The Value of Quality Attention to “Individual Differences” in Coaching – Formal and Informal by Sue Young

My intent here is to explore practical use of individual differences in coaching and how I apply this in my personal coaching approach.

A Coaching approach works from the particular foundation of understanding that I believe people have built for themselves. This sort of understanding may still be some way from the concepts about individual differences formed in such fields as Psychometrics. And in a practical discipline such as coaching, the nature of individual differences for most people is where we only get to know ourselves through interaction with others.

  • How otherwise do we get a sense of ourselves?

  • What do we have to compare and contrast with?

There is value in these more formal frameworks of individual differences; however a coaching approach needs to work from the other person’s frame of reference, rather than impose an expert type solution. I want, here, to explore how this balance is best achieved.

The context for my coaching is mainly working with middle and senior managers in organisations. Organisations are sometimes like a separate world, with their own cultures and processes. Working in them can require very particular forms of behaviour. However, in my experience, organisations are still in early stages of learning to work with the reality that people are importantly different in their aspirations, strengths, style preferences, values and motivation – despite the attempts to impose ‘the system’.

In the organisational process of coordinating resources towards a collective purpose, attention to individual differences can be lacking. In that context quality of attention to individual/s involved can help close the gap.

I believe this is one of the reasons for the growing popularity of coaching.

1. An approach to bringing Individual Differences into coaching

The relationship between coach and client is the vehicle for the learning process. And of course, the individual client is unique...unique in the ways they perceive their world, learning style, working style, the way they talk, personality, values, beliefs and life experience. This is an essential focus for a Coaching Approach.

Hence in my coaching practice, it’s how I give that Quality of attention to the individual that is the differentiator as an approach to manager development, compared to other approaches. This is the added value. Individuals are unique, yet there are patterns around some of the differences. Making sense of some of these patterns can be highly relevant to coaching.

There are two important aspects to this that come into my coaching:

  1. Working with differences in the coaching relationship – style differences between Coach and Client

  2. The Client working with differences in key working relationships and issues around those differences that come into the coaching agenda.

1.1. Appreciating the way we learn about important patterns of individual differences

Individual Differences is a vast field of formal, academic, research. It is like another world – where attempts to scientifically identify and measure our differences have got to.

When helping managers become more aware and able to articulate their preferred style of operating and recognise its potential implications, I often make use of inventories and psychometrics. In my coaching I tend to use those that clients will be most able to easily relate to and find most relevant and helpful.

I find this particularly useful in early stages of a coaching assignment. It provides a framework and language around differences that can help the client make sense of some of the patterns and how they relate these to their experience.

In using these I am aware of the need to focus on explaining their meaning in a clean way, not ladened with my own personal bias and preferences, so I am enabling the client to explore for themselves, seeing if it adds fresh insights and draw their own interpretations and conclusions.

I am also wary of making sweeping generalised judgments, and staying mindful that the science is necessarily limited, at present.

Ultimately it is down to the client to make their own sense of the information they have gathered from their day to day experiences. Coaching conversations can help this process – drawing out meaning in relation to the unique context of that individual.

This day to day experience often comes from sources of awareness of self, and awareness of others.

1.2. Awareness of Self 

Awareness of self is a precursor to awareness of others and our ability to give another person quality attention.  It is only through being with others that we gain a sense of ourselves in the first place. Indeed, who we are is partly determined by our experience of others, particularly in early formative years. It is a lifelong learning experience. To be able to truly respect, empathise and yet challenge the thinking of the client we need to come 'clean' to that interaction. 

What I mean by ‘clean’ is not being contaminated by being blind to our own personal needs, motivations and personal biases. If we don’t hold this awareness we can tend towards lines of questioning and intervention that is more about us and our needs and preferences, rather than those of our clients. We need to be able to notice our feelings, only introduce them when and as appropriate, paying closer attention to the client, particularly alert to their needs, both explicit and implicit.

1.3. Awareness of Others

I define this as seeing the world through their eyes.

Sometimes I’ve come away from several coaching sessions in a day feeling a sense of how different I’ve been with different clients. This is an in the moment response to them as I’m experiencing them.

This is central to the coaching process of researching their awareness of differences.

I need to hold back, to begin with, on introducing other research, and models.

This is what Coaching is all about, after all – starting with and working with the client’s world of learning as a priority – rather than naively imposing a different world – the solution – especially where the solution may not be as simple as some models like to suggest.

2. Getting the balance between formal, and informal, methods for appreciating individual differences.

I have found that some formal models can make sense to other people than others among the many available. However it is always important, first, to enable the other person to bring out their own ideas about their experiences of these differences. This done through getting them to speak about their own self, and their awareness of others, as far as they can. This may or may not lead to the use of more formal instruments.

