(This is the fifth in a series of articles looking at the impact of how managers talk to and coach employees and the impact their approach can have on employees’ engagement and development as problem solvers. The focus is on what I have learned personally about the power of prompting reflection as opposed to telling or directing as a way of coaching for development.)
Having been somewhat effective (see Part 1) in coaching problem-solving groups (including Quality Circles), I was eventually asked to “talk” with managers and a few senior leaders. These requests seldom came from the managers themselves. I quickly realized I had to use a different approach from the ones I used with teams and supervisors on the shop floor.
In most cases, the managers were struggling in some area and a specific recent event prompted the “suggestion” they talk with me. I took those events as a starting point for coaching. The managers knew why we were talking and they expected they were going to have to talk, generally reluctantly, about the events or their areas of struggle. My coaching was all humble inquiry (even though I didn’t know the term at this point) using a sequence of questions similar to the following:
- What’s your understanding of what we need to talk about?
- What do you recall about the action or decision we’re here to discuss?
- What were you trying to do when you did or said that?
- What did you expect would happen?
- What do you know about what did happen?
- What’s your sense of why things did not turn out as you expected?
- What’s your biggest takeaway from the situation?
- What are you thinking you’ll do with that insight in the future?
I did not say, “Let’s reflect on what happened.” In fact, I seldom used the word. I simply asked questions to prompt their recall and thinking to see what sense they would make of their experiences themselves. I know they expecting to be judged and criticized or at least advised. While responding to the questions may not have been comfortable for these managers, I wanted them to understand doing the thinking was their responsibility. I wanted to communicate: you thought and got yourself into the situation; I am going to try to help you think through for yourself what you can learn from it and how you can move beyond it. Meaningful reflection is only possible when we feel reasonably safe and have enough sense of self-direction that we are able to learn.
The next stage in my evolution as a coach again involved the use of design of experiments but in this case, it was with managers and individuals who wanted to change behaviors or learn new skills. Generally, the opportunity for this kind of coaching comes only when an ongoing relationship with the coachee has developed. And it requires that the coachee has indicated the desire to change or the intention of trying something new or different. The approach consists of jointly describing a situation in which the coachee will try a different response or a new behavior followed by reflection on what happened after the coachee has tried changing his or her response or used a different behavior in a similar situation.
The two steps of this approach are similar to what I learned to do with teams and individuals who had a solution or improvement in mind they were sure would work. I ask managers and leaders I am coaching to be specific about what they are going to do, why, and what they expect as the outcome. Having the idea to change an approach or try a different behavior is relatively easy. Turning it into a growth experience requires being explicit about exactly what you are going to change and how and why you expect to get a different response. That lays the foundation for prompting reflection by asking questions such as the following:
- What did you do compared to what you intended to do?
- What was the response versus what you expected?
- Why do you think the response was the same or different from what you expected?
- What did you learn from how the other person or people reacted?
- What will you do the same or differently next time?
There is nothing magic about reflection even when facilitated by questions like the ones above. It does not change behavior, thinking or outcome by itself. There has to be a conscious effort to use what is learned from reflection and translate it into intentional action. But there are no guarantees of success. Every attempt to make a change is an experiment. But every attempt creates a new opportunity to reflect and learn.
I have shared how I learned to use reflection as a coach as an example of the benefit of reflecting. In most cases, I learned what to do as a coach before I learned why. I only got more consciously competent as I grew to understand why some things worked for me and some didn’t through reflection. By understanding the reasons I wanted to do or not do certain things I was better able to decide what to do in new situations and my ability to perform confidently and effectively increased. It is the same with problem-solving and continuous improvement. It is the learning that results from reflection, not just the doing that drives continuous improvement.
(The next article in this coaching series will be addressed to managers and leaders (and their coaches) who want to change how they talk to employees so it is more engaging and supportive. It will focus on the challenges we all face in changing habitual behaviors and ways of thinking and offer some self-development techniques based on recent findings from cognitive and social neuroscience research.)
Also in this series: