Article : Turning The Square Peg Round
|For many of us our career involves coaching call centre staff, coaching their coaches, and coaching the coaches' coaches. What might you do when your coaching is not having the desired effect - when people are repeating the same mistakes, or inventing new ones - when they revert back to the old habits you were aiming to change for good?
Coaching is how we grow people who are already trained to do their job and are doing it. It is the continuing help to improve their performance, resolve their difficulties, and prepare for new developments in their job. We call it on the job coaching - to distinguish it from the developmental variety, which is directed at helping individuals to realise their potential and progress their careers.
We will imagine that you are team leaders, supervisors or managers. You do regular coaching with your team - as a group, on topics which apply to everyone - and one-to-one, to help individuals in your team with their own questions. You know how to do it, because it works for you most of the time with most people. However, there are some individuals who don't seem to give much return for your effort. You are constantly having to do it again, going over what should be normal - or you suspect that they could perform if they wanted to - they just don't seem to want to.
What are your options with these people?
The first temptation is to jump to the conclusion that these people are in the job by mistake. They may appear to lack either the base ability to perform the tasks, the temperament to adjust to the job and its environment, or the motivation to want to do a good job. In principle all of these qualities should have been checked during selection. However, recruiters often feel under pressure to put bums on seats and headsets on people and they have been known to relax their criteria. Tempting though it may be to write off these people as square pegs, and look for ways to undo their selection, there are several reasons why you should use this only as a last resort after checking all the other possibilities.
Firstly, for your own well-being as a coach it is important to keep the faith, and not to give up too early. If the training and coaching is good enough the majority of people can learn to do most jobs. Very few people are totally unresponsive.
Secondly, the cost of redeeming sinners is usually only a fraction of the cost of replacing them.
Thirdly, you can fine tune some of your coaching skills, and gain some useful insights into the way other people's minds work by taking a more inquiring and experimental approach.
So, if your coaching efforts are not working, suspend your judgment for a while on whether your team member is the guilty party, until you have considered the possibility of an alternative explanation which is more within your own control.
Mismatch of learning styles
There may be only one right way to do any particular task, however there can still be plenty of different ways to learn it.
• Some people are happy to learn by pitching in, with the minimum of prior instruction. They will give it a go, and find out for themselves what does and doesn't work. They are not put down by failure – they can always try it some other way. They learn by being active.
• Others prefer to play it safe. They like to have the whole picture, and to know exactly what will happen, before they are comfortable starting something new. Before they start anything they want to be sure they will get it right.
• Some people are at ease with a new task only if they understand why it needs to be done in that particular way. They have to get their heads around the logic and the design of a task before they feel they can own it and do it themselves.
• Others again, are happy to try out any new idea or method, as long as you can show them that it works, and preferably that it is better than they have at present. They don't have to discover it for themselves, or understand the theory behind it – if it works it's OK.
You may already be familiar with these four types of learning styles - known as activist, reflector, theorist and pragmatist. You may think that they are to some extent caricatures, and that real people are more complex and adaptable than these very single-minded characters. And you would be right. For most people, these learning styles represent a preference, a tendency or a comfort zone, rather than their absolute fixed position. Even if it makes them feel uneasy, they are able to learn by their less preferred methods – if that is the only choice available.
Some people, however, lack that useful flexibility, and become totally inhibited if, for example, they are expected to have a go at something without being given a full explanation and set of instructions. Others, with a different kind of rigidity, will simply disregard explanations, briefings and procedures, and then appear to reinvent the task for themselves from scratch. Both these characters are able to learn – it's just that they cannot learn from the coaching method that is being applied to them.
Coaching – an art and a science
Coaches can get stuck in their own preferred style for helping others to learn. It is natural to believe that other people think the same way as we do, and prefer what we prefer – unless we have some evidence to the contrary. Coaching, however, is not natural – it is an art and a science – and the skilled coach will be actively seeking evidence to the contrary. As the coach it is your responsibility to match to their preferred learning styles. If you ask them what sort of style they have, they will tell you. They won't call themselves activists, reflectors and so on, however they will tell you what works best for them, what they find easy and difficult, what they feel comfortable and uncomfortable doing – and you can draw your own conclusions. Once you have asked them, you have set up an expectation that you will do something about it – and that, of course, is the whole point.
Help that doesn't help
We all like to be asked for help. Being thought of as helpful gives us a warm feeling. Being seen as the person to ask, the one with the answers, makes us feel important. Our ego is engaged – and that is the trap.
The way we respond to requests for help will determine whether we create self-confidence or dependency in our team. Put that way it is no contest – no one would consciously set out to create dependency. Unconsciously, we do it all the time.
The best help you can give is the kind that you have to give only once. After that the person can manage by themselves. If it needs to be constantly renewed it is not help at all - it is dependency. If you are alert to this possibility you can use it as a self-check to keep your helping on target.
