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February 1, 2019

3 things I learned from coaching

Bruna Martinuzzi

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However, one thing that we don't often address is the inspiration that we, as coaches, get back from our clients. Over the years, those I have coached have helped me to gain a greater understanding of human behavior. In doing this, coaching has also helped me to grow as a person.

I have learned that, if we allow ourselves to be open to learning, and to approach people with a sense of curiosity, we can absorb their experiences and life lessons. This, in turn can teach us a great deal about self-management and self-leadership. Of the many lessons about workplace relationships that my clients have taught me, three stand out.

Three lessons from being a coach

1. Know your blind spots

One of my coaching clients was an administrative manager who prided himself on his exceptional organizational skills. Let's call him Gordon. Gordon's problem was that he felt his direct reports didn't like him much, and even resented him. His boss sent him to me for remedial coaching. Gordon was concerned that his relationship with his direct reports could negatively impact his opportunities for promotion.

He thought his people felt that he expected too much of them. In delving deeper and examining the incidents that had troubled him, I noticed a pattern. I assigned an exercise to him. I told him to ask his most trusted direct report the following question, "What is one thing I do as your supervisor that might hinder you from doing your best work?" The exercise proved to be an eye-opener.

The following week, Gordon reported that he had asked not one but four of his direct reports the same question. He summed up their answers this way: they all thought that he was a nitpicker. Gordon saw himself as a person with exceptional attention to detail. However, others experienced him as a manager who found fault everywhere he looked. This demotivated people and made them look bad. And Gordon had failed to see the impact that his behaviour had on people.

Gordon's case illustrates that our gifts taken to the extreme can become liabilities. His exaggerated attention to detail drove everyone crazy and made them feel diminished. Unfortunately, Gordon had lacked the self-awareness to see how one of his strengths derailed him.

Beware your strengths! How can you become aware of your blind spots as a leader? A simple way is to ask those you lead. Research by leadership experts James Kouzes and Barry Posner, based on more than two million survey questionnaires, revealed 30 behaviors that leaders practised when they performed at their best. One of these behaviors is: I ask for feedback on how my actions affect other people's performance."

2. Don't burn your bridges

While coaching, I've worked with many individuals who were laid off due to restructuring, takeovers, mergers, company relocations, bankruptcies, and other strategic imperatives. More than one situation involved mass layoffs. I noticed that affected employees fell into one of three categories:

  • One group remained professional and actively engaged to the end
  • One group was dejected, and seemed to lose all hope
  • A third group was negative, hostile and bitter throughout the process.

Laying people off is a painful process for most managers. In these highly charged emotional situations, those who add fuel to the fire with negative behaviors leave an indelible mark on everyone around them. What we see first, and what we remember last, is how a person reacts to unpleasant news.

It's easy to be professional when things go well, but the measure of a man or woman is how they act in the face of adversity. Exiting a job with grace is not only the right thing to do, but it's also the smart thing to do. One of the incidents I remember involved a woman who was a highly capable employee, but who lacked self-awareness and political savvy core skills for any manager.

This woman, let's call her Soraya, had been difficult during the separation process. She openly telegraphed her lack of trust by abrasively questioning every small detail in her separation package. Unlike her colleagues in the same situation, she made no effort to inform the department of upcoming deadlines or to delegate unfinished work to others. She showed thinly veiled contempt for her manager, refusing even to shake hands when he extended his hand to wish her the best.

Sometime later, the company was able to rehire some of the laid off staff. Soraya called to express an interest in coming back. When I spoke to her manager, he refused, and the company rehired some of her more more amicable, if less capable colleagues, instead. Burning bridges can be an expensive, irrevocable act!

3. Be aware of your habitual thoughts

Lucia was a legal assistant who came to see me for career advice. She had just quit a job she loved because of interpersonal problems with others at work. She decided to take up long-term contract work for a while, to avoid, as she put it "being mired in office politics."

In her new position, she complained to me about various people. Soon after, Lucia decided to leave and take up another contract elsewhere. She liked the pay, the short commute, and the elegance of the office. However, there were problems with people there as well. "Sooner or later," she confided during a coaching session, "people let you down. They will do something to hurt your feelings."

When prodded to give details, she described infractions in social behaviour that we all encounter at one time or other, in the course of our life - for example, criticism, rudeness, a cold demeanor, gossip, or indifference. Most people learn to control their emotions when faced with such behaviors.

However, this was not easy for Lucia. It soon became clear that she was unable to appreciate the positives, and could only focus on the negatives in her work situations. "The mind," wrote Milton, "is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven." We are responsible for how we interpret and adjust to our environments.

We notice what we're on the lookout for. If we look for roadblocks in life, we'll find them. And to paraphrase Milton, hell can be in any environment if we carry hell within us. How can we manage our negativity bias? One way is to be more mindful of our habitual way of thinking.

Working on understanding the inner workings of our brain can help us to improve our self-knowledge. Self-knowledge precedes self-management. Catch yourself when you start to focus on the negatives and to ignore the positives!

What are good coaching techniques?

Being open to receiving inspiration from my clients' experiences has been comparable to the Zen Buddhist concept of approaching others with the "beginner's mind." It's about letting go of the need to appear as an expert. It's about shedding preconceived expectations that might push us to look only for what validates our thinking.

The three stories I share above are examples of many similar situations I came across in my coaching practice. What these three stories have in common is the importance of raising our self-awareness to see how we come across to others and strengthening our ability to manage our emotions.

At the core of career success is the positive relationship we have with the people we work with. Cultivating and nurturing bonds in our work relationships and playing well with others are the cornerstones of success.

Perhaps Theodore Roosevelt put it best, "The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people."

What inspiration have you found from other people's experiences, or from unexpected sources?

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