Strengths Coaching Blog

Friday, January 18, 2013

Confronting Biases As Coaches

By Ryan Darby, Gallup Learning and Development Consultant

Have you ever coached an individual who just doesn’t get it? Can you see the perfect solution to her problems, but no matter how you explain it, she just doesn’t change or see the value in changing? This can be one of the most frustrating experiences for a coach. New coaches stay up late thinking about how to get through to such clients. Veteran coaches have learned better -- they stay up late laughing with other veteran coaches about such clients. Sadly, very few coaches have entertained the notion that, perhaps, the client is not the problem. Perhaps, the problem is the coach. 

One of the great truths of successful strengths coaching is that it depends upon self-awareness -- yours and your clients’. Most coaches intuitively understand that self-awareness is vital for their clients. What many coaches fail to understand is that this same principle applies to themselves and their own path to success. Many coaches are limited by their own lack of self-awareness. Where I most frequently see this failure is in confronting their own biases -- confronting those thoughts, feelings, or behaviors that keep one from being completely objective with clients. For example, some coaches put more effort into coaching relationships with senior leaders than with entry-level employees. Others are too inflexible in their coaching; they coach to their agenda or script rather than to the needs of their clients. Coaching biases can take many forms. The most common biases for strengths coaches are what I call: 1) the fallacy of expertise, and 2) talent favoritism.

The fallacy of expertise typically occurs when an experienced individual or a subject matter expert interacts with a novice. Because these experts have a breadth of knowledge and experience to draw upon, they assume that their perspective is the most accurate. And because novices do not have the same expertise, their ideas are generally disregarded. Their thoughts and feelings just do not have the same value as the experts’. In a coaching relationship, the fallacy of expertise is fatal because it produces nothing but psychological reactance. Clients that feel this condescension from their coach will bottle up, stop sharing, refuse to change, and eventually terminate the relationship. Ironically, the true expert in the coaching relationship is not the coach, it is the client. Who knows more about the client than the client herself? She is literally the world’s expert on her life.

There is no simple cure to the fallacy of expertise, but stopping it starts with a little dose of self-awareness. Honestly ask yourself the following questions: Do you find yourself talking more than your clients? Do you tell your clients what to do, or do you let your clients find their own solutions? Are you frustrated that they just aren’t listening to you? If more often than not, your answer is “yes” to these questions, I would encourage you to stop, take a breath, and listen. Be completely present to what your client is thinking, feeling, and saying. And remember who the real expert really is.

While not as damaging as the fallacy of expertise, talent favoritism limits a coach’s ability to positively impact a client. Talent favoritism happens when some talents are given preference over others. Essentially, coaches have a set of “favorite themes” that they help their clients to leverage for success, and a set of “ugly themes” that they help their clients manage to avoid failure.

While many people will deny experiencing talent favoritism, it is a pervasive bias and most of us fall prey to it without even knowing. Like curing the fallacy of expertise, in order to prevent talent favoritism, you need to become aware of its possible influence over you. To see which talents you favor, take some time to review the 34 themes of talent. What is the first thing you think when you look at each talent theme? What feelings does each talent theme elicit? If you could make one recommendation to that person, what would it be? When you are done, you’ll likely see that there are some that are, as my daughter says, “more favorite” than others. Once you know which talents are less favorite, take some time and interview, not coach, some people with those themes. Find out how they use those themes to be successful by asking: What makes that theme great? Why do you love it? How does it help you in your work, your relationships, and your life in general? The more you come to appreciate the positive aspects of every talent theme, the more capable you are of helping your clients leverage their unique themes -- whether they are your favorites or not.

In the end, one of the best ways to help a client “get it” will be to “get it” yourself. When you confront the biases that hold you back as a coach, you set yourself -- and your clients -- on the path to success.

Dr. Ryan Darby is one of Gallup’s leading Learning and Development Consultants. He works with the world’s top organizations to transform their corporate cultures into engaging and thriving workplaces. Darby has a doctorate in psychology from the University of California, San Diego, and a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University. His academic expertise and publications are on the influence of emotions on decision-making and behavior. He currently lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and daughter.

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