Ruth Moody
October 4, 2022

When coaching is not the answer

Disagreements, disunity at a senior level, and a lack of clear direction. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a cure for all workplace ills? Or maybe things are going well, and you want to develop your staff and leaders so they perform even better. Life would certainly be a lot easier if there was one way to fix everything.

Coaching is a powerful tool; the discipline is having a moment and it’s somewhat de rigeur to make coaching the lynchpin of learning and development initiatives. There’s no doubt that coaching can be extremely effective. However, it isn’t always the answer. Knowing when to use coaching is what makes it impactful – and when a different tool would be more appropriate. If coaching is misused, or used for the wrong thing at the wrong time, organisations run the risk of seeing little to no effect. And that could seriously diminish their budget and their view of coaching, when it could be used very effectively at another time.

Coaching and coaching cultures: fashionable or effective?

Awareness and the use of coaching are growing; it’s positive that more people and organisations are embracing a coaching mindset and the benefits it can bring to work and life.

The pitfall that organisations are at risk of falling into, is the belief that coaching is a fix-all. Coaching needs to be used correctly; developing a coaching culture is great, though there must be the recognition that it has limitations too. Often, the reason for coaching being used ineffectively is because there is confusion over the terminology.

Definition of a coaching culture

A coaching culture emerges where leaders use coaching skills in their interactions with staff. That means listening instead of dictating, asking open questions, and practising non-judgement. For many organisations, it’s quite a nice idea to latch onto. Problems arise when people think that they mean ‘coaching’ or a ‘coaching culture’, when in fact they mean something else. Perhaps what they are describing is akin to mentoring; where a more experienced individual shares advice and know-how with a less experienced individual.

Frustration arises when an intervention is deployed only to find that it doesn’t work, because what they are actually talking about is coaching when they mean mentoring, or vice versa. My blog on explaining the difference between coaching and mentoring looks in depth at what the terminology means, and the problems caused by confusion. Perhaps the biggest thing that organisations need to watch out for is the sense of frustration that emerges when the wrong intervention is used. If coaching is used when mentoring would be better, it won’t work. This could lead to coaching being dismissed as ‘useless’ at a later date, when in fact it could be very helpful.

When not to use coaching

Coaching is most effective if you have the knowledge and the skills to perform a task, but you need a little help to actually do it. Perhaps something is blocking the path and you need to find a way around the obstacle. Coaching is very useful for understanding what these roadblocks are and why they have arisen.

If the hurdle is that you simply don’t have the knowledge or the skills to complete an action, then something else is more appropriate. For instance, training to plug a skills gap. If what’s needed is advice or know-how from someone who has been through a similar experience, then mentoring would be ideal.

Coaching shines brightest alongside other interventions

Coaching is effective in its own right. Often, where it really comes into its own is alongside a broader L&D programme. Such programmes are designed to give people new skills. These skills then need to be internalised, put to use, reviewed, deployed again, and consolidated. It’s a bit like learning to drive: first you get comfortable with the gears. Once that feels ok, you attempt a left turn and so on.

Coaching provides support as the learning process evolves. It’s a very helpful instrument for the ‘review’ piece; when we learn new skills, sometimes we stumble the first time that we use them. The experience of falling at the first hurdle can see us retreating back into our shells. A coach helps unpick what happened, why, how that feels, and what we could do differently. It’s a safe space that allows for an emotional exploration of what it feels like to acquire and use those new skills, not just a practical guide on what to do. For that reason coaching supports the learning process, because it helps people feel happier about using their new-found knowledge more quickly.

All organisations are individual in their motivations and their needs

Organisations tend to use coaching and development for one of two reasons. Often something is ‘broken’ and needs to be mended. Otherwise, there is an overall goal that the organisation is working towards: perhaps a developmental objective or a desire to improve how the business is perceived internally. Just like the motivations that they interact with, both coaching and L&D interventions have remedial or developmental aspects.

Whether the desired outcome is remedial or developmental, it's always important to start with a blank page. By taking the time to understand the situation, the most suitable course of action becomes clear. That may, or may not, involve coaching. So, even if an organisation arrives with an idea of what they want or need, that won’t necessarily be what they get. That’s the benefit of working with an experienced coach or development consultant – they can guide you to what you need and open your eyes to possibilities that you perhaps hadn’t considered. And if they think that embarking on a coaching programme is the wrong thing to do, they’ll tell you! In the long run, it could save you a lot of time, money and frustration.

When not to use coaching: other things to bear in mind

Knowing when to use coaching and when to use another intervention is crucial. Determining whether there is a need for coaching or training is only half of the story. Be aware of these potential pitfalls when approaching development.

  • The personnel associated with a ‘coaching culture’
    A supportive, open, non-judgemental coaching culture is what organisations often say they want. One of the potential pitfalls with this, is that organisations don’t always think about who will actually fulfil the coaching role. If it’s someone who is responsible for also giving feedback, the dynamic can be quite strained. The coachee feels like they can’t speak openly and honestly and the coach feels awkward about providing a listening ear one day, and delivering the news that performance isn’t up to scratch the next.
  • One tool doesn’t make a toolkit
    If all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail! Coaching isn’t right for every situation. You wouldn’t have just one skill in your day job, one method for dealing with an angry customer, or one step in your sales process. So it doesn’t make sense to have only one tool in your development toolkit. If you’re unsure which tool would work best, it’s your cue to turn to a professional.
  • A two-pronged approach creates longer-lasting results
    Coaching and development programmes are equally powerful, when used properly. Combining forces amplifies the impact of both initiatives; it deepens learning, reveals factors that may otherwise have remained hidden, and results in profound changes at an individual, team and organisational level.

Knowing when not to coach puts your organisation ahead of the game

It can be tempting, in business, to follow the pack. From marketing to financial management, the urge to pursue the latest trend is sometimes hard to resist. That’s why you employ professionals to look after the areas that require specialist knowledge; they provide the advice that suits your needs and the practical guidance to keep the ship on course.

For better or worse, the world of Learning and Development is prone to fads as well. By taking a considered approach, and by knowing when to buck the trend, organisations give themselves a much better chance of seeing noteworthy results. Instead of blindly following the flock and coaching because everyone else is, or in every scenario, just stop. Another intervention could deliver the outcome you’re looking for in a way that doesn’t hurt people’s perception of what coaching can do – or the organisation’s coffers!

If you’re facing a developmental or coaching challenge and need a bit of help to work through it, give me a call. Perhaps something isn’t working or an objective doesn’t seem to move any closer. Or maybe your biggest difficulty is getting everybody to agree to one course of action! I'm on 07931 502519 and have probably seen it before – maybe I can help?

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