What does Coaching for Performance actually mean?

Written by Matt Somers on . Posted in Coaching principles


What does Coaching for Performance actually mean?In my last few posts I’ve suggested our job as coaching managers is to convert as much potential as possible into performance, but of course performance means different things to different people. An actor will have a different view to an athlete and a team leader may have a different view to a team member when it comes to defining performance.

Work based performance

In the world of work it seems that performance usually amounts to being about one of five things:

  • Increasing revenue – sales or other income streams
  • Providing an excellent service
  • Reducing cost
  • Increasing or maintaining quality
  • Reducing time, e.g. in production lines or in bringing a new product to market

Each of these areas of performance can improve as a result of effective coaching, and often coaching is sought because things aren’t going well in some of these areas. But these very broad areas of work performance are really outcomes, i.e. the results and consequences of people’s ability to perform in a host of other areas, increasing personal productivity, increasing team productivity, generating leads and opportunities, making presentations, managing performance, and so the list goes on.

As coaches we need to be sure we have an agreed understanding with our coachees of what performance actually means in their role and how we would know if it had been improved. Also, if we want to establish a strong business case for coaching and measure its success then having a clearly defined and shared interpretation of performance is absolutely vital.

The gap between potential and performance

Living in the real world, one thing is certain: there will always be a gap between potential and performance (life wouldn’t be much fun if there wasn’t) and we need to look at ways of closing the gap so that more potential is converted into performance.

In the same way that we need to think carefully about judging potential and defining performance, we need also to recognise that the gap between the two could exist for a variety of reasons and there could be different ways of closing the gap.

Suppose you have a member of your team whose job it is to produce the monthly sales figures. This they do by using the table function in a word processing programme. Unfortunately, this programme does not have the flexibility to produce the ratios and percentages that you need to really understand whether sales are going well or not.

In terms of performance you need a detailed analysis and in terms of potential we can assume that as your team member can find their way around the word processing package they’d have the potential to use other similar programmes.

The performance gap here is to do with knowledge. If they knew how to use a spreadsheet programme they’d be able to produce a more useful set of monthly sales figures.

Such a performance gap is also straightforward to fill. Find a course or a web-based package that teaches how to use the spreadsheet programme and away you go. Simple.

Now suppose you have team member whose job it is to handle customer complaints. This they do in accordance with your organisation’s policy and procedures but always with a slightly abrasive edge. They have had all the necessary training and up until recently were one of your best performers on complaint handling. Lately though there seems to have been an increase in escalated complaints and other team members are getting tired of having to sweep up.

Here the performance gap is much less obvious and unlikely to be closed by sending your team member on refresher training. In fact, that would just make things worse. The gap here is a subtle one concerning attitude or state of mind and needs a similarly subtle response.

In these situations we need to recognise that the gap between potential and performance doesn’t need filling it needs shrinking. In other words, we need to remove the things that interfere with potential being converted into high performance.

In his Inner Game series, coaching pioneer Tim Gallwey neatly expresses this idea as an equation:

PERFORMANCE = Potential – interference

And we’ll pick up on this next time.

Self-fulfilling prophecies and why they matter when coaching

Written by Matt Somers on . Posted in Coaching principles

Self-fulfilling prophecies and why they matter when coachingResearchers refer to three kinds of self-fulfilling prophecy, one of which creates a negative result.

The Galatea effect

The Galatea effect refers to self-belief, the idea that if you believe you can succeed you will. High-performers in any field and blessed with strong self-belief. They trust themselves to succeed, take an optimistic view of most situations and see ‘failures’ as learning opportunities.

When coaching someone over the long term you’ll almost certainly want to help people access this state of mind, but it may take some time and patience if they’re carrying a lot of negative baggage. In which case the second kind of self-fulfilling prophecy may be useful.

The Pygmalion effect

The Pygmalion effect describes the notion of believing in others’ ability to such an extent that they begin to believe in it themselves. In George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, Professor Henry Higgins is able to pass off flower girl Eliza Doolittle as a duchess through a combination of appropriate training and, more importantly an unwavering belief that she could succeed.

