How to tell if someone should NOT be your coach

Unhappy male coachee listening to an executive coach give advice. Frustrated client holding a hand to his face.

Coaching has become very popular as organizations face an increasing need for individuals (or groups) to learn and grow more substantially and quickly than ever. Based on favorable if scarce evidence supporting the effectiveness of coaching not presented here, coaching should be given serious consideration as a key component of any organization’s talent management strategy. But, as is the case with anything powerful, you have to be careful with coaching engagements, or you can get hurt – badly. Because there is no "one best way" to coaching, there’s considerable risk of engaging the wrong person as a coach. And I'll be the first to say you can’t judge a coach by their title (or solely based on published credentials). The best of well-intended sponsors/buyers/users of coaching services are at risk of making a mistake before the coach even gets started. Here, I share some of the key ways for you to know when someone should NOT be your coach.

  1. They overlook ethical matters. This may seem obvious, but it’s much more complicated -- and risky -- than most think. Ethical issues abound in any situation where personal assessments are made, but they’re especially prevalent in coaching. Key questions must be addressed: What’s in-bounds/out-of-bounds? How will data be collected and shared? What happens next?

Coaching is extraordinarily powerful with rightfully high expectations since it isn’t cheap. There’s a lot of pressure that can lead to shortcuts or, kindly put, bad judgment. But individual and organizational “lives” are at stake. You need to engage someone well-versed in the substantial ethical issues that are a part of all coaching engagements – however formal.

  1. They get the role wrong. An executive coach is NOT;

a. Colleague – Your coach (by “your coach,” I mean the coach you engage) may be someone from within your organization, but they shouldn’t work directly with the coachee. It’s hard for a coachee to confide in someone that’s already close enough to have preconceptions or may affect the coachee’s fate “back on the job.” Using a colleague as coach has its place, but I advise against it for the majority of situations. A number of bad outcomes can occur for both coach and coachee when the two already work together.

b. Vendor – Assessment tools, for example, are a big part of coaching. Your coach shouldn’t be indefensibly partial about what assessments or other “coachware” they use. There’s more than one personality test, believe me. Check twice if the coach markets their tools exclusively. You want someone who knows a range of tools and how they work (i.e., their psychometrics).

c. TrainerCorporate trainers are specifically skilled at building and transferring new skills. While this may be a part of what an effective coach does, it’s rarely the “main course.” The coaching context simply isn’t right for a blog-standard training approach. For example, coaches build closer (i.e., deeper trusting) relationships based on coachee-centered discourse and need. (But note mistake 2d, immediately below)

d. Friend – Your coach isn’t meant to be or become the coachee’s friend, but this is a significant risk in with considerable “gray area.” A coach is expected to be friendly (i.e., “nice”), in fact this is key to building a trusting relationship, but boundaries MUST BE established and maintained between the two. Beyond the professional conflict that can arise when coach and coachee become close friends, the potential exists for much more serious ethical conflicts with life-changing psychological and legal consequences. Because of the highly sensitive interpersonal dynamic that emerges when self-disclosure to an authority figure is involved, the stage is set for transference. This is a catastrophic – about as bad as it gets. Any inappropriate relations must be managed swiftly and surely. If there’s any suspicion that an inappropriate relationship is forming, you should end the coaching engagement. Immediately! Full stop. This is no time to be bashful. {Respecting all caution, it is okay, even expected, for your coach to use friendly behavior. But they must not cross ethical boundaries that are much more critical for a coach than they are for others, e.g., a colleague (but they are important here, too.}

e. Boss – Again, bosses (possibly, you) aren’t excluded from coaching, they’re actually expected to coach. But bosses need to “stay in their lane.” In all likelihood the boss has had a role in the calling for the need of a coach in the first place. Boss’ never get the same story that an outsider can. I hope the reasons are obvious.

f. Short-order cook – Your coach shouldn’t be overly concerned with accommodating the coachee’s every need. Here again, the temptation of the coach is to give what is asked for, after all, that’s service, right? Wrong. What a coachee wants isn’t always what they need, in fact it’s exceptional when it is. A good coach knows when to accommodate, when to resist and when to suggest otherwise. They must maintain control of the relationship.

g. Subject matter expert (SME) – A coach is not an expert in the specific, technical/functional aspects of the coachee’s current or future job. That’s what a mentor is, and the skillsets are very different. Mentors impart organizational wisdom and job-related instruction. Coaches work with the coachee to evoke more general insights and lay plans for action and follow-up.

h. Messenger – This is a BIG one. (and shouldn't be 'h') It’s imperative that the coach not only be able to make an accurate assessment, they must be permitted to do so. Using a coach to provide feedback is cowardly and ineffective. On a personally relevant note, coaching as a profession and trade is tainted by this unsavory tactic. Don’t do this. At minimum, it will destroy trust.

