Theresa Moulton recently spoke with Michael Bungay Stanier, author of The Coaching Habit, to discuss the differences between coaching for development and coaching for performance, as well as the impact each has on organizational development and, potentially, change management. During the course of their conversation, Moulton and Bungay Stanier touched on a busy manager’s ability to better coach staff in ways which impact development, rather than focusing solely on specific problems or issues—and do it in ten minutes or less. Of particular interest to current organizational challenges, both Moulton and Bungay Stanier agree that, by changing management to a dynamic where advice giving, asking questions and empowering others is rewarded, you’re opening up an environment where all employees feel safe and heard, which means they are better engaged.
Michael Bungay Stanier is the founder and Senior Partner of Box of Crayons, a company that helps people and organizations all over the world do less Good Work and more Great Work. Box of Crayons is best known for its coaching programs that give busy managers the tools to coach in 10 minutes or less.
Michael left Australia 25 years ago to be a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, where his only significant achievement was falling in love with a Canadian… which is why he now lives in Toronto, having spent time in London and Boston. He has written a number of books. His latest, The Coaching Habit, has been praised as one of the few business books that actually makes people laugh out loud. The book he’s proudest of is End Malaria, a collection of essays on Great Work from leading thinkers that raised $400,000 for Malaria No More.
Michael was the first Canadian Coach of the Year — pretty good for an Australian. He was recently named the #2 Coaching Guru in the World, which caught him by surprise as he’s not entirely sure why.
I think we both believe, Michael, that coaching is an important skill for managers and needs to come closer to the change management profession in terms of active practitioners. How did you become interested in coaching?
“Even as a teenager, I found myself on the listening end of conversations. I’d be talking to some friend about his angst-filled life with his girlfriend. As it turns out, I was good at listening as well as holding the space for them to talk. I do remember being in that experience and thinking, ‘Well, it’s good that they’re talking about it, but I have no idea what I’m doing. Should I be saying more? Should I be saying less? How should I be fixing this?’
“When I went to university in Australia, I signed up for a volunteer role with a crisis telephone counseling organization called LifeLine. I did some training with them, basically around Rogerian counseling as a structure for being more active in response to somebody in crisis. There were questions you asked to go beyond the surface to find out what else is going on. So I did that throughout university in Australia and also in England as well.
And then shortly after joining a change management firm in England in the mid-nineties, I started noticing the rise of coaching in the States and this touchy feely West Coast vibe. When you are in England, you can be pretty skeptical about that stuff, so I had some skepticism about it.
However, when I moved to the States, Boston, I hired a coach to get a sense of what that was about. While she may not have been the best coach, she gave me a window into the coaching experience. I started reframing some of my consulting relationships as coaching, not really knowing what that meant, but just changing the language and changing the frame. Shortly after I moved to Toronto in 2001, I started my formal coach training. Meanwhile, the jobs I had included doing a lot of facilitation. And tangled up in all this, I spent years working for an innovation creativity company at the heart of which was market research. There are a number of different disciplines in marketing about curiosity, about being participant-focused, allowing people to find their own path and their own journey. You could argue that market research, facilitation and coaching actually have similar disciplines at their heart.”
That’s a very eclectic combination of disciplines. Do you believe that your own diverse background has given you an advantage in your profession?
“I do love the quote that says, ‘Inspiration is when your past suddenly makes sense.’ I have an eclectic background, which I love. Having these eclectic aspects of who I am feeds into a perspective—a way of framing content or framing approaches that can feel a little different, a little interesting to people. Fundamentally, what I’ve done is pour old wine into new bottles. I do not feel like I have untangled a secret that has never been said before. I do feel like I have poured good wine into some different decanters that may make it more drinkable for people.”
The context, the story that you have set up in your book for something so basic as ‘ask one question’ is, I believe, profound in this day and age. It really does mean something to be silent for the conversation and see what happens with that.
“Thank you. As I have been talking about this book and in the programs we have around it, I emphasize that we have to think, fundamentally, about a simple shift of behavior, which is a little less advice and certainty and a little more curiosity. Shifting that behavior, however, is quite a journey; it is not a casual or easy thing.”
What do you think gets in the way for people when they hear this—get a little more curious about a conversation?
“The easiest level to point out is that most consultants have had a whole lot of practice being rewarded, encouraged, promoted and paid to be advice-givers. There is a way that most organizational life is framed into answers and actions. We have deep habits that, honestly, are established in school as much as anything else where it is about being rewarded for knowing the answer.
I think there is even a deeper level beyond that—when you are in the position of giving an answer, it is a more comfortable place to be than asking a question. When you are giving an answer, you have status, you have control, you have certainty, you know where the conversation is going, you know that you are the smart person in the conversation, you can see how it gets wrapped up, you feel like you are adding value. When you are asking questions, you get that little hit against your ego. Even though your advice may not be that good or useful or listened to, it still feels better.
As soon as you ask a question, it is a much more ambiguous state. You hand over control of the conversation to the other person and now they are responsible for the answer. You are not even sure if it is a good question; you are not sure if they understood the question; you are not sure what answer they are going to give; you are not sure if you are going to be able to react to the answer they are going to give; and, you are not sure what that two seconds of silence means—whether it is about you or the question or about them and what is going on there. You have given up status, rank, certainty, control and power. It is a microcosm of what servant leadership is—putting the other person’s goals and capacities ahead of your own level of comfort. I believe that is the equation people do not think about around empowerment. When you empower somebody, if you can even do that, their taking more power means you having a diminished sense of power. Everyone is for empowerment as long as it does not mean any loss of control . . . which is contradictory.”
One of the points that you made in your book was about distinguishing between performance-based coaching and development-based coaching. Even though their judgment is needed for conversations between managers and their reports, what do you think some of the opportunities might be for managers in having coaching conversations around performance?
“It is useful to define our terms because those terms can mean slightly different things to different people. The way I think about it is: coaching for performance means that you are typically focused on ‘the thing that needs to be sorted out.’ When coaching for development, you tend to be focused on ‘the person who is trying to sort the thing out.’ When you ask people about what instances of coaching have had the biggest impact on them, people will almost always articulate a coaching for development conversation where they have been helped to realize a new insight about themselves rather than ‘I got the thing done.’
At the same time, getting the thing done is an important part of organizational life. One of the key things I say to managers is, ‘As a manager, you are not giving up forever offering advice or giving someone an idea.’ We are just trying to slow down the rushed and default reaction a little. When somebody comes to you saying, ‘Here is my problem and I cannot figure it out,’ and you are pretty sure you know what they should be doing, it is not that you will never get a chance to share that, if you need to. However, if you create just a bit of space to help them figure out what they could be doing, there is a decent chance that they are going to figure out the solution without your needing to tell them. In doing so, they have made new neural pathways, new connections. You have literally increased their capacity and their potential because you have helped them think differently and make new connections in their brain.”
I was interested in the neuroscience components of your approach. From what you are studying and applying, how do you see some of the neuroscience concepts really applying to people who are receiving a coaching experience, even if it is less than ten minutes in the workforce?
What we talk about in the book is called the TERA model. It is my version of a model David Rock