Untangle and grow

A blog by Alison Maxwell

Monday, 29 August 2011

Coaching upwards?

I was asked last week if you could coach upwards - this question was met with cackles of laughter and ribald humour from the rest of the group. "I'd like to see you try" said one, "Sounds like a career limiting move" said another. Much sucking of teeth and rolling of eyes ensued.

I found myself having mixed reactions - if we honestly believe that during a coaching conversation the parties concerned are equals then there ought not to be a barrier to coaching .. in either direction. However folks in organisations don't tend to leave their roles and positions at the door - there are power inequalities whether we like it or not. The boss does have the power to shape the work environment.

I think what my audience were reacting to was the idea that a boss might need help with his thinking or might have space to develop a bit and that is something on the whole they might not want to show to their subordinates. Give feedback to your boss - not a chance!

So.. what is permissible in your organisation. Could you give the boss feedback? Could you coach your boss?

Monday, 22 August 2011

Can you coach a team? Being client led.

Some writers are very clear that team coaching cannot exist - you can only coach individuals not teams they say. However in my work I am as often as not asked to work with a group in some capacity that is developmental or performance enhancing and otherwise looks and feels very much like a coaching relationship except for the fact that there is more than two of us in the room!

One of the knacks I believe is to see the collective as the client, 'defocussing' the needs of the team members.The outcomes are therefore about creating and shaping a more coherent collective that can think and act together, rather than improving the performance of any one individual.

However, staying in 'client-led mode' can be a challenge as I find that groups expect you to 'train' (aka entertain) them or in some other way stand in an expert position ... it's what they are used to after all. However when groups catch on to the notion that you are there to facilitate the conversation they need to have, rather than the one you (or their boss) think they need, they can get real value

Has it built the relationship? Feedback that is...

My third and final test of great feedback is to check whether the relationship between giver and receiver is still in tact .. or better yet, in an even better place. While it is dead easy to drop your message like the proverbial bomb, damaging a working relationship is not great for all concerned. No wonder many managers avoid giving feedback rather than face into it.

However, with skill and a bit of practice it can be done ...  Mike, a Regional Sales Manager, told me a great story of how he had to give some really difficult feedback to a report. He was upfront and honest delivering his message, finally adding 'what would you do in my shoes'. The subordinate had to admit that his delivery hadn't been up to much and that parting company was probably best for all concerned. "The amazing thing" said Mike, "is that guy still buys me a bottle of wine for Christmas and thanks me for the feedback!"

So .. do you drop your feedback from a great height and run .. or avoid it all together?

Monday, 15 August 2011

Will it lead to action/ change? Feedback that is...

I get really worried when managers I meet confuse evaluation with feedback. While it is very nice to hear 'Your are brilliant, keep it up' or worrying to hear 'You are rubbish, stop it'  these are evaluations and NOT feedback .. at least not in my book because they are not useful. The point of giving feedback is to influence someone to change or improve their performance and while nice/nasty evaluations are pleasant/unpleasant they don't necessarily create change. Evaluations in my experience create resistance (or embarrassment) rather than improved performance. 

Far more helpful is to tell people what you want them to do differently/ do more of and then have the coaching  conversation that helps them to figure out how. Perhaps then one day we would look forward to receiving feedback instead of running a mile from it .. happy day indeed. 

Team coaching vs team building

On the whole I would rather be doing team coaching rather than team building. For me, the focus and expectation of team development is all too often on having a bit of fun and doing a bit of work, with the emphasis on the former rather than the latter. A sure sign is when the commissioning senior manager spends more time talking about the fun team building activities he'd like to try out rather than the business objectives of the group.

Quality time together is too precious to waste on building straw towers and so much more can be gained from learning from real work together than on pretend tasks. At its best, coaching a team allows me to work at many different levels - the individual contributor, individual relationships within the group,  the team dynamic, the team task, the team process, and the team's relationships with external stakeholders to name a few.

So can we do a bit more team coaching please and a little less team building?

Monday, 8 August 2011

Coaching as re-storying

The coaching assignments I find least satisfactory are the ones where neither the client or client organisations actually has much interest in change. The client is sent along to be either 'fixed' or 'stroked' by the coach but nobody is up for any real conversation or real challenge to the status quo. The same story stays pretty much stuck even if the client does feel better for having shared it. 

