking rather than telling conversations are the ones,

  • who have grown a sound awareness of both the situation,

  • their feelings about it and,

  • how it fits into the bigger context.

In other words, they have a clear intention on what they want to achieve, and the style that will best suit that intention. This increasing awareness then helps them to focus on the key outcomes from a task or situation rather than having their attention immediately being absorbed by the problem and finding a solution. It’s making sure that the desired future outcome was clarified with their reports, helping them secure a shared understanding of what good looks like and leaving space for them to come up with options for getting there, select appropriate actions and take away both the plan and the motivation to deliver it.

An example: One of Doug's team (let’s call them Sam) came asking for advice on how to present a potentially contentious idea to the divisional leadership team (LT). Instead of simply offering a judgement of whether this was wise, or how Doug would go about this (a default setting for many of us), he decided that this was an opportunity to use the coaching approach. So, Doug asked what the desired outcome of presenting the idea to the Leadership team was. This resulted in a silence as Sam thought about what he wanted to achieve and what success would look like. It became apparent that the likelihood of the idea being adopted was slim at this stage, and that the purpose was to begin a longer discussion about a new technology. It was also an opportunity for Sam to raise his profile by being in front of the LT. Once that was established, further questions about options that could serve these outcomes were asked and a plan of engaging individual LT members about the idea and the technology before the meeting. It also emerged that it may be premature to present to the meeting and that the conversation could be started in the individual meetings with each LT member. The thinking and options came from Sam, who took the 1-2-1 LT engagement on with energy and commitment, and although the idea was not adopted, his profile as one who thinks ahead grew amongst the LT. 

Sharing the intention and desired outcomes in a way that helps their reports understand and open up to coaching style conversations brings us to the second useful change; a change in contract. 

2. A Change of Contract

Leaders and managers with such a trusting, non-judgemental mind-set and clear intention are much more inclined to invite their reports and colleagues to take more responsibility for their contribution to the conversation. 

We have noticed that when a conversation tips toward a more coaching style, it involves a different nature of relationship with a higher degree of engagement from their colleagues. In our experience, the more willing these colleagues are to take ownership for their part in the conversation, the more open and powerful will be their reflection and their contribution. And, especially when it is about sensitive areas such as their behaviour or performance, the safer and the more efficient will be the conversation. Alternatively, if they feel forced into such a conversation they may feel threatened and one way or another inclined to withdraw, with potential counter-productive impact on the relationship.

From our experience, some leaders and managers intuitively get this change in the nature of the relationship and create the safe conditions for it to happen – often unconsciously. Yet it is unusual for people used to setting the tone and pace of conversations with their colleagues to consciously review the nature and levels of expectations and permissions underpinning their relationships in the work place.  

We believe reviewing these hidden, psychological contracts in the workplace can shed useful light here. 

2.1. Awareness of explicit and implicit contracts

Examples of explicit contract: Employees have a written work contract with their employer agreeing on the terms of their relationships. Further formal pieces of contracting such as policies and procedures etc. add-up to form a body of explicit contracts of terms conditions and rules. 

Examples of implicit/psychological contracts: there is a set of unwritten, and often unspoken, contracts, between for instance an employee and their manager.  

Each employee will have their own unique set of expectations and desires of how they expect to be treated and what they are expected to do, which may/may not be visible to their manager. Similarly, each leader and manager will have unspoken and unwritten expectations and assumptions about their role and what their staff and bosses expect of them. That leader or manager will also have expectations of their staff, their boss, the organisation, etc. 

Over years of promoting more coaching style conversations as leaders, we've heard many barriers and assumptions arising from these unspoken, unshared personal psychological contracts (some of which we shared in Table1). Likewise, assumptions exist that can raise very similar barriers too at reports level; such as “it's up to the boss to tell us what to do.”  

For leaders we believe it is important to grasp the subtleties that exist around these psychological contracts. They are important. They are complex contracts because they are interwoven, numerous, bespoke and unconscious. 

2.2.  Awareness of their importance

We believe that over time these implicit expectations have a life on their own and get hardwired as relationships become embedded. In concrete terms, individuals get used to their respective roles and styles and most often expect them to stay unchanged!

We found that more often than not, these implicit psychological contracts are subconscious on both sides and therefore have never been actually agreed with the other party. These ‘secret’ contracts can work well and may never surface, however, they may be breached when the status quo changes, resulting in great upset when one or more expectation is not fulfilled. And confusion for the one who inadvertently broke an agreement they did not even know existed!

We noticed for instance that such a breach in the unspoken agreement may occur, when a leader decides to change from always telling to adopt a more coaching style without checking the expectations held by themselves and their team. Starting to ask for ideas when the team has been used to a command and tell mode may bring a level of uncertainty which may even come across as a threat if more context is not provided.

By contrast, bringing to the surface the fact that they're trying something new, and sharing their intentions in doing so, they give their counterparts the time and the opportunity to create a new and explicit contract on how they work together. 

In our experience, leaders who consciously decide to make changes to their usual style achieve less disruption and create a much greater positive impact by sharing with their team their intention to support their learning and development and to empower them by adopting a new approach to their conversations. 

2.3. Awareness of the complex “layer cake” of contracts

Recognising the importance of implicit contracts, we have further formed an opinion that leaders and managers willing to invite their colleagues to join them in less directive conversations need to sharpen their sensors and grow a sound awareness of where they operate in the complex “layer-cake” of explicit and implicit contracts. 

We share below in Table 2 some examples of this complexity as we observed them: 

Table 2: Examples of complex 'layer cake of contracts

Table 2: Examples of complex 'layer cake of contracts

From what we have observed, a great deal of progress is obtained by those leaders who

  1. have grown the habit of being conscious of what they are trying to achieve and attentive to all the signals from their colleagues and the broader environment, and

  2. at minimum apply the individual coaching skills of listening deeply, asking open questions and being really present to their colleagues – all skills not requiring overt permission and relevant to enhance all leadership styles.

3. In conclusion

Setting your mind on having a more coaching approach as a leader and manager has encouraged us to reflect upon our own individual experiences and observations, and build some form of consensus between us on what’s been most important to us in how we’ve demonstrated and tried to role model this in each of our approaches. In this dialogue we have come to the current conclusion that there needs to be clarity of mind-set, contract and intention if one wants to change the nature of conversations to a more coaching approach. 

Choosing to adopt a more ‘coaching’ mindset requires a deeper awareness of the individuals who will be impacted by the change. It’s in effect altered the ‘complex layer cake of contracts’ and they have to be managed just as carefully as managing the change that’s happening to the leader who’s making the change. 

The most useful questions that we learned to use on ourselves; “What is my intention here? What am I trying to achieve? What is the nature of conversations I need to have? What is my mind-set as I approach this conversation?”  

Even though we used to work in different industries and contexts, growing a greater awareness of our default styles has helped both of us become more effective in using these styles appropriately and contribute to creating a greater sense of trust and a greater engagement in others workplace.

Team members working with more coaching-orientated leaders are then more likely to feel empowered to take more ownership and responsibility for their own thinking. Both successes and challenges are treated as learning opportunities, making them feel more able and supported to take calculated risks without fear of failure and blame.

What have you changed in order to take a more coaching approach into your leadership style? What have you noticed encourages other to take up a coaching style in their leadership?

To connect with either Doug Montgomery and/or Laurent Terseur