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.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Becoming Fluent in the Strengths Language

By Curt Liesveld, Gallup Learning and Development Advanced Consultant

The Clifton StrengthsFinder (CSF) has brought to the world a much needed “language of strengths” and like any other language, fluency comes through a process of learning and usage. I have noticed that CSF users can get stuck at what I call the “vocabulary level” of this strengths language. These users know all of the 34 themes of talent and the definitions for each of those themes, but they continue to see these themes as being isolated and independent constructs that have little to do with one another. You might hear someone at this vocabulary level say something like “I am a Woo,” or “He is an Achiever,” or “You are a Learner.” While these statements are not false, they are over-simplifications and such over-simplifications can lead to unfair and unhelpful stereotyping and labeling.

It is not surprising that strengths practitioners get stuck at the vocabulary level of this strengths language. It reminds me of my first year German class in Junior High where we spent the first few weeks learning the vocabulary: “auf Wiedersehen” was “goodbye”; “Danke” was “thanks”; I especially liked the fact that “wasser” was the word for “water.” This memorization was really quite simple and fun. But things got more difficult after week two as we transitioned from pure word memorization to word integration; that is, figuring out how to fit words together to create meaningful sentences.

Just like knowing a list of German vocabulary words does not make one fluent in German; knowing 34 CSF themes does not make one fluent in the language of strengths. Theme identification is the beginning of the strengths development process, but when we stop there and fail to explore and understand how multiple themes interact with one another, we miss out on the unique chemistry of themes that contribute to the development of human strength. Theme identification must be followed by theme integration. By theme Integration, I mean the fitting together/blending of CSF themes in order to form more complete and effective individuals, partnerships, teams, and organizations.

I am certainly not suggesting that the theme identification phase is not important. Knowing that my five signature themes are Responsibility, Relator, Maximizer, Learner, and Analytical is helpful. These internal and invisible patterns within me now have positive names. Giving something a positive name gives it tangible value. No longer is it something that must remain vague and elusive; it is now observable and real -- something I can own, manage, and develop.

It is much easier to talk about each of our themes individually and that is why we are often tempted to do just that. The problem is that whenever we attempt to describe another person with one word, we end up doing them a disservice. Typically, when we use one word to describe another human being, like “Mary is old,” or “Greg is a GenX,” or “Bill is a man,” we have simplified a person to the point of stereotyping them. No human being is ever just one thing -- be it a gender, an age, a race, or a CSF theme. It is interesting to note that within a person’s five signature themes, there are actually ten unique theme pairs (theme 1 + theme 2, 1+3, 1+4, 1+5, 2+3, 2+4, 2+5, 3+4, 3+5, 4+5) and when considering a person’s top 10 themes, there are actually 45 possible theme combinations. Paying more attention to theme pairs means you can move from simply identifying theme vocabulary to theme integration, which may actually help you to begin to tell a person’s strengths story.

To be perfectly honest, I think some people might be attracted to the CSF and other psychometric tools because they are looking for short-cuts. They want a psychological short-hand that can help them to quickly assess and understand human nature. I fear that when the CSF is used as a developmental short-cut or as psychological short-hand, it may often short-circuit the very developmental process it was created to enhance. In our attempt to clarify and classify human nature we must resist the temptation to over-simplify it. Used correctly, the CSF can help us to understand, appreciate, and develop the diversity, complexity, and versatility of humanity.

(You can learn more about the dynamics of theme integration in Gallup’s Coaching for Individual Performance course.)

Curt Liesveld is an experienced strengths coaching practitioner and educator based out of Gallup's Omaha office. A coauthor of the book Living Your Strengths, Liesveld has played a significant role in bringing a strengths-based focus to churches and faith-based organizations around the world. Liesveld earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He received his master’s degrees in divinity from Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Mich., and in counseling psychology from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

There Is a Connection Between Strengths and Wellbeing

By Scot Caldwell, Gallup Learning and Design Consultant

There are many reasons why a person seeks out a strengths coach: the start of a new career, to enhance capabilities, to achieve specific goals, to grow or improve partnerships, to face a significant challenge, to improve his or her situation at home -- to name a few. The reasons are as diverse as each individual person, but there is a common thread: People are drawn to coaches because they want to better themselves.

As a coach, you want to help your clients create strategies and solutions that will allow them to learn, grow, develop, and in the process -- succeed.

Gallup has been studying human behavior for decades, and all of its research suggests there is no better place to start than by helping clients become aware of and experience success through more thoughtful application of their talents and strengths.

In his post “Oh. . . I’m a Woo!” (Monday, Nov. 19, 2012), Ryan Darby described the awakening he had when he first saw his strengths profile: “It was not until I took the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment that I finally saw this pattern and understood what was happening.” The discovery of his strengths gave him the insight and self-awareness to make changes in his life to improve his engagement and wellbeing.

When people work outside of their zone of strength, they are quite simply different people. When they are not able to use their strengths, and do what they do best, chances are they will have more negative than positive interactions with their colleagues, fewer positive and creative moments, fewer achievements, and even treat those around them poorly.

In stark contrast, Gallup studies indicate that people who DO have the opportunity to focus on their strengths every day are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life in general.

Those are real numbers that have very real ramifications on the health and wellbeing of a person.

When we have an opportunity to do what we do best, we act with more confidence, direction, and hope -- attributes that everyone needs to be successful.

I think there is a simple explanation for this:

There is a strong connection between who people are and what they do best; what people do best and how they feel; how people feel and how they perform.

An awareness and intentional application of strengths creates peaks of excellence in people -- points where a person is exceptionally brilliant, strong, and emotionally resilient. When we can help our clients increase their self-awareness, we can invite them to further experiment with these peaks, and seek ways to expand their positive impact to all areas of their life.

Success is not a victory march. At times, the going gets rough. When we are able to show up and put the very best of who we are into our lives, we become a lot stronger and a lot tougher. We better ourselves.

Scot Caldwell is a Learning and Design Consultant who works with leaders and organizations to develop solutions and strategies to enhance performance. Caldwell works with clients in a variety of industries, including automotive, finance, hospitality, healthcare, retail, and manufacturing. Caldwell studied at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and is based out of Gallup’s Omaha office.