  1. They didn’t adequately address objectivity.

A common challenge when engaging a coach is insuring objectivity. A good coach can’t be influenced by demands, information or circumstances. Being objective isn’t necessarily about having unrelated, or no prior involvement with the coaching party (i.e., coachee, sponsor, others involved) – it’s about being able to set aside circumstantial information when necessary for the good of a professional engagement. It’s being a trusted expert.

Beyond being objective, the coach must be perceived as objective. As I’ve mentioned, it isn’t impossible, but it is rare, to find a coach- and role-appropriate level of objectivity when considering internal coaches. But internal coaches frequently have too much history with the coachee for to be adequately insulated from the organization’s dynamics. The type of relationship an internal coach builds is almost always different from that of an external coach; the reason is objectivity.

When I have worked as an internal consultant, I’ve never taken on the role of executive coach – with one exception. That was a job in which I practically worked as an outside consultant and had no exposure to the coachee. The likelihood of a conflict of interest jeopardizing objectivity is especially risky for folks in HR. You can’t expect a coachee to share their deepest work-related concerns when they know, or think, that their “confidante” is about to run off and determine their pay. Even though conflicts are a risk for external coaches, handling deeply sensitive and personal discussions is one of the main tasks of the coach and vital to building trust.

{Oftentimes a coach does have a say in the coachee’s fate. In these cases, it’s imperative to respect boundaries and to have a comprehensive coaching agreement in place. The coachee needs to know and formally agree what they’re getting into.}

  1. They didn’t engage an expert in coaching. Coaching requires a plethora of specialized skills. SOME of these include:
    • Executive assessment
    • Psychometrics
    • Individual counseling
    • Leadership development
    • Ethical matters of individual assessment, specifically in organizations
    • Learning and development
    • Organization behavior
    • Organization development and effectiveness
    • Succession planning

This is just a partial list and doctoral degrees are conferred for each of these requirements. Every coaching engagement is unique and requires the coach to adapt in ways that optimize the engagement. True experts are more than a “one horse show” and can adjust seamlessly and effectively.

All of these mistakes need to be avoided in order for a professional and trusted coach-coachee engagement to exist. Without any one of these, it may be more than a professional lapse of judgment - you could have a real crisis on your hands.

...Thought you should know…

What your Personality Test Report says about You

Business man's hand plotting people's personality test report scores on a grid

People are frequently amazed at the accuracy of their personality test report. These reports can be powerfully enlightening as they describe an individual’s tendencies and character traits from what appears to be an objective point of view. When given the opportunity to review their report, I haven’t had one person defer. Everyone wants to know what their report says about them – whether they agree with it or not.

But sometimes personality test results are misleading and of no use at all. And it happens more often than you’d think.

In an experiment with college sophomores, a traditional favorite for academic researchers, the accuracy of personality tests was put to its own test. Following completion and scoring of a personality test given to all of the students in the class, the researcher asked for a show of hands from those for whom the test report accurately described them. A sizeable majority of hands went up – the report was an accurate depiction. There’s one thing they didn’t know:

Everyone got exactly the same report.

Yep. {I wish I’d thought of this first.}

Despite everyone completing the test in their personally distinctive manner, only one report was copied and distributed to the entire class of subjects. No matter how similar you may think college sophomores are, they’re not so identical as to yield precisely identical personality profiles. But still, a “J. Doe” report was viewed as a perfect fit to most. How does this happen?

Take a read of one of your personality test results. If you’re like most, you’ve completed several of these assessments and probably still have a report or two laying around. When reading your report take note of the following indicators of BS reports:

  1. Conditional Statements: The number of times the words “may,” “might,” “sometimes” show up

Example: “You may be unsure of yourself in a group.”

How “may?” Like, maybe, “90% unsure”, or “maybe completely confident?” The reader typically fills in this blank unwittingly giving the report a “pass.”

  1. Compensatory Observations: The number of times opposing behaviors are presented next to each other

Example: “You have a hard time sharing your feelings in a group. However, with the right group you find it refreshing to get your emotions ‘off your chest.’”