Coaching is at is best when the client not only has space to tell their story (aka 'dumping'), but reflect on and challenge the assumptions and beliefs it contains. I don't believe my job as a coach is to judge or rewrite their story so much as facilitate a process of re-storying. After all, if we can learn to tell a different story about our lives/ work/ relationships/ past what new possibilities does that open up for our present and our future?

Has it landed? Feedback that is...

I was working with Peter this week, a senior manager in a large global corporate on how he was going to deliver some particularly tricky feedback to a subordinate. He'd procrastinated about it for awhile then had a shot at delivering his message but to zero effect. His next attempt faired no better and now there was a bit of an atmosphere developing between the two of them.

Peter hadn't gone to the trouble of figuring out how to land his feedback - ie.  get the recipient to absorb, understand and accept the message.  Most of us respond badly to negative messages and resist the messenger .. irrespective of whether they are right or wrong. Delivering feedback is therefore only part of the battle, we also have to help people 'swallow' it if we expect them to do anything with it. Here's what helps:
  1. Tell it straight but don't make them wrong - clearly and upfront tell them what the issue is but quickly move to solving the problem with them not burying them in manure
  2. Explain why its a problem for them -link it to what they care about - their reputation, their career aspirations etc. 
  3. Back it up with fact and first hand evidence if needs be - but don't ovewelm them with data
  4. Anticipate the gap between intent and impact - most people's intent is positive its just that their impact sometimes isn't
  5. Shut up and ask what their reaction is - get them talking as soon as possible

Saturday, 6 August 2011

" I want to give you some feedback "

Why is feedback done so badly in organisational life - we've all be on the Feedback 101 course but yet it still seems to an area that many of us struggle with. It seems to me that all too often feedback is confused with 'telling off'  instead of what it is -- data to help someone improve their performance. Subtly different.

When coaching managers I ask three questions to check the quality of their feedback delivery:

1. Has it landed? Has the recipient heard and accepted the message. Managers all too often seem to think that delivering the message is good enough, however often all they have done is provoked resistance or worse still an argument

2. Will it lead to action/ change? Feedback is often confused with some sort of evaluation - "that was great" may a lovely thing to hear but actually it doesn't help the recipient understand what they have do do differently or more of or how do it. Brilliant feedback is always followed up with coaching on the way forward.

3. Has the relationship been maintained? Managers seem to fall into two broad camps (ok its a sweeping generalisation) - those that avoid or fluff feedback for fear of damaging the relationship or those that wade in with their size 10's leaving a trail of destruction behind them. Well I'm afraid neither will do.. brilliant feedback delivered well builds the relationship between manager and subordinate .. not the opposite.

So think about the last piece of feedback you gave .. would it pass the acid test?

Monday, 1 August 2011

Untangle ... out loud?

Why is it so hard to sort out our own problems alone?

I am a big believer in externalising our thinking as a way of helping us untangle the strands of our lives. Humankind has always found ways of doing this … the confessional, diarying and journaling, or talking it over with a trusted friend are all ways of getting a problem out of our heads and into some sort of good order

I think good coaching, however, takes it a step further. Coaching not only allows us to get the problem out there, but helps us to understand how we are thinking about the issue in hand – and see how our own thinking often gets in our way. Somehow having our own thoughts reflected back to us, not only helps to put issues into perspective, but improves how we think as well.

So.. what is the problem you are wrestling with in you head? Go tell someone and see how different if feels.

Team to Team coaching – breaking down ‘us and them’

Strange how the same issue hits you from different directions. I was talking this week with leaders from two very different organisations – one a large corporate and the other a medium sized IT company. Both were bemoaning the ‘us and them’ syndrome going on in their organisation... sales hating operations, marketing hating supply chain etc. You know the sort of thing I’m on about, and you’ll also know how much energy this can consume.

What was interesting was how both these leaders saw this as an issue of personality clash rather than of organisational alignment. “I’ve tried for 10 years to build a relationship with those guys but I’ve just come to the conclusion they are odd” said one.

I’ve learnt that one of the simplest and most effective things I can do to help teams function is to get the ‘us and them’ into a room and get to walk in each others shoes – at least for awhile. People just seem to get a whole new appreciation for each other and remind themselves that the real enemy is outside not in.  I heartily recommend it.

So.. who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’ in your organisation. How could you find out what it’s like in their world?