No Time to Coach? No Problem!
Around 2007, Google launched Project Oxygen, a large-scale, multi-year research project, the aim of which was to identify what successful Google managers do.
The data was quite revealing and led Google analytics team to identify eight key behaviours associated with being a good manager.
The number one characteristic revealed by the study was ‘being a good coach’. Additionally, at least four more behaviours mentioned in Project Oxygen were directly linked to the coaching style of management:
- empowering the team and avoiding micromanagement
- expressing interest and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being
- listening and sharing information
- helping with career development
While Google’s research is not particularly groundbreaking, it helps to strengthen the position of managerial coaching on the business agenda; when Google talks, the world listens.
Today, more and more organisations realise that cultivating a coaching culture starts with their managers and can be measured by the extent to which they are able and willing to practise coaching on a day-to-day basis and as part of their role.
Managerial coaching can potentially have an enormous impact on people’s performance and yet, it’s very often the Achilles’ heel for many organisations.
Today, the reason people don’t coach their team members is rarely the lack of awareness about potential benefits of managerial coaching.
In fact, every time I ask managers if they consider coaching an important part of their job, I get a resounding “yes”. However, when I inquire if they consistently do as much coaching as they’d like to, I get sheepish looks and somewhat less enthusiastic answers. People often blame the lack of time or other work pressures that don’t allow them to invest enough time and energy in developing others and helping them perform.
And while there might be a lot of wider, systemic obstacles to coaching, I find that the most common one is the deeply rooted belief that coaching has to be time-consuming to be effective. Nothing further from the truth. In fact, good and impactful coaching can take place in as little time as two or three minutes.
Good and impactful coaching can take place in as little time as two to three minutes.
Now, here’s a familiar scenario:
It’s one of those days when you work without a break for the whole morning. It’s almost noon and you realise that you are extremely thirsty, so you go to the water cooler to grab a glass of water. You hope you don’t meet anyone on the way because there’s still a lot you have to do before your lunch meeting with an important client. As you are filling your glass with water, one of your team members, George, comes up and immediately starts complaining about a problem with a colleague from another department. He is very upset and it looks like he is completely overwhelmed by the whole situation. You start panicking – it looks like you are in the middle of a BMW session.
(And when I say BMW, I don’t mean the German car brand – it’s an abbreviation that stands for…bitching, moaning and whining.)
The truth is that most managers wouldn’t even think of attempting to coach in the above scenario. However, a lot of studies and research indicate that effective coaching often happens in just a few minutes.
Effective coaching often occurs in brief encounters. – Robert Hicks, PhD & John McCracken, PhD
I’ve created a four-step process to help managers turn the water-cooler situations described above into powerful coaching encounters. The i-ZAP model guides you on how to have a very brief coaching conversation that can result in… a zap of insight.
Here’s a slightly more detailed description of the model, based on the scenario described earlier:
For this conversation to work, both sides need a bit more focus.
If you are the manager in this scenario, you need to take responsibility for your own state of mind first. Setting the intention to focus solely on George and his problem for the next two to three minutes is the necessary prerequisite for this conversation to work. You will go back to your to-do list after a few minutes but for now you are 100% there, with George – body, mind and spirit!
Judging by George’s agitation, his issue is probably vast, complex and overwhelming. His focus is blurred and so is yours because you feel under tremendous pressure to finish off the urgent tasks. You’ll need to help George zoom in on his current priority or the issue that is most burning for him at the moment. There might be plenty of things that had set him off but you’re there to help him zero in on the most critical issue at hand. This can be achieved by asking questions such as:
- What is the biggest issue here?
- What needs to be tackled first?
- What bothers you most?
- What seems most interesting?
- What’s the key thing that needs to change?
If asked one of these questions, George might say: “Well, right now the biggest issue is that they never get back to us on time. We send a request for information and it takes ages for them to reply. This causes delays and then they blame us for missing the deadlines!”
At the beginning of the conversation, George is clearly stuck. He focuses on the problem instead of the potential solution. He talks about what he doesn’t want to happen, instead of what he wants to happen. And he has no idea how to move forward.
To get him unstuck, you need to shift his attention away from the problem and towards the desired change – his aspiration. To achieve that, you can ask:
- So what would you like to happen here?
- How would you like things to change?
- What would an ideal situation look like?
- What would happen in the ideal world?
In response to one of these questions, George might say: “I’d like them to send us all the necessary specs at least two weeks before the deadline. This way we could feed them into the system and generate results on time.”
Now that George is focused on what he wants to happen (instead of what he doesn’t want), it’s time to prompt him to think of what’s within his control and what action he can take to accomplish his aspirations. This will probably involve a shift of focus for George – up to now he might have been focusing on what others should change. Now he starts reflecting on what he can do differently.
The types of questions helpful here are:
- So, what can you do differently to get that result?
- What seems to be the best course of action for you to achieve that?
- What can you try to do to make it happen?
Reflecting on one of these questions, George might say: “I guess I could talk to their project manager and explain what problems their lack of response is causing us. I could also ask for specs a bit earlier and then follow-up with them more often.”
The main point of following the i-ZAP sequence is to get George unstuck. We help him shift his mental energy and redirect it from the vicious circle of complaining and frustration towards the virtuous one of taking ownership and seeking solutions. It would be unrealistic to expect that problems will get solved in two minutes. However, it’s entirely feasible to create the momentum necessary to actively start moving towards the desired outcomes. And this is what good coaching is all about.
Garvin, David A., Alison Berkley Wagonfeld, and Liz Kind. “Google’s Project Oxygen: Do Managers Matter?” Harvard Business School Case 313-110, April 2013. (Revised October 2013.)
Hicks, R., & McCracken, J. (2013). Popcorn coaching. Physician Executive, 39(1), 85–87.
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