So which are you? A paranoid prepper? Or a chest pounding demonstrator? Either one of these opposing types could fit by this example.

  1. General Statements: The specificity of the descriptions, or lack thereof

Example: “You maintain only a few close friends.”

This statement is pretty much true by definition. It’s certainly up for interpretation such that it is befitting for all.

  1. Differentiating Statements: {fewer is worse} The uniqueness of the descriptions.

Example: “Privately, you feel under qualified for the things others consider you to be expert at.”

The lack of differentiating statements is not exactly the same as making general statements. A specific statement may not be differentiating. The above example is specific, but not distinctive as a fairly large percentage of people do feel under qualified for even their profession.

The point is, anyone can be right when they:

  1. Speak in couched probabilities,
  2. about “both-or” samples of a given behavior,
  3. in very general terms,
  4. about things that many people experience.

These four “hacks” provide all the latitude needed for ANY report to make you think it has “nailed you.”

Beyond these tactics, many give too much credit to the personality test. Frequently reports are simply feeding you back EXACTLY what you put in via your responses. For example, the item, “I like to organize things” may show up in a report as, “You like to organize things.” There were probably more than a hundred items on the test – you probably don’t remember every response you made for every item.

Another way folks give too much credit to the personality test is by holding the belief that the instrument should be right. Beyond your general position on the validity of personality tests, publishers have various tactics to make the test report more "scientific."

  1. Lots of statistics
  2. Lots of figures
  3. Distinguished endorsers
  4. Techno-babble

None of these things may have anything to do with the actual validity of the test. But research shows these things enhance people’s opinion of its validity.

What’s a good report look like?

  1. Good reports take a point of view. They provide specific summaries of behavioral style that really are uniquely you. If you gave the report to a friend and told them this was their report, they’d honestly say that it doesn’t accurately depict them – even if the two of you are inseparable. Fit is determined by both accommodation and exclusion. A good report speaks to you and no one else.
  2. Better reports don’t provide any narrative at all. They simply provide normative scores on the various dimensions (i.e., characteristic behaviors) covered by the test. This type of report allows an expert to interpret the full spectrum of dimensions in the broader context. Good interpreters know what to look for in terms of how the dimensions interact with each other and can further specify the evaluation with just a bit of extra information on the respondent. This does not mean that they already know the subject. It may be as little as knowing why or when the person completed the assessment.
  3. Great reports present just the facts. The report is a fairly straightforward summary of your responses, organized by dimension (trait) and compared to a group of others’ responses/scores. Better still, great reports provide more than one score per dimension, or the average. They also give some indication of the variations in responses by dimension. This allows the interpreter to know just how confident a given score is. No variance = high confidence. Wide variance = low confidence.

So, what does your report really say about you? Depending on the factors I’ve outlined – it may say nothing at all (or worse).

It really helps to know some of this stuff.

Want to stay ahead of machines? Think like a four-year old.

I was surprised, and disappointed, that the 2016 presidential debates never addressed the explosive growth of technology. Nothing. National borders, the economy, the environment, ethical behavior, etc. Same deck of cards. All important; none as imminently disruptive as the proliferation of technology. It would have comforted millions to hear candidates say, “Here’s what I will do to protect your job from technology.” But it wasn’t mentioned. Technology was summarily avoided like a port-o-pot with a moist seat; you just don’t go there.

I believe the candidates and networks/discussants worked out a deal to keep the topic out of bounds. Why?

Because technology is rapidly becoming more ubiquitous, unpredictable and disruptive than we thought. Restated in candidate speak, “It’s about the technology, Stupids.”

It absolutely amazes me to understand how one can run a campaign on job growth without addressing technology? News break: Undocumented immigrants, offshoring production and bad international trade agreements aren’t taking jobs. Technology is.

Culture may eat strategy for breakfast. Technology eats whatever it wants.

And one of its favorite appetizers is your job. Continue reading “Want to stay ahead of machines? Think like a four-year old.”

This simple hack* will reduce stress and improve health

Smiley face to reduce your stress

Most {known} psychological research confirms what people already know. Yep. Most psychological research could receive the “No-duh”  vs. the “Nobel” award. Beyond the obvious, others are obtuse. Good luck with their titles, less the method (that consumes most of the article. But sometimes something else happens. Here, I share a study, well done AND revealing; useful for everyday application. This research yields a simple exercise that, if done, WILL reduce stress and improve your health.

