External Interference and the problems it causes in coaching

Written by Matt Somers on . Posted in Coaching principles

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External Interference and the problems it causes in coachingIn my last post I introduced Tim Gallwey’s simple equation for coaching for performance:

POTENTIAL  = Potential – Interference

Previous posts have dealt with definitions for potential and performance so let’s now turn our sights on interference.

Let’s talk firstly about what I call external interference. By this I mean the things that go on around us at work which may make it difficult for us to work near to our potential. Once again we’ll refer firstly to a typical list of such things produced by the many people I have asked to consider them:

  • Management
  • Restrictive policies and procedures
  • Blame culture
  • Ideas not accepted
  • Lack of opportunity

Let’s deal with each of these in turn.


Now how’s that for irony? We, the very people who are supposed to mobilise the abilities of people at work are seen as actually getting in the way. This seems to be due to the prevalence of Theory X thinking amongst the management ranks. This style of thinking and subsequent behaviour is perpetuated by a lack of alternative role models. I remember once attending a meeting to discuss the possibilities of implementing a coaching programme for a prospective client. After the usual small talk his opening line was ‘Well I’ve brought you here because I used to get them working by shouting at them, but apparently you can’t do that anymore’ Well, shout at people all you want but is this really how we’re going to tap into their discretionary effort?

Restrictive policies and procedures

 Obviously places of work need rules and systems and to establish acceptable practices. Without them there would be anarchy. But in these times when competitive pressures are increasing the need for people to work with their imagination and to think creatively such rules can be overdone. This is not restricted to obviously creative endeavours like marketing or advertising. From the factory floor to the retail sales floor we need people to be able to take action and make things happen particularly if directly involved with customers. So many practices from signing-in sheets to six-page expenses claim forms seem to be there because of a lack of trust in the workforce. Why would any organisation employ people it can’t trust?

Blame culture

 What happens in your organisation when things go wrong? Is judicious risk taking extolled in the business plan and then utterly condemned in practice? Against this background is it any wonder that people keep themselves small, safely tucked up in their comfort zones and keeping their ideas to themselves?

Ideas not accepted

 On a similar note, what happens in your organisation when somebody has a good idea? Is there a means to capture ideas, to nurture them and let them grow, or are they left to wither on the vine choked by and endless stream of position papers, inception reports or suggestion scheme submissions.

This factor is exacerbated the greater the distance on the hierarchy between those who generate ideas and those who can chose to act upon them. It is once again ironic that in most structures it is the former who are closest to the customers and that latter who are many steps removed.

Lack of opportunity

 This can come in many guises. Perhaps you’ve got great potential but because you weren’t hired on a graduate intake stream you are barred from applying for the top jobs. Perhaps your circumstances make it difficult to attend the training programmes you’d need to progress. Perhaps you’re too young or too old, too black or too white, under qualified, overqualified, inexperienced or over experienced, a female in a male dominated set-up or vice versa. Even today there are so many discriminations that still prevail, despite the efforts of many to eliminate them. The simple truth is that it is clearly nonsense for any organisation to deny itself access to talent wherever it may lie.

These are but examples of common sources of external interference and I realise many of you reading this will have limited ability to influence them in your own organisations, Nevertheless, I would encourage you to grasp any opportunity to examine these areas to see whether they encourage or discourage high performance and make changes where you can.

We must accept that some of the issues we’ve spoken about in this section are a necessary part of the fabric of working life. In many ways its people’s reaction to them that is more crucial and that is what we’ll consider next.

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.