Strategic 360s

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Posts Tagged ‘Personnel Psychology

What is a coach? (Redux)

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In an earlier post ( I asked the question, “what is a coach?” in the context of the role of manager as coach. A few publications crossed my virtual desk recently that continue to make me think that this question is being addressed from very different angles, neither acknowledging the other.  Let me see if I can bring some focus to this dilemma stemming from the different mental models we have of what “coach” really means.

I think it’s a safe guess that the first vision most of us have when the word “coach” appears is that of the sports coach. From Wikipedia we find this partial definition:

“In sports, a coach is an individual that teaches and supervises, which involves giving directions, instruction and training of the on-field operations of an athletic team or of individual athletes.”  For the purposes of this discussion, I will call this the “Instructor” coach.

Contrast to this definition of coaching/coach (that I have cobbled together from various sources):

Coaching‘ is working together to identify a person’s skills and capabilities and helping that person use their skills and capabilities to the best of their ability.  A “Coach” is the individual who provides coaching.”   I will call this the “Guide” coach.

These are not necessarily mutually exclusive views of what a manager-coach should be. There are situations when each is appropriate.  My sense, though, is that the “Instructor” version is the default definition, i.e., the traditional version of coach and one that most managers find easiest and encouraged by organization. It is the “Guide” version of coaching that is more difficult to master but (I and others would argue) is more effective. More on that later.

So back to the publications I mentioned. The first is an article recently published in Personnel Psychology, “Development and Validation of The Performance Management Behavior Questionnaire” (Kinicki, Jacobson, Peterson and Prussia, 2013).  To cut to the quick, the PMBQ instrument has multiple items/scales that describe manager behaviors associated with performance management, and one of the scales is called “Coaching.”  Its items are these:

15. Shows others how to complete difficult assignments and tasks

16. Provides the resources needed to get the job done

17. Helps identify solutions to overcome performance roadblocks

18. Helps people to develop their skills

19. Provides direction when it is needed

So which type of coach does that sound like to you, Instructor or Guide?  (That’s not a trick question.) As a hint, there is nothing in there that I see that suggests a dialogue with the coachee (employee).

Two points about this research. First, the Subject Matter Experts were largely existing managers who have probably been formed by history, reinforcement and some level of success to define coaching this way.  Second, I was really disappointed to see that they use a frequency scale which I have noted before is seriously flawed both statistically and conceptually.

Compare those items with these sampled from the Perceived Quality of the Employee Coaching Relationship (PQECR) (Gregory and Levy, 2010) that I have integrated into The ManagerCoach© feedback instrument:

My supervisor and I have mutual respect for one another.
My supervisor is easy to talk to.
My supervisor spends more time listening than talking when he/she is coaching me.
I am content to talk about my concerns or troubles with my supervisor.
I feel safe being open and honest with my supervisor.
My supervisor helps me to identify and build upon my strengths.
My supervisor engages in activities that help me unlock my potential.


Hopefully those sound more like the “Guide” coach where the relationship comes to the forefront.

It seems like every time I read something about effective managers, the topic of empowering and involving subordinates surfaces.  Such is the case with the most recent issue of People & Strategy Journal (from HRPS) that focuses on the topic of performance management (and also includes an article by Allan Church and myself, but that’s another blog topic to come).  In one piece alone, we find these statements from Gyan Nagpal:

  • …many 21st century employees are rejecting conversations that are one-way…
  • Greater employee autonomy and empowerment also changes the meaning of management.
  • We have gone from a “supervisor of task and outcomes” to an “enabler of performance, innovative thinking and collective success.”

With a related theme, there is the most recent issue of Harvard Business Review with an article titled, “Connect, Then Lead” (Cuddy, Kohut, & Neffinger, 2013) with this observation:

A growing body of research suggests that the way to influence—and to lead—is to begin with warmth. Warmth is the conduit of influence: It facilitates trust and the communication and absorption of ideas.

But, instead of quoting others, let me make my own case for differentiating the Instructor and Guide versions of coaching using the ALAMO model that I have introduced before (most recently, where I propose that:

Performance = Alignment x (Ability x Motivation x Opportunity)

The ALAMO view on two types of “coaching” might sound like this as we listen in on the conversation with employees:

Type of Coach





Instructor “I know what is best. Go do it.” “Here’s how to do it. It has worked for me.” “Success or failure will affect your PA rating.” “Here’s your time frame and budget.”
Guide “What do you think is the best way to achieve this goal?” “Yes, that approach is a good match for your skills.” “It seems like you are most excited by this approach.” “Are there any barriers that might hinder your progress?”

(Let me note here that there are times when the manager needs to be the “Instructor”, and one of those is in the area of organizational values. Organizational values exist to define and guide appropriate behavior, which is a process of Alignment.  But with Values, the question is not one of Ability but more a matter of choice, i.e., the choice by the employee as to whether (or not) he/she is going to behave that way.  This is where 360’s can be a valuable tool by providing the manager (and organization) reliable data on how these behaviors are observed by others (coworkers and, if applicable, customers).)