Team leading and coaching are self-denying activities. If you are seen as a hero or rescuer – if people are saying, I don't know what we would do without you – then whatever it is you are doing to them, coaching it isn't. Coaching is the wind beneath their wings – the invisible support that elevates and sustains an individual. You and they know the value it has contributed. If it is visible only in their confidence and performance, and if your boss is aware, that is as much as you should expect.
Let's bring this alive for you-
One of your team has an issue, perhaps something new or unexpected – do you show how the existing guidelines and standards can be applied or extended to cover the new situation – or do you just tell them what to do now?
One of your team asks for help. He/she has worked out a figure which is clearly wrong however doesn't know how to correct it – do you get him/her to rework it with you, so that you can see the source of his/her mistake and give immediate feedback – or do you take it away and come back when you have worked out the right answer?
In these two examples, if the second options were more typical of you than the first ones, look no further. You can't complain that they never learn. They may not have learned much of value about the job, however they have learned something quite useful about you – how to keep you occupied, and make you feel helpful.
It is amazing what some people regard as reward, and what they will go out of their way to get attention is the classic case. Everyone can see the process so clearly when it involves other people's children – no one takes any notice of them when they are behaving themselves, everyone is totally focused on them when they throw some awful tantrum. Even being shouted at is better than being ignored. We, of course, would never fall into that trap. Or would we?
In the work context the trap is harder to spot and it's easier to fall into it inadvertently. Are some people making excessive claims on your time? Do you drop everything to give them a quick response? Do you, in practice, accept lower standards from them than you would accept from their less challenging colleagues?
Consider, then, whether your poor performers are getting privileges and attention, which they would lose if they suddenly became fully competent. Are you, in effect, rewarding and preserving poor performance? Could you find ways of being less available, less responsive, reasserting the standards you expect?
A more subtle form of this same manipulation is rewarding good intentions as if they were the same as the actual achievement. The frequent use of the word try by your team member gives this away. I'll try to do it by Friday and I'll try to be there on time – should make you think. Your proper response is Will you or won't you?
I'll try... is the psychological escape route. It gives the team members an excuse if they don't actually do what they said they would do. If you find yourself comforting someone with the words - At least you tried - or something similar, consider the sub text. Is it You gave it your best shot – I couldn't have expected more - or is it - Don't upset yourself on my behalf, it doesn't matter anyway. If not doing something becomes the moral equivalent of doing it, what message does this convey about standards?
The converse of this is punishing good performance. You made such a good job of XX, you can do all of them in future - and - You're so good at YY, would you mind staying on and showing Maisie how to do it? The intention may be to give recognition – for the person at the receiving end it says Keep your head down, or you'll get 500 lines and a detention.
Getting what you expect
In the coaching business you get what you expect. It has been shown in a number of experiments, in schools and in industry, that the expectations which coaches have of their teams can be the decisive factor in determining how well these people perform. The experiments have typically primed the coach with false information about the abilities, or intelligence, or motivation of the individuals, so that the coach starts with unrealistically high or low expectations of how the team will perform. These unrealistic expectations then take on the power of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The individuals' performance rises or sinks to match the set expectations.
There are two reasons why expectations can have this apparently irrational effect. The first is that most people, with the right motivational climate, are capable of performing above themselves. The second is that coaches can't help revealing their expectations in the way that they respond to the individual, even if they are adamant that they are treating everyone the same.
Once you are aware of the process it is possible to bring it under conscious control, and bring out the best in everyone by giving the high expectations treatment. You do not have to pretend to believe false information about them. You only need to suspend your judgment and give them the benefit of the doubt. If you don't bring the process under control, it will continue to be a double-edged weapon – delivering your low expectations as well as your high ones.
Turning the square peg round
The words that you use convey low or high expectations - this is a test for you to turn the square peg round.
Rather than putting your words in the negative, by anticipating failure or telling them what not to do try these -
Instead of Don't drop it … say ... Hold it steady
Instead of don't forget … say… Remember
Instead of Don't be late … say... Be there by 9am.
Do you fall into any of the following traps-
· Treat questions as evidence that they have not been paying attention and reply by simply repeating what you have already said.
· Don't attempt to seek an explanation for their errors or misunderstandings or make them try again until they get it right.
· Keep telling them how easy it is, so that they feel guilty if they don't master it at first attempt.
Some of you may not do something quite as crude as that - however are you doing anything a bit similar? With your low performers, are you absolutely sure that you aren't simply getting back what you expect? Could you persuade yourself to project some high expectations onto them - just as an experiment?
Back to the square peg
Ask yourself if you have tried everything? Is your square peg still as square as ever?
If the answer is yes then feel free to jump to your original conclusion.
Today's Tip of the Day - Recognition
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Published: Tuesday, November 5, 2002