Coaching vs telling: what works for productivity and engagement?

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Published by
Jan Hills
August 19, 2016

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One of the underlying assumptions about coaching or telling is we want people to do something different.

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How many times have you heard people in HR say something like this? “I keep telling them they should be using coaching…” well you may not actually say that but it is often the sentiment behind initiatives to introduce a ‘coaching culture’. And they rarely work. Leaders seem to be deeply attached to telling employees what to do and even how to do it. Companies we work with still have many leaders who are wedded to the “command and control” style of management. Basically, they like telling people what to do. And why not – they’re busy people, they were usually promoted because they were good at their jobs, not because they were good at “people stuff,” and they’re paid to keep their eye on the bottom line. So let them just tell their teams what needs to be done, so they can get on with it.

One of the underlying assumptions about coaching or telling is we want people to do something different. In a ’telling culture’ the assumption is the manager or leader knows the answer and how to achieve the change. In a ‘coaching culture’ the assumption is the employee can get to the answer themselves and actually given they do the job may even have a better approach or solution.

But what is the most brain-savvy way to get change to happen and for employees to work in a new way?

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If the dominate mind-set is fixed, change is seen as risky, painful and hard. Leaders in this culture are much more likely to feel coaching is a waste of time; either people have it or they don’t so telling people what to do makes sense.
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Mind-set comes first

We have talked before about the importance of mind-set and Carol Dweck’s1 work on success. Why this isn’t strictly about coaching or telling it is the foundation for the way your leaders approach people. In Dweck’s research people described as having a fixed mind-set believe that people are born with abilities or intellect that are pretty much unchangeable. While people with a growth mind-set will use stretch assignments, feedback and development opportunities to grow talent. The prevailing mind-set of your organisation is revealed by the language you use about people, and the processes that you use to identify, assess and develop them.

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If the collective mind-set of the organisation is “growth,” the prevailing belief is that change is an opportunity to learn and grow.
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If the dominate mind-set is fixed, change is seen as risky, painful and hard. Leaders in this culture are much more likely to feel coaching is a waste of time; either people have it or they don’t so telling people what to do makes sense. And after all they made it to the top so they know what the right answer is… right?

If the collective mind-set of the organisation is “growth,” the prevailing belief is that change is an opportunity to learn and grow. The views of growth mind-set managers about the members of their team tend to centre on how they approach their work. The leaders’ role is to spot growth opportunities, notice great performance and encourage people to take stretching assignments. This is a culture which can see the benefits of coaching and finds it easier to adopt the skills and make it work.

Before you embark on creating a coaching culture or even encouraging a leader to coach it is worth asking yourself.

What is the prevailing culture? Fixed or Growth? What does this leader believe about people’s ability to change?

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When we first encounter something, we’re relatively slow to understand it. Like reading this article, we need to get the foundations in place first.

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Making maps and forming habits

First lets consider how we absorb and organise new information.

Brains work by making connections and associations: linking what is happening now and what has happened in the past, both conscious and unconscious memories.2 The result is a kind of map of connections in the brain; no two maps will be the same, even though two people’s brains will have used the same biological process to map the same information. Just to give you an idea of the complexity of the work that’s going on here: your brain is creating over a million new connections every second.

The brain likes order, and tries to connect new information to what is already known, in order to categorise it. It is also a prediction machine. Predicting how something will happen and getting it right creates a sense of reward in the brain.

Neuroscience evangelist and inventor of the Palm Pilot Jeff Hawkins3 says that our ability to make predictions, based on the connections our brain makes, is what differentiates us from other animals.

When we first encounter something, we’re relatively slow to understand it. Like reading this article, we need to get the foundations in place first. Learning a new skill (that is to say, creating the map for it) takes a while before it becomes familiar – maybe a few minutes or maybe days, depending on the complexity. The more embedded the maps are, the more we free up mental resources for acquiring and understanding new information.

We call this process of creating maps “forming a habit.” And the process of shifting activity from the high-energy, relatively inefficient prefrontal cortex down to the more efficient habit-forming areas is the basic operating mode for the brain.

All of this happens also when we learn something new or receive new information. Before we can use it, it needs to be fitted into our mental map and then over time we can use it on autopilot: a new habit has been formed.

So with this understanding as background, let’s look at the impact of telling someone to change compared with coaching them to change.

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Managers who tell rather than coach are not only wasting their own time and energy, they’re potentially making it more difficult for employees to accept a new idea.

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Threatening advice

As we said above the brain is a prediction machine. It likes to be able to know what is going to happen and what is expected. Telling someone to change is likely to set up a threat response, because the employee’s predictions and connections aren’t set up for this new information. This difference in perception creates an error message which turns people away from the new information and increases the likelihood of resistance.

Managers who tell rather than coach are not only wasting their own time and energy, they’re potentially making it more difficult for employees to accept a new idea.

Also it’s easy to forget, at work, that we are all primarily social creatures.

