Real Coaching = Real Engagement = Real Competitive Advantage

Early on in one of our Coaching in the Moment® workshops this week a participant looked at me with all earnestness and said, “I still don’t get why we can’t just tell people what to do? Why do we need to coach them?” What is implied is telling people what to do is faster and easier, so why bother taking a coaching approach.

The heart of the difference between coaching and telling people what to do lies in how are brains are wired. Real coaching focuses on creating insight – an “aha” experience” – that literally builds a synapse in the person’s brain. That new learning creates engagement. Telling people what to do results in people complying with your demand if you are able to imply enough of a threat or an appealing reward to compel them to do so.

Compliance is a very low and costly bar. People who only comply often shy away from taking risks, generally avoid taking responsibility and certainly don’t contribute any more than is needed to get by. People who are engaged make the extra effort, value learning, and contribute their creative efforts to addressing challenges.

The cost of telling people what to do is disengagement. And it has a high cost indeed. In an article in the New York Times last Sunday entitled Do Happier People Work Harder?, Harvard professor Teresa Amabile and independent researcher Steven Kramer sited numerous studies outlining the high cost of Americans’ disengagement crisis, estimated by Gallop to be $300 billion dollars in lost productivity annually.

These researchers found that what it took to engage people was fairly straightforward. “Workers’ well-being depends, in large part, on managers’ ability and willingness to facilitate workers’ accomplishments – by removing obstacles, providing help and acknowledging strong effort.” In my experience, when managers use a coaching approach to accomplish these outcomes, everyone involved becomes more engaged, collaborative and innovative.

Personally, I think the $300 billion is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the true cost of disengagement. Disengagement imperils companies at the strategic level. If you want proof, read Adaptability: The New Competitive Advantage in the July/August Harvard Business Review. The subtitle sums it up nicely, “In a world of constant change, the spoils go the nimble.” The article points out that companies that innovate faster and more effectively – the more adaptable companies – have a strategic advantage over companies that can’t or won’t adapt to change. You can’t grow an adaptable company with people who are sitting around waiting for someone to tell them what to do.

That’s why coaching based leadership is strategically essential to organizations. Their very ability to compete in the rapidly approaching future will depend upon building a new kind of leadership. The kind that engages employees to work together in new ways, take on challenges we can only imagine, and perhaps most importantly, maintain their sense of equilibrium, well-being and satisfaction in a world of constant change. Coaching-based leadership is the foundation of this kind of leadership.

A word of caution: Not all coaching models deliver on this promise. Coaching models that advocate pummeling people with questions or restrict the “coach” to a preset series of questions generally do not create insight. They feel, and in fact are, manipulative. They are in many ways worse than just telling people what to do, because the person still feels like he has no choice but to comply, but there’s an added feeling of being manipulated to go along with the implied order. These models miss the point of the neuroscience underlying real coaching; the creation of insight generates new learning that results in engagement.

If the coaching model you are using in your company does not consistently create insight,
you may be inadvertently crippling your company’s ability to compete effectively in the future. Start now to build the kind of leadership needed to attain the strategic advantage of adaptability. Don’t wait and don’t compromise. Your company is relying on you to build the leadership needed to thrive in a world of constant change.

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