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7 May, 2015

Why Coaching Doesn’t Deliver

For someone who helps businesses with leadership development and leadership skills, to suggest that coaching doesn’t deliver for organisations borders on blasphemy. After all, evidence shows that teams receiving more than three hours’ coaching per person per month exceed their goals by 7%. Conversely, without on-the-job reinforcement, employees lose 87% of the skills and knowledge they gain during training within one month — combining training with coaching improves returns four-fold relative to training alone.

However, the unfortunate reality is that in most organisations coaching initiatives rarely deliver bottom-line results.

The rise of coaching

Coaching has been on the rise over the past decade, particularly for frontline leaders in customer-facing business units. When viewed from within an organisation, the implementation of coaching to improve performance makes a lot of sense.

But when we look across business units, organisations and countries, the way coaching is actually implemented makes much less sense. This is because there is often a one-size-fits-all approach; coaching initiatives often stumble on implementation.

Organisations focus on coaching for long periods of time yet senior managers often say that they’re not sure their managers are even finding the time to coach. When managers and frontline employees are asked how much coaching is happening, there’s often a huge disconnect — bad coaches estimate high, good coaches estimate low, and in both cases frontline employees say the opposite.

As a result, coaching initiatives often fail to provide hard evidence of any financial benefit to organisations. This suggests that coaching will become less important as we see the rise of an integrated, performance-based approach to effective leadership.

Of course, it is heresy to suggest that coaching doesn’t deliver, so let’s examine what’s happening in more detail.

What is coaching?

In my experience, different managers not only have different definitions of what coaching is, but often advocate and use different coaching methodologies. How can several different approaches yield the same results? Is there an optimum way to coach in particular situations?

Interestingly, while we can point to research that demonstrates the effectiveness of various coaching techniques it’s rare for an organisation to quantify the benefits received from their investment. It is also almost unheard of for organisations to test various coaching approaches to determine which is best for a particular situation.

There is a good reason for this.

Do you treat every problem the same?

Most organisations that implement coaching take just one approach, rather than a mix of the many approaches that define coaching as a whole. Whether the approach chosen is some form of skills, results, corrective or developmental coaching, in any organisation coaching almost always means one thing. As the old saying goes, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”

There is a huge opportunity to raise performances in organisations where coaching already exists. This is because coaching simply isn’t just one thing. Research shows that teams that report receiving low-quality coaching are far more likely to underperform than those receiving high-quality coaching.

Coaching: a set of coaching and people-management practices

A shift must be made — from viewing coaching as one type of activity, to recognising it as a set of coaching and people-management practices. These practices are the fundamental tasks of first and second-level people managers. This is because a people manager’s job is to get performance through their people — coaching is one component of effective leadership, but not the only component.

Effective leadership is about helping people reach their full potential and maximising their performance. With that in mind, a definition of coaching might be: An on-going and dynamic series of interactions between a manager and his or her direct team members, designed to diagnose and correct or reinforce behaviours specific to those individuals.


Catch people doing something right

A research report from the Corporate Leadership Council states: “The most effective drivers of employee performance are often underemphasised, even excluded, from performance management as traditionally defined.” This research identified that fair, accurate, informal and positive feedback on performance from a knowledgeable source is the single most effective driver of employee performance. To be effective they identified that feedback must be voluntary, detailed, immediate and positive. They strongly advised that managers should aim to get this driver right — it impacts on total performance by nearly 40 percent.

This is what the book The One Minute Manager was referring to with the phrase, “Help people reach their full potential, catch them doing something right.”

You would think that given its power, the use of frequent, informal, immediate and positive feedback would rank as a dominant coaching technique. It’s staggering to note that this powerful coaching technique is rarely deliberately used in most organisations.

Ironically, what passes for coaching is the exact opposite – catching people doing something wrong. Coaching is frequently focussed on closing gaps, not optimising strengths. Yet the Corporate Leadership Council’s research shows that emphasising performance weaknesses actually decreases employee performance by up to 27%. In contrast, placing an emphasis on performance strengths increases employee performance by up to 36%.

Addressing performance issues

Clearly there are times when people must have their performance corrected — even the best performers can go off track in some way. We have a duty to our people and organisation to ensure they stay on track. So, we need to address performance problems when we notice them. However, when the corrective feedback approach is the sole technique used, a couple of problems occur:

Corrective feedback needs immediate follow up

To reinforce the changes made, corrective feedback needs immediate follow up. Unfortunately, this is rarely done — the next conversation about the correction is often at the next coaching session a week, fortnight or month later, with no noticeable performance improvements having occurred in the meantime.

The absence of frequent positive feedback

There is often an absence of frequent positive feedback for work activity. As a result, this corrective style of coaching becomes paired with negative emotions by those receiving it. Consequently, a growing resistance to hearing bad news and making the changes requested occurs. While all successful coaching conversations should be directed toward improving performance, it is common for corrective coaching activity to occur consistently resulting in little performance improvement.

The 5:1 Ratio

Research from a variety of sources suggests that a useful ratio of positive feedback to corrective should be 5:1. This means managers should give at least five times as much positive feedback than corrective feedback. Lower ratios lead to strained manager/employee relationships, lower emotional engagement as well as discipline and performance issues. In a typical work environment the real ratio is around 2:1. Sadly, in many organisations a quote attributed to Henry Kissinger is applicable, “Praise around here is the absence of criticism for a brief period of time.”

Advice on using the GROW conversation

The corrective feedback process is unhelpful for coaching conversations that involve problem solving. The GROW (Goal, Reality, Options, Way Forward) conversation is a common coaching process which works effectively for this situation. This type of coaching conversation typically involves counselling, mentoring or advising employees. Unfortunately, it also has two key pitfalls.

Tell and be told

The mutual development of information and agreement to action, which forms the basis of the GROW conversation, provides the biggest challenge for many people managers. We are conditioned by a long history of telling and being told. For many managers it seems simpler to tell people what they should do, rather than seek ideas.

Not suitable for correcting performance

The other pitfall was referred to earlier — no one coaching technique does everything. Different techniques are required for reinforcing desirable work behaviour, correcting undesired behaviour and guiding and mentoring employees. If the one technique used is the GROW conversation, then frustration occurs for managers because the technique follows a significantly different process than that which is effective for correcting performance or reinforcing behaviour. The outcome is a failure to maximise performance simply because the wrong approach was used.

Change is coming

Coaching is situational. It’s better to think of effective leadership as a set of coaching and people-management practices that maximise employee engagement, productivity and performance.

The key role of frontline and middle managers is to extract performance from their people. They require techniques to apply in a variety of situations in order to bring out the best in their people and maximise their performances.

We need a sea change in organisational thinking; to shift away from viewing coaching as an isolated activity that is rarely effective, to recognising it as a combination of coaching and people-management practices that maximise employee engagement, productivity and performance. Because of the shortcomings inherent in thinking of coaching as one thing, we are destined to witness the fall of a one-size-fits-all coaching approach and the rise of a more individualised, multi-pronged effective leadership approach to maximising employee productivity and performance.


To get our report “The Secret to Leadership Effectiveness”, which shows how YOU can help your organisation improve leadership quality, employee engagement, and financial success, click here.


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