The Coaching Equation: A Formula for Change, Written by Frank Ferrante

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change. In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment.”

Charles Darwin

In today’s “new normal” business environment, mere survival is clearly not enough – it is now about thriving and excelling, and this is ongoing. What was considered superior performance only five years ago is now barely acceptable. Yes, the bar continues to rise and too many of us think that intelligence and hard work alone are enough for success.

So, how does coaching fit into this new reality? Getting back to Darwin, it’s about change; recognizing (even anticipating) a changing reality and adapting behavior – with intelligence and hard work – to succeed. The coaching equation to achieve this is:

Aw + Ca = Ch (Aware + Care = Change)

Simply put, if a person is aware of what has to be changed, and cares about improving, change will occur. Some are aware, but don’t care, and some care, but are not aware (of what has to be changed) – in both instances, change will not occur.

Aware

Feedback is the gateway to awareness yet many managers are reluctant to provide candid, behavioral and actionable feedback. Instead they resort to vague generalities such as “you need to improve your attitude” – the irony here is that most perceived “attitude” problems are the result of a pattern of behavioral observations over time, so just play the movie back in your head to recall what you observed and share those behaviors with the person.

Or, even worse, managers will call in a coach to “fix” the person. This “management by abdication” dooms the coaching process before it even begins. Well intentioned, caring employees, are left to wonder what has to be changed and may even adopt a defensive posture toward change, resenting a third-party intruder and rationalizing their behavior since they haven’t got a clue of what’s wrong, or right!

Fortunately there are many tools available to promote awareness – multi-rater 360 feedback instruments can measure organizational, job and leadership competencies as well as emotional and social intelligence. In addition, coaches often work with managers to assist them in delivering effective feedback and collaboratively establishing change agendas with their employees.

Care

So, making a person aware of what has to be changed is relatively easy, but how do you get them to care? Well, you can’t – only they can, but you can help. First, we must start with ourselves and control our natural impulse to judge, to form conclusions about behavior.

We are often quick to judge and slow to understand, and this comes from the primitive part of the brain that served early man so well in the game of survival. Back then, when faced with a hungry charging tiger, the idea of “let me try to understand why this tiger is charging at me before I judge it to be dangerous” would have probably been the last thing that person ever did. And even today, quick judging has its place – especially driving in the city – but the workplace is not always the right place, and if judging is done here it should be with reflection and wisdom – i.e., preceded by understanding.

Understanding occurs when we treat our judgments as hypotheses – a tentative point of view subject to examination, challenge, collaboration and fact-based proof; what scientists in the pursuit of truth always do. Now we are not suggesting an overly clinical, dispassionate or experimental approach – that would be a bit over the top – instead, to simply be aware of our tendency to judge and thereby control it, and then use the process of questioning to test assumptions and promote understanding.

The goal of understanding (not agreeing or disagreeing) is best achieved through questioning; asking open-ended questions and listening. Once all the information is gathered and you have the other person’s perspective, there may be a temptation on your part to “tell” what should be done next – however, people react better to conclusions they reach rather than being told what to do by others, and here’s where the caring comes in.

The way to get a person to care about changing is to discuss likely outcomes of current dysfunctional behavior – rather than saying “this will cause a problem for you”, ask “where do you think this behavior will lead to?” And, “is that what you want?”

Being rude to a client may, in the mind of the person, be totally justifiable, but does that lead to an outcome (having lost a client) that is desirable? Clearly not. Also, linking behavior to what’s important to the person, what they care about, a goal they have – “I know you want to become a VP; how do you think this will impact that” – adds motivation.

Remember, your objective is not to intimidate, manipulate or hold anything hostage – it is to get at the truth and explore where that leads to in terms of future performance. Helping people understand the impact of their behavior helps to remove their blind spot and doing it in an authentic, sincere and respectful manner is critical.

Change

Conclusions reached collaboratively have amazing staying power and often result in meaningful and sustained improvement. However, change is never a one-shot deal. It is easy to fall back into old dysfunctional behaviors. Having a team of mentors, colleagues and friends to help maintain forward momentum as well as having periodic checkpoints – both structured (repeat 360’s) and unstructured (simply asking), guard against the return of old habits.

Being aware and caring are essential to change, and change is best when we are always aware of the impact of what we do and care about what’s important to us and those we work with.

This simple formula goes a long way toward making positive change, permanent and ongoing change: Allowing us to survive (Darwin) and more importantly, thrive and excel!

Research 

  1. Culture Clash: Managing the Global High-Performance Team (The Global Leader Series), by Thomas D. Zweifel
  2. The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, by Edgar H. Schein