2.1. Use of psychological based questionnaires/ inventories with clients

This enables fresh perspectives on self, particularly in working with others most effectively. In my experience it is the typical patterns in personal style / ways of operating that some of the psychological / psychometric instruments generate, leading to fresh insights. I find such inventories at their best and well used can be both affirming and clarifying for people. They can bring articulation and cohesion to aspects of themselves that they kind of intuitively knew, but it can throw into sharp relief some of the core patterns of how they operate. I find this can help refine their thinking about how they want to develop themselves going forwards and the areas they want to pay particular attention to.

For example when I took one of my client teams through the Myers Briggs instrument, using experiential exercises to bring the style dichometies to life, one of the managers had a breakthrough in insight in how to relate to her staff. She went on to trying different things out in her leadership role, which added enormously to her style range and impact.

In the early stages of coaching assignments where the client is scoping and broadening their thinking, taking stock, both in terms of where they are, and where they want to go is a typical approach I take.

The focus of my coaching in early stages tends to be on data gathering for the client from various sources – 360 competence based feedback instruments and selected psychometrics and inventories. I select these in discussion with the client, typically at a first scoping meeting where terms of reference for the assignment become finalised. This selection arise naturally from the issues and needs that emerge in that first meeting.

These concepts sometimes are best used to work from where the client has reached in expanding their perspective and understanding of differences. It is not a matter of always using formal instruments or terminology, either.

In 360 feedback I find that clients often find the richest data to be the open comments, rather than any formal structure and terminology in an instrument to measure capabilities. It really brings the strengths to life in more individual and real terms. Everyone’s attention tends to be drawn towards the more negative ‘things that they could do to improve’.

Formal models (even in 360 frameworks) can appear too black or white, or extreme and over simple, about a person’s characteristics and preferred patterns of behaviour. So I find it important, for example, to introduce such concepts that our “weaknesses” are the flip side of the coin of our strengths. Our greatest strengths are also the foundation of our weaknesses – either when we mis-read the situation and use our strengths inappropriately, or we over-do our strengths – have the volume turned up too loud. The most successful people succeed by making best use of their strengths, rather than being perfectly rounded, or being required to focus on their weaknesses.

2.2. Examples of how informally I pick up on individual differences

From the very earliest stages of contact I am observing and absorbing a wide range of data about the person, for example:

  • Their level of engagement and motivation, noticing any changes in relation to particular themes / subjects

  • The way they talk – fast, slow, considered, calm, measured, enthusiastic, emphatic, monotonoe, variety in tone, etc

  • The language they use – is it positive and active or more passive, abstract, general or lots of descriptive detail

  • Their appearance and style in how they look – e.g. low key, smart, fashionable, stylish, casual

  • The way they think – are they fast thinkers or slower, more considered, reflective

  • How self aware are they in how they talk, or are they caught up in the detail of what they are saying, and

  • Do they reveal in what they say the nature and quality of their attention to people in their way of working

  • Hints of working style of person from what they pay attention to and areas they do not attend to e.g. balance of attention to the Big Picture and ideas and the practicalities around implementation

  • Are they extraverted i.e. stimulated by interaction and variety or are they energised by their own ideas and thinking

  • Are they structured and planned in their approach or flexible and open?

  • Any sense of their personal values and how they see their careers as part of their life balance

  • Clues on potential longer term l issues from what they are saying, ready to play back to affirm and highlight areas for potential attention in the coaching conversation

  • Energy – noticing where they are energised and where their energy seems low in the conversation

  • What is absent in what they spontaneously talk about

During all of this I am actively picking up on opportunities to develop the relationship and rapport through reflecting back a few things I judge as sounding potentially central to this person. I tune in to the person and am always looking to help them become more explicitly aware of their strengths, what they stand for, and what they uniquely bring to their context. After all, this is what leadership is all about!

3. Some Case example

3.1. The client wrestling with her sense of being seen as ‘not very dynamic!’ 

The client, herself, was low key in appearance and style. My first impressions were that she was quite withdrawn – she didn’t put herself out there. She came across in a way that I saw as highly intellectual and bright. She had no experience of coaching and I identified the need to warm her up and put her at her ease.

I noticed early on she started defining herself as ‘not very dynamic’. On asking what she meant by that she muttered ‘not showing a lot in terms of initiative. I’m not into strategy and ‘blue sky thinking’ ...'I want to be achieving defined tasks...’

Yet, with encouragement, empathy and playing back the meaning I was taking from what she said I built trust to the point of her being increasingly more personally disclosing.

As I listened I found her to be a highly capable people manager within a highly technical environment with balanced and mature judgment. She had achieved a great deal, yet I judged, with her quiet, and low key but proactive problem solving approach she could be easily underestimated, and that her strengths could easily be invisible to others, particularly where they were strongly extroverted. It became clear that she was very good at managing a team getting the best from people in a very under-stated way.

