Spirit of coaching
Wright, N. & Marshall, R. (2006) ‘Spirit of Coaching’, Training & Learning, Institute of Training & Occupational Learning, Volume 2, Issue 3, March, pp12-13.
In their second article on performance management, Nick Wright and Richard Marshall describe how coaching underpins best practice in the development of individual and organisational performance. It considers spirit as ethos or approach and explores linkages with broader concepts of organisational spirituality.
Business magazines from Harvard Business Review to Charity People describe coaching as the management style of choice and the answer to many kinds of organisation ills. It is about making sense of complex experience and “unlocking a persons potential to solve their own problems” (John Whitmore, Coaching for Performance, 1996) and is more often about asking good questions than giving right answers. If you want a commitment culture rather than simple compliance, coaching may provide a lot of the keys.
There is a poignant scene in Alice in Wonderland when Alice finds herself lost and alone in a frightening forest. She is immediately comforted at the sight of a cat sitting smugly in a tree whom she determines must have the solution. “Can you please tell me which way I should go from here,” she asks, pleading for certainty and direction. “Well”, says the cat with an air of mischief, “that’s depends a great deal on where you want to get to”. There are parallels in performance management and coaching.
As World Vision UK, our challenge has been to develop a performance culture that puts equal emphasis on learning and results at both individual and organisational levels. Learning, because we recognise the need to develop our capacity for change and, for instance, to help new staff get to grips with organisational practices. Results, because we have a strong purpose-orientation and no organisation can survive long without showing a good return on investment for its stakeholders.
In our performance development system, we identified coaching as a key component alongside goal setting, regular reviews and reward. We provided training in questioning, active listening, giving and receiving feedback, generating options and implementing action plans. We used the GROW model, having had experience with one of its originators who developed this model from the world of sport and found it relevant in the world of business. The model provides a framework of questions which starts by unpacking the nature of the issue or concern in light of its desired end point (Goal, Reality) and moves to possible solutions (Options) and a way forward (Will). The coach poses focused questions in a structured way and enables the coachee to develop a positive action plan.
We believe that coaching skills alone are, however, insufficient to engender and support change at individual and organisational levels. The spirit of coaching is about establishing a special quality of relationship and conversation that engenders awareness-raising, learning, responsibility and commitment that extends well beyond simple task achievement. It demands conscious attention to personal intention, ethos, empathy and relational climate, reminiscent of Carl Roger’s ‘unconditional positive regard’ (On Becoming a Person, 1961).
Without the safe environment of a genuine and positive relationship, it is hard for people to address fears or weak areas that may be blocking personal effectiveness, even when highly-refined coaching skills are deployed. In this respect, coaching is at its best when informed by psychological, emotional and spiritual insights reflected in other related fields such as counselling, supervision and mentoring.
Change is most sustainable individually and organisationally when the spirit of coaching is a pervasive feature of organisational culture. This ensures that developments achieved in a 1-1 coaching relationship are reinforced and not undermined by defensive or other reactionary aspects of organisational experience. In World Vision UK, we have worked to achieve this form of cultural transformation by a number of means including weekly facilitated groups where staff are encouraged to reflect on the implications of agreed values (e.g. unity, integrity, collaboration) for organisational practice. This type of process maintains on-going reflection, authenticity and action at the forefront of individual and corporate consciousness.
Stephen Covey’s popular work (7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 1989) describes transformation as starting with an inner private victory (be proactive, first things first, begin with the end in mind) before seeking a more public victory or change (think win/win, seek first to understand, synergise etc.). This theme of inner transformation finds a strong connection with spirituality at personal and social levels and can be released by a coaching approach. In World Vision UK, our underlying Christian beliefs compel us naturally to explore questions of identity, meaning and purpose – ‘who am I’, ‘why am I here’ and ‘what is my vocation’. Such questions unlock powerful emotion and significant energy that motivates us to find new ways of being and doing. Individual reflection spills over into consideration of our relationships with each other – ‘how then should we behave together?’ The spirituality at work movement suggests that other organisations are exploring similar issues in their own specific environments.
In a related field, Owen Harrison (Open Space Technology, 1997) developed a facilitative approach that creates space for individuals to identify and engage their passion and responsibility for the topic at hand. ‘What’s most important to you?’ and ‘what are you willing to be responsible for?” are two simple questions that unlock participants’ commitment and energy. Appreciative Inquiry (e.g. Diana Whitney, 2003) has explored similar avenues by focusing on positive experience as a means to engender vision and commitment. We believe these approaches can be deployed through coaching as an effective tap into spirit and aspiration.
By fostering a genuine spirit of coaching, developing a deeper level of inquiry and ensuring individuals have the space to find their own solutions, we have found that managers and coaches can make a significant change to the culture of an organization. Individuals will typically experience greater personal satisfaction at work, grow in their ability to deal with complexity, ambiguity and change and develop spiritual and emotional intelligence alongside practical skills and enhanced performance.
Recommendations In order to practice and embed the spirit of coaching, we suggest the following:
- Engage in personal development to understand and address your own motivations, anxieties, hot spots etc. so they don’t impinge negatively on the coaching process.
- Establish a coaching relationship that is underpinned by positive intention, empathy and genuine commitment to the coachee’s development.
- Encourage the coachee to take responsibility for his or her own learning and performance, albeit with your support alongside.
- Agree goals and standards together, giving the coachee first opportunity to scope out requirements, explore issues, work out solutions etc.
- Challenge coachees to grow in awareness of how they are learning and performing, e.g. by seeking feedback from stakeholders and developing the practice of reflection.
- Review the organisation’s culture as a whole to ensure consistency with a coaching spirit.