“Social pain” – a public reprimand or micro-management of someone’s work – is experienced in the same way as physical pain, and the memory of it remains more vivid. The frontal cortex is drained as the limbic system hijacks all of the energy of the unfortunate employee and impairs their ability to think clearly (“My mind went blank…”), making it even less likely that telling will be effective. When employees are told something, especially something unexpected their brain will go into the fight/flight/freeze mode. In this state they are not as able to take on board what they need to do and resistance may also be set up.

How might threat and managerial habits like micro-management be impairing cognitive functioning and exhausting leaders because they have to keep telling people the same thing over and over?

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To take any kind of action based on what they are told people have to also be given the opportunity to think it through for themselves.

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Telling versus insight

One of the key premises of coaching is that people work things out for themselves. And the difference between being told and having insight is all about creating new mental maps.

If you’re thinking about something like how a new process will work, or the reaction of your team to a new strategy, you’re creating a mental map. These new thoughts are energy-consuming from a brain perspective so you might find this work being done when your brain is freed up from other activity: you’re just stirring the soup, or walking the dog. This type of thinking often results in what we call an “Aha!” moment – that flash of insight when a new map, or part of a map, is formed.

To take any kind of action based on what they are told people have to also be given the opportunity to think it through for themselves. Making it a two-step process. If the coach-manager asks the kind of questions that prompt insight people can make the connections and create their map in one step.

Are your managers and coaches creating insight, or telling people what to do?

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So coaching that reinforces insights through creating goals and opportunities to practice the new skill is more effective then telling someone what to do and expecting them to do as they’re told.

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Creating motivation to change

You’ll know the burst of motivation and energy that comes with a moment of insight, but which can quickly dissipate if it’s not reinforced. (It seemed like a good idea at the time, but… well, it was probably impractical…) It’s that reinforcement which hardwires new connections and potentially triggers new behaviour. But this type of thinking and action is hard work for the brain because it takes more energy, so people may avoid it or give up too soon before a deep map is formed.

So coaching that reinforces insights through creating goals and opportunities to practice the new skill is more effective then telling someone what to do and expecting them to do as they’re told.

Are your managers focusing people on transferring skills to the “new world” to speed up change?

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Only if people are coached to be able to redirect well-rooted behaviours, by managing the triggers that prompt them and by building in rewards for the new behaviour, is change going to happen without lots of additional effort.

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From intent to action

Conventional wisdom, in many businesses, is that if people understand rationally why they need to do something they’ll get on board with the process. But only 30% of what we do is under our conscious control rather than being habit and automatic, and that includes how we do our job.4 Because habits operate outside of our conscious awareness, logical thought will not be enough to initiate change. This is why telling people what needs to be done and then leaving it to them to do it doesn’t work.

Several things need to be in place to achieve behavioural change. UCLA’s Matt Lieberman5 says we must go beyond the conscious “reflective” systems where goals are created, and manage the triggers for the old behaviours in our unconscious “reflexive” systems. Goals designed to act in the new way tend to be created in the conscious reflective system but we need to also control the unconscious habit system by managing triggers that generate the old behaviour.

The focus of Elliot Berkman’s6 research is goal-setting and achieving new behaviour, and his studies suggest there’s a necessary sequence for creating new habits of behaviour: cue; when to act; routine; the steps to take; reward.

Only if people are coached to be able to redirect well-rooted behaviours, by managing the triggers that prompt them and by building in rewards for the new behaviour, is change going to happen without lots of additional effort.

Are your managers working with both systems? Are they helping to create new behaviour by creating new habit routines and the rewards? Are there strategies to manage the triggers that will prompt old behaviour?

So what’s the verdict?

I suggest leaders need to understand how the brain actually works in order to appreciate what will be most effective – coaching or telling. I’ll leave you with some questions you might put to an un-persuaded leader, which may generate their own insight:

  • How did someone react when you told them to change?
  • When has telling someone to do something differently worked?
  • What have been the benefits for you of encouraging insight in others?
  • What good surprises have you got from asking questions, rather than telling?

References

  1. Carol Dweck (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House.
  2. Gerald Edelman Theory of Neural Darwinism Theory of Neuronal Group Selection. Basic Books; New edition (16 Nov 1987)
  3. Jeffrey Hawkins On Intelligence St. Martin’s Griffin (July 14, 2005)
  4. Kevin Ochsner, quoted at the NeuroLeadership Summit 2010, Boston.
  5. Lieberman, M. D. (2007). The X- and C-systems: The neural basis of automatic and controlled social cognition. In E. Harmon-Jones & P. Winkelman (Eds.), Fundamentals of Social Neuroscience (pp. 290-315). New York: Guilford.
  6. The Psychology of Goals. Edited by Gordon B. Moskowitz, Heidi Grant. Guilford Press (27 Feb 2009)The neuroscience of Gaol pursuit M. Lieberman and E Berkman Chapter 4

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