I picked up very quickly on a lot of information about her within a short period of time. I was focused on observing and being quite minimalist in my interventions, creating a lot of space, affirming and encouraging her to tell her story more fully. The outcome was she found the space to step back, get in touch with her underlying feelings of anger and frustration at how she was overlooked, and, once she felt able to express that, she was able to connect to her natural quality of thinking and came up with some good fresh insights and ideas on practical steps.

I did not consider it relevant to introduce formal ‘ psychometric profiling, as the client was arriving at the perspectives through their own efforts.

3.2. The client who had been told they were too ‘flippant’.

This person could not have been more different; outgoing, personable, humorous, obviously ambitious, quick and bright. The pace of conversation was a lot faster. I had his 360 and Myers Briggs reports. From both his ratings and the comments he was clearly highly regarded, both personally and professionally. His Myers Briggs showed him to be highly extrovert, flexible, and spontaneous in style.

His body language looked bored. I judged I needed to quickly capture his attention. I asked him to tell me his career story to date. It became clear that he was very good at reading people and prided himself on his ability to ‘win around’ difficult senior characters. In fact he particularly enjoyedthis challenge.

Picking up on key elements of his story it became apparent that the comments in his 360 that most ‘got’ to him were about him coming across at times as “flippant” I gave him my feedback on the basis of my observations of some of his behaviour I had seen in our meeting – humorous throwaway comments and a relaxed style that could be taken as “flippant”, particularly by those who are more traditional in their style and approach, as I knew some of the hierarchical culture could be. He was also younger than the norm in his role and at a senior level. He sat up – I’d caught his attention! He then disclosed that when he was feeling particularly frustrated by being blocked, having tried all sorts of ways to win people over, there were a few occasions he had reverted to deliberate “rebellious child” behaviour.

We went on to have a lively exploration with a great deal of humour and teasing banter around how his natural open and collegiate style was a contrast to the traditional culture. In fact some could even find that personally threatening. In general that freshness of perspective and lack of inhibition with the most senior people in the organisation had served him well. We then went on in our subsequent conversations to explore ways he could tweak his style to add to his ‘gravitas’, without losing his natural style.

3.3. The leader dealing with others who ‘simply didn’t get it’.

A client was about to embark on a big change programme with the Division he was leading. In our first meeting he told me about his challenging objectives, his strategic priorities, and the resistance he was expecting from people who he saw as being ‘stuck’ in their ways of working they had always worked to. The main thing he wanted from his coaching was really to have a regular tracking and review ‘check in’ with some thinking time in a hectic day to day pace. 

I could sense from my experience of him why he was experiencing his people to be ‘stuck’. He spoke quickly over a broad range of subjects and was highly conceptual and focused on achieving ambitious targets in his style. I could easily see how he could easily lose people in terms of their understanding. I could see this as potentially a major factor in his leadership effectiveness and he seemed oblivious to this.

In our third session I felt we had built sufficient trust and credibility for the value of our coaching sessions that I chose to move on the opportunity of the impact of this kind of behaviour from him was having on me.

“I’m becoming aware of disconnecting. You are covering a lot of rich and diverse information so fast it is becoming a bit of a blur and I feel I’m losing track. From what you have previously said about some of your people “simply not getting it” I’m just wondering if they are having a similar experience “

 There was a pause of silence –and then a roar of laughter from him. We went on then to have a productive conversation about individual differences and how others with more concrete and practical immediate problem-solving styles might really struggle to understand him. Then there may be a reluctance to question or stop him due to the felt risk of looking stupid and wanting to impress the new boss.

He was sufficiently keen to develop his leadership approach to be open to the feedback and motivated to experiment with small tweaks he could relatively easily make with some more conscious attention.

Once again, I realised that my own awareness of individual differences was helping my coaching approach, but did not require reverting to more formal profiling.

4. In conclusion...

The idea of individual differences is really central to the whole of Coaching. Along with the vast field of formal research available, and all the models and methods for assessing these differences.

To date, this has been a very useful exercise in strengthening my own awareness, and reflections in a number of very important processes in my Coaching Practice. For example,

  • I can see really clearly how I intuitively adjust my coaching approach to the style of the individual.

  • I move towards them to help them respond naturally and free up their thinking. It also helps build client trust in the coaching process in a way that enables me better to challenge and stretch their thinking.

  • I adapt my language and approach to theirs rather than impose my own.

However, how ALL of this background understanding gets implemented is really important – lest it undermine how coaching really works.

Appreciating the other world of the individual comes first and foremost – despite understanding that can be well represented and summarised by some of these models. Yet this more formal information needs to be integrated with other more informal data – observations, testing out and inquiring collaboratively with the client.

This exercise has merely started to open up the understanding of the complex formulas for combining these two areas – how the formal research, and frameworks need to be considered in the context of the individual in front of me.

Each individual is different, from some simple pattern, after all.

I look forward to hearing about others experiences around working with individual differences in coaching and what works for you.

To connect with Sue Young

‘Psychometrics in Coaching’ - Using Psychological and Psychometric Tools for Development;  Editor - Jonathon Passmore