I’ve offered tips to manage mood and to reduce stress before: 3 (easy) office tips to enhance your influence, 3 Surprising Motivation Killers and a couple more. But I must confess that these “tips” are mostly the result of personal experience or general knowledge acquired from multiple sources.

This is different. Or as Dorothy so astutely mentions to Toto in The Wizard of Oz, “… we’re not in Kansas anymore.” (Scariest movie I’ve ever seen…)

Although most research reveals the obvious, what’s surprising is what we do (or don’t do) with this obvious information. Just to check me, I bet you can’t think of three things off the top of your head that would make you or someone else a better person.

You did, didn’t you? (smirk)

No kidding: Why haven’t you done them? If you have, why aren’t you still doing them?

You’re probably wondering, “why is Chris shooting himself in the foot?” It kinda sounds like he’s “giving up” his own profession; “psychological research is unsurprising and insignificant.”

Not quite.

One doesn’t fold with a straight flush, and I wouldn’t with a pair of aces (or would I?). I’ve come too far (and learned too much) to give in now.

Most of you will see through my thinly veiled attempt to entice and titillate as an effort to stir up your emotions. (Not sorry)

Beyond the sarcasm, pointing this out to you is making you even more emotional, even a bit demeaned. (Still, not sorry)

There’s an old saying in psychology, “All’s fair that changes behavior the way we want.” (Well, that’s what it should say.)

No. I’m no martyr. Not at all. I’m “the Fool.”

Here, I re-present one of many findings from I-O psychology that, if applied, would help so many. But it’s buried in an academic journal that few will notice. (I won’t mention it’s not even a journal of psychology, but that’s another story.)

Per Issac Newton, … “a body at rest remains at rest unless acted upon by a force.”

Transferring to psychology, human-kind is a pretty big, “body.” Consider this, “the force.”

What follows is solid I-O psychology research with implications that can really make a difference.

Now that I hope to have gained your attention, here’s the simple activity that will make you happier and healthier:

At the end of every day, write down three (3) good things that happened and why they did.

That’s it. Easy as Pi. (What does that mean, anyway?)

Really?

Yes, that’s it. Record and reflect on three good things that happened. Your spirits will lift and your blood pressure will drop. You can reduce stress. Measure it.

Bono, Glomb, Shen, Kim and Koch. 2013. “Building Positive Resources: Effects of Positive Events and Positive Reflection on Work Stress and Health.” Academy of Management Journal, 56: 1601-1627.

Don’t get me started on why this isn’t published in a journal known for PSYCHOLOGY!

Just get on with it. Prove me wrong.

  • Yes. I am cool because I used the word “hack” vs. “tactic.”

Ready or Prepared? Which would you rather be?

This may sound like another corny, semantically twisted question. It’s not and I’ll show you why.

Before I do this, I need to justify the legitimacy of even posing this seemingly convoluted question.

The Power of Choice

Team building games aside, most people really do think ‘within the box’. Traditional education systems and work environments offer more frequent and obvious rewards to folks who solve problems as presented, rather than in a completely unrelated way. By this I mean that most tend to address open issues (note, “open”) with convergent problem solving skills so as to “close” the issue. We work within the information given/available to converge on the correct answer.

This fact is why people, when given a choice between a closed set of options, will almost always pick one. It’s the customary and obvious thing to do. Work with what you have, multiple choice, “I get it”. Sure, we all do.

When I pose the question, “Would you rather be ready, or prepared?”, most of the time people really do choose one or the other – corny as the question may sound.

Sidebar: If you’re a little bit devilish, you can test the power of {closed} choice yourself. On Halloween, offer one goblin, your “subject”, one of two unsavory options, e.g., a carrot or a stick of celery. With 90% certainty, I can guarantee the poor goblin will choose between the two. (Before their escort invites their self into your home, grab the candy bowl).

That’s what we do. We choose from what’s offered.

But there’s more….

Continue reading “Ready or Prepared? Which would you rather be?”

Three memory tips that will dramatically improve your recall

Think about it. When you’re confronted by someone else, or even yourself, about how you could have forgotten to bring home the memo-pad (for list making, obviously), what is it that you really forgot? Did you stop in the moment and struggle to recall a specific item that you or another had previously reminded you about? Did you think this was so obvious that you couldn’t POSSIBLY forget it?

Or, did you simply forget to remember?

Continue reading “Three memory tips that will dramatically improve your recall”