In his book The New Alchemists, Charles Handy examined the key attributes of successful business and social entrepreneurs. Many of the entrepreneurs interviewed spoke of having someone in their background who believed in them no matter what. Handy refers to such people as sewing golden seeds but I think coaching is as good a term as any for describing what they do.

The Golem effect

Finally, we need to be wary of the Golem effect, which like Theory X, suggests that if we expect people to do badly they won’t disappoint.

Some years back whilst I was still working in a bank, a memo arrived explaining that due to the Data Protection Act (or something similar) coming into force we could have a look at our staff files if we wanted to. Previously these had been kept under lock and key and were considered none of our business. I thought it would be great to find out what had been written about me at appraisal interviews and so on down the years, so I responded to the memo and arranged to look at the file. Most of the content was boring stuff but there at the bottom of the file were my original interview notes completed at the time of my application as a 15-year-old schoolboy. Most of this sheet was taken up with administrative detail but the interviewer’s comments caught my attention. The final line on the page read: ‘Mr Somers is worth taking on but only as a low-achiever’.

Now, the point of this anecdote is not to suggest that the interviewer was completely wrong and that in fact I went on to set the world of banking on fire because I didn’t. What’s more to the point is to think about the impression such a comment created in the minds of my first managers. It’s likely that I would have been given the most menial tasks being a low-achiever and that any mistakes I made would confirm the view that I was a low achiever. I thank goodness it was more than 10 years before I realised that such a comment had been made or I’d have ended up believing it too!

In short, as coaches we need to take a positive view of people. We need to believe they can before we decide that they can’t. Yes there’s a chance that people might not succeed and we might be disappointed but the alternative is to keep people small, and if we treat people as small, small is how they’ll stay.

A little bit more X and Y

Written by Matt Somers on . Posted in Coaching principles

A little bit more X and YI have written before about Douglas McGregor and his Theory X and Theory Y suppositions about management behaviour. (See My Coaching Philosophy)

According to McGregor, Theory X Managers take the view that people:

  • essentially dislike work and will avoid it all together if possible
  • are motivated only by money or fear
  • need discipline and constant supervision
  • can’t be trusted
  • avoid responsibility
  • lack loyalty and commitment
  • lack creativity – accept in finding ways to avoid work!

Let’s just stop for a moment and consider how a manager would treat people if she held this view. I think it’s likely she would:

  • put tight controls in place to ensure people are working when they should be
  • exercise firm control over all activities and have rigorous reporting procedures in place
  • Define work to a fine level of detail and prescribe precisely how tasks should be carried out
  • remind people often that the organisation pays their wages and how easily they can be replaced

Let’s now think about how people are most likely to react if this is typically how they are treated. I would assume they’ll:

  • do what they need to do to get the job done, but no more
  • resist change
  • refuse to take on extra responsibility without more pay
  • resist at all costs requests to work more flexibly

I can’t imagine that creativity and innovation would flourish in this atmosphere either.

Theory Y managers on the other hand, take the view that people:

  • have psychological as well as economic reasons for working
  • are motivated by achievement, recognition, praise, etc
  • work to their own standards – often higher than the boss’s
  • are totally trustworthy
  • seek responsibility
  • are keen to be loyal and committed
  • are a great source of ideas

How would a manager treat her staff if she believed theory Y to be true? Perhaps she would:

  • Offer praise and encouragement, thanking people publicly for their efforts
  • look for contributions from team members in terms of what needs doing and how it should be done
  • set objectives for the team and then leave them alone to carry them out

Treated this way, I think it’s reasonable to expect that her team would:

  • justify the faith she has shown by getting results
  • put in the extra effort when required
  • take on extra responsibility
  • be loyal in difficult times

Neither of these views is right or wrong and each is clearly quite extreme. Most managers are probably a blend of parts of each and their views will probably change depending on how things are going when you ask them.

The question therefore becomes if neither view is right, wrong or permanent, which view is more useful to us as managers who coach?

Theory Y would seem to offer the greatest scope for achieving improved results because of a concept known as the self-fulfilling prophecy. As we saw above, if we treat people as if Theory X were true they will tend to behave in a way which reinforces that belief. The same is true for Theory Y.

More on this next time.