It is disappointing when I see organizations define coaching using Instructor language. I believe that most of us see that we have moved toward a more humanistic, involving and empowering model of supervision, reinforced by work configurations (e.g., global, remote, matrix) that demand nontraditional leadership styles.  As importantly, the Guide model of coaching is more sustainable AND more developmental.

©2013 David W. Bracken

What You See Is What You Get

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Every month or so I get an invitation/newsletter from Marshall Goldsmith and Patricia Wheeler. This month’s had a couple gems in it, and I have provided the link at the end of this article.  Marshall’s entry on life lessons is very much worth reading. But Patricia’s offering particularly struck me since I have been thinking a lot about leader behavior. As you will see it also relates directly to the hazards of misdiagnosis, another human flaw that is especially salient for those of us in consulting and coaching where we are prone to jumping to conclusions too quickly.

Several years ago my mother experienced stomach pains.  Her physician, one of the best specialists in the city, ordered the usual tests and treated her with medication.  The pains continued; she returned to his office and surgery was recommended, which she had.  After discharge the pains recurred, stronger than ever; she was rushed to the emergency room, where it was determined that her physician had initially misdiagnosed her. She had further surgery; unfortunately she was unable to withstand the stress of two surgeries, fell into a coma and died several days later.  Several days after her second surgery, her physician approached me, almost tearfully, with an apology.

“I apologize,” he said, “this is my responsibility.”  He should have done one additional test, he said, requiring sedation and an invasive procedure, but he did not want to impose the pain of that procedure on her, feeling at the time that his diagnosis was correct.  “I am truly sorry and I will never make that mistake again.”  What struck me at the time and continues to stay with me is that this doctor was willing to take the risk of telling the whole difficult truth, and that taking responsibility for the situation was more important to him than the very real possibility of a malpractice suit.  I forgave him, and I believe my mother would have as well.

Real apologies have positive impact that, in most if not all cases, outweigh the risk factors.  Ask yourself, when does an apology feel heartfelt to you? When does it seem empty?  Think of a time when you heard a public or corporate figure apologize and it rang true and think of a time when it didn’t.  What made the difference? Here are a few guidelines:

Is it from the heart or the risk management office?  If your apology reads like corporate legalese, it won’t be effective.

Is it unequivocal?  Too many apologies begin with “I’m sorry, but you were at fault in this too.”  An attempt to provoke the other party into apologizing or accepting fault will fail.

Is it timely?  If you delay your apology, perhaps wishing that the issue would just go away (trust me, it won’t), its effect will diminish proportionately.

Does it acknowledge the injury and address the future?  In other words, now that you know your words or actions have caused injury, what will you do going forward?

While we can’t avoid all errors, missteps and blind spots, we can at least avoid compounding them with empty words, blaming and justification.

Patricia is focusing on a particular behavior, i.e., apologizing. This behavior, like all other behaviors, is modifiable if we are aware of the need to change and motivated to do so.  It may not be easy and you may not be comfortable doing it, but that is no excuse. And, by the way, people really don’t care what is going on inside your head to justify not changing (e.g., “they know that I’m sorry without me saying it”). Making an apology is often difficult, as Patricia points out, and maybe that’s why it can be so striking and memorable when someone does it well.

In his book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” Marshall makes a similar point about the simple behavior of saying “thank you,” which is a common shortcoming in even the most successful leaders.  Leaders find all sorts of excuses for avoiding even that seemingly easy behavior, including “that’s just not me.” The point is that what you do and what people see (i.e., behaviors) IS who you are.

The good news for us practitioners of 360 Feedback is that observing behaviors is what it is (or should be) all about. In a 360 process, the organization defines the behaviors it expects from its leaders, gives them feedback on how successful they are in doing so, and then (ideally) holds them accountable for changing.

This also means that we go to great lengths to ensure that the content of 360 instruments uses items that describe behaviors, hopefully in clear terms.  We need to ensure that we are asking raters to be observers and reporters of behavior, not mind readers or psychologists.  We need to especially wary of items that include adjectives that ask the rater to peer inside the ratee’s head, including asking what the ratee “knows” or “is aware of” or “believes” or even what the leader is “willing” to do.

As a behaviorist, in the end I only care what a leader does and not why (or if) he/she wants to do it. That’s the main reason why I have found personality assessments to be of little interest, with the exception of possibly providing insights into how the coaching relationship might be affected by things like openness to feedback or their preferred style for guidance and learning.

Another piece of good news for us behaviorists came out in a recent article in Personnel Psychology titled, “Trait and Behavioral Theories of Leadership: An Integration and Meta-Analytic Test of Their Relative Validity” (Derue, Nahrgang, Wellman and Humphrey, 2011).  To quote from the abstract, they report:

Leader behaviors tend to explain more variance in leadership effectiveness than leader traits, but results indicate that an integrative model where leader behaviors mediate the relationship between leader traits and effectiveness is warranted.

The last part about mediation suggests that, even when traits do a decent job (statistically) of predicting leader effectiveness, they are “filtered” through leader behaviors. For example, all the intelligence in the world doesn’t do much good if you are still a jerk (or bully, or psychopath, etc.)

All of this reinforces the importance of reliably measuring leader behaviors, especially if we believe that the “how” of performance is at least as important as the “what.”


©2011 David W. Bracken