Coaching: not a solution for all problems

Vicky Roberts tackles the tricky discussions that L&D often need to have with other internal departments when training or assistance is requested, focusing particularly on coaching.   

Coaching is popular for good reason: it’s a way of empowering somebody to come up with a solution that they own and deliver. It is often assumed by other internal departments that coaching is a cure-all solution, but although it is an important tool, it won’t help in all scenarios.  The difficult conversation here is that L&D is often asked to give coaching when it isn’t the answer.

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As we know, the first step, with any training request, must always be taking time to understand the issue. Learning and development professionals are able get to the bottom of the problem by asking particular questions to understand the actual causes. When the root cause is established, it is easier to see if coaching really is the solution, or if the answer falls elsewhere. For example, although coaching seems to be perceived as a solve-all solution to problems, it is actually only effective when the learner already has a certain amount of knowledge in the subject matter.

We think of coaching as one of four steps on a continuum: training, supervising, coaching and mentoring and exploring this with an internal client can be a good way of starting the conversation to see whether the requested coaching is the answer: A good illustration to use when doing this is learning to drive. You start off with no knowledge, and are trained in how to actually use a car. When you have learnt that, you move on to supervision, driving under the control of the instructor. After that stage, you move onto coaching – a good instructor will let you drive and ask effective questions; “what is your thought process as you approach this roundabout?” After coaching comes mentoring, perhaps after you’ve passed your test with a few months experience and your driving instructor suggests you’d do well racing on a track!

The stages must be followed in that order or the coaching wouldn’t work. If your driving instructor was asking you to discuss your considerations of a roundabout whilst you were still struggling to understand the gears, they would be setting you up to fail.

Coaching is often requested to help a poor performer, and it can be the wrong mechanism if the poor performance is due to a lack of knowledge. However, if it’s a behavioural issue, the basis of which is a lack of confidence rather than an absence of knowledge or skill, coaching could be highly relevant. The individual might know the answers, but feels too overwhelmed, or not confident in how to put them into practice. In this case coaching could work, as there’s no need to teach technical expertise, it’s about helping them to overcome the barriers that are stopping them putting that knowledge into practice.

Coaching is a powerful learning tool when used in the right circumstances, and naturally we can be reluctant to say ‘no’ to a request for coaching from management or another department. The way to tackle this difficult conversation is to let your colleagues know how a coaching intervention may help, but the solution may not be wholly coaching, depending on what the cause of the problem is. There could be some teaching that needs to take place before coaching, for example. By helping the manager or HR colleague requesting coaching to ask questions, to assess where the proposed coaching recipient is on the learning continuum, you can help them to be clear on what is need for a successful intervention.

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