Lean Thinking

07 August 2018

How is a coach like a vampire?

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Vampires are lame. There it is, standing at your front door, cape, fangs, the full works. You have opened the door, it's looking at you, getting hungrier and hungrier. It's starting to drool. You are looking at it from inside. Giving it the finger. Perfectly safe. Why? Because according to the stories, vampires need permission to enter. You are perfectly safe as long as you don't say "please come in". Of course if they catch you out in the open later without a front door to give you protection, you might just regret giving them that finger.

So why am I telling you this? Because coaches have something in common with vampires. Capes? No. Because we descend on organisations and suck them dry? No. It's because we also need permission before we can do what we are there to do. We need permission to coach. But surely, I hear you say, you have permission. After all, you have been hired to coach, therefore you have permission to do so. Sadly, it's not that simple. What we usually have is permission to be there, not permission to coach.

Coaching is a very particular activity. It involves helping organisations and individuals grow and improve. It's not just suggesting a few new processes. Coaching is often a difficult and confronting experience. We need to challenge deeply held assumptions and old mental models. We need to rummage around inside people's skulls and re-arrange their thinking equipment. We need to help people establish new mental models. That sort of thing really needs proper, informed consent. Most of the time we do do not have that.

When we enter an organisation, we usually have permission to introduce new processes. We have permission to help the organisation DO agile. Often, the organisation will talk about culture and mindset; that's encouraging but it's not permission to coach. It implies that permission is there, but how often have we started to challenge based on that implied permission, and found that the challenge is unwelcome? Talking about culture and mindset is one thing, actually giving informed consent to coaching is something else.

We tend to sneak culture and mindset coaching in to what we do. We run sessions where the outward aim is to teach practices, but the actual, secret aim is to change mindsets. Coaching without informed consent. We all do it. There is even a joke about it -

Three degrees of forcefulness in coaching -

  1. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.
  2. But at least spray a few drops in its mouth!
  3. There's a limit to how long you can hold its head underwater.

We all try to spray a few drops of water in its mouth. Sometimes we try to spray quite a bit of water. But at what point does spraying a few drops become water boarding? At what point does coaching without consent become a form of abuse?

There is an argument that a certain amount of non-consensual coaching might be required because people don't know what they don't know. We need to show them that there is another way, get them curious, get them asking the right questions. To me though, even that is a bit dodgy. I think even that awareness-raising type coaching should be done with consent. And I think that it might actually work better with consent than without. Any more serious sort of coaching should definitely be done with consent.

Consent doesn't have to be difficult. Especially not in the early stages of coaching. At the start of a session, you make a simple statement like "I'm going to be showing you folks some new techniques. As part of that I will need to challenge some assumptions you may have about how things work. Is everyone OK with that?" That's all. Nothing fancy. But I find it can be quite powerful. For a start, it primes people that there may be some challenges to assumptions, you aren't just hitting them with that out of the blue.

When people's assumptions are suddenly challenged, they tend to go into lock down. If you give them time to get used to the idea that it's happening, they can be much more receptive. It's a win for them - no surprises. It's a win for you - more receptive audience. And for anyone who genuinely doesn't feel comfortable having their thinking challenged, it lets them get out before they get uncomfortable and it tells you who they are so you can maybe engage separately and find out why they feel that way. Wins all round.

As coaching becomes deeper, you will need to start asking for more explicit consent. Starting with individual things - "I'm going to challenge the way we think about work, are you OK with that?" and once a coaching relationship is established, for general permission to coach - "We both see the need for you to develop, I'm happy to help but to do so I'm going to need your permission to challenge the way you think about things, and to call you out when you are displaying old behaviours".

The other thing a permission conversation can do is help set limits. You can go there, but that is out of bounds right now. That's a huge benefit for a coach as it helps prevent that unexpected push back and resistance you get when you hit a taboo subject. It also tells you where you might need to have some careful conversations to see if maybe you can open up some new ground. Permission to coach should be regularly reviewed and the boundaries checked. That gives both parties a chance to reflect on what is going on and how things are changing.

One thing to be very careful of is someone giving permission on someone else's behalf. Often this is a manager telling you to change their people. Be very careful here. That is not informed consent. Informed consent is a personal thing. You can't give it for someone else (not in a work situation anyway...it's different with children and so on). You still need permission from the people being changed. You should also get permission from the leader to coach them as well. Not just because it's good to have the leader on board but it's a sign of good faith to their people - "Look, I'm going though this as well".

Without consent we do change to people. With consent we work with people to change. Doing change to people is hard and unpleasant for both sides. Proper informed consent helps both coach and coachee. We should seek it more often than we do.

More in this category: « The Boy Scout Principle

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