Why Advice Doesn’t Work

More and more managers and even non-managerial employees are expected to coach on a regular basis.  Indeed, as a result of the constant change and innovation taking place in most corporations, both managers and execs are often incentivized for coaching their employees.  Many of my client execs tell me that up to half of their time is used for coaching, and the rest oriented to strategic matters, along with some networking and administration.Often, however, the coaching takes the form of advice that is so abstract that it’s difficult, if not impossible to use.  Consider these recommendations:”If you want to avoid the financial debacles of the past, hire the best people, ensure they are people of integrity, and that will enable you to avoid those problems in the future.”What are the characteristics of the best people?  What means will enable one to ensure they are people of integrity?  How would one recognize them?””You really need to improve your team skills.  Your team hasn’t made a significant decision about that problem in the past month.”What team skills need to be improved?  How will he go about improving them?  How can he assess his effectiveness in the future?  What’s a significant decision?  How will he know when a decision is significant? “What is it that you’re recommending?  You need to explain in a way that is meaningful.”How does she recognize a meaningful way from a nonmeaningful way?  How does she act to explain in a meaningful way?None of the above illustrations can be implemented accurately.  How can we resolve the “advice syndrome?”  In order for coaching to be implementable, it must contain three important ingredients:It should describe the consequences.  “If you act in such-and-such a manner, the following will happen. . .”
Illustrate the “such and such” manner at two levels.  First, the protocol:  “Ask your questions in ways that don’t intimidate people and raise their defense levels.”  Second, the actual script:  “You said that I needed to preplan my meetings.  What do you think that will do for us?”  Instead of “Why in hell do I need to preplan the obvious?”  Or, “What makes you think you can tell me how to run our meetings?”  Or, “Why should I take time out of my already overplanned life to plan this meeting?”
Include the values that should govern the strategy:  If you ask non-threatening questions, you’ll get better information and keep the communication channels open. Your first response to this approach might be that it will take a lot more time than giving advice.  That’s true.  However, recent studies on coaching emphasize specific and concrete information-giving.  That’s because over the long term you’ll save time and money if you deal with perfomance issues concretely and thoroughly from the get-go.Here are some “questionable” analogies, but I’ve found that they have legs.  When you’re trying to become a more effective coach, think about teaching your puppy new tricks, teaching a six-year-old to ask to be excused from dinner, and to put his plate and utensils in the dishwasher, or teaching a seven-year-old to improve her batting.  As they say in sales, “put the cookies on the lower shelf where everyone can reach them.”   It’s also important to follow through on your coaching and assess the performance of your coachee.  Think about it this way: his performance is a reflection of your performance.  If your coaching was effective, your coachee will reflect that.  His mistakes are often your mistakes.  Coaching is always a two-way street.  At least half the time after coaching someone, you’ll find yourself asking how you could have done a better job.  Was it my original assessment?  Did I break the competency into small enough chunks?  Do I need to use more concrete language?  What doesn’t my coachee understand?  Coaching is not something that can be learned overnite.  It’s a continuous learning experience for all of us.I have had a number of exceptional coaches in my life.  Coaches for skiing, for biking, for running, for singing, for piano playing, for choir conducting, for both team participation and leadership, for consulting and for public speaking.  But one of the finest coaches I’ve ever experienced was a factory “leader” that worked with me between my freshman and sophomore year in college, when I worked in a dirty Detroit factory.  I told this story in a previous post, but since that post has gotten between 15 and 25 hits nearly every day since September 9 and gained a life of its own in the blogosphere, it’s obviously worth retelling.Although I don’t remember his name, I can still see him, a short, wiry, muscular guy.  He swore like a sailor, told more dirty jokes than 50 factory toughs, and teased me mercilessly, but he also sat with me until I’d learned a new task, then came back and watched throughout the day, giving me feedback as needed and letting me know when the work was performed perfectly.  Furthermore, my coach was not an advice-giver, but taught with very specific, concrete, descriptive statements.  Nothing he said was open to ambiguity.  It was always this “f—-ing” part or that “damned” ball bearing.  Inevitably, a couple weeks later he always seemed to have a still more difficult task for me.  I was easily bored, so in spite of his ways, I appreciated the new opportunities.  Today’s research on learning confirms the lesson of small wins that I learned from that “teacher.”  In short, don’t even waste your time on huge gains, take it step by baby step.  FYI:  Mistakes are good, whether you’re the coach or the coachee.  Mike Moran’s book title is spot on: Do it wrong quickly.  We’re liable to learn more from mistakes than from getting something right the first time.
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