Why Coaching Fails

Every day in corporations and associations, coaches are brought in to work with a variety of people.  Some are executives who are struggling to master all of the complexities of their roles.  Some are rising stars being groomed for more responsibility, because someone believes in their potential.  Still others are people whose struggles in their current roles are creating negative repercussions across their work environments.  While coaching can be effective, frequently it isn’t.  Unsuccessful coaching assignments can have substantial costs while returning no benefits.  The idea that coaching works is undermined by failures.  Leadership can become cynical about the coaching process.  Money is wasted.  Time and attention are frittered away.  Ineffective coaching is counterproductive and should be stopped as soon as it is recognized.

Why coaching fails:

While there are many reasons why coaching can fail in an individual case, there are some broad commonalities that can indicate failure early in the process.  It is important for the stewards of the organization’s resources to understand these major themes and feel comfortable taking steps to address them.  Below are several major, recurring themes that run through many failed coaching situations.

  • The coach lacks the skills, experience, or perspective to effectively provide the necessary support for a successful outcome.

  • The person being coached resists efforts to change.

  • The organization is not a safe place to admit to one’s vulnerabilities.

  • Characteristics that look promising at first can actually be aspects of a deeper personality disorder which are quite resistant to modification.

  • The person being coached is looking for an easy solution rather than building the skills necessary for success in the future.

Early diagnosis

At the beginning of the coaching process it is seldom possible to predict a successful outcome.  However, it can be easy to recognize when it isn’t going to work.  First, it is difficult for an adult to change his or her behavior.  It takes work and the desire to actively alter the assumptions and patterns that support the ineffective behaviors in the first place.  If the person isn’t actively trying to practice and build new behaviors, change won’t happen.  If the person expects the coach to drive the change, it won’t work.  Successful efforts to change have to come from within.  If the person isn’t seeking feedback and asking for support, it won’t work.  If you don’t see the sweat, you can be sure that the effort will fail.

Second, many people, both leaders and the employees being coached, have the erroneous idea that coaching is an informative process.  It typically is not.  People aren’t performing badly because no one told them to act differently.  Indeed, coaching often comes only after a person has been told repeatedly to change.  Just telling them to be different doesn’t work; if it did you would never get to the point of calling in a coach.  Change comes when a person develops new skills to cope with the old situations.  Skill building doesn’t occur as a result of lectures or reading self-help books.  It comes from continued practice, learning from failures, and the willingness to try new things.  If you don’t see efforts to practice and develop new skills they won’t miraculously appear.

Finally, change comes from a willingness to see oneself accurately, stripped of excuses and arising from honest self-reflection.  If there isn’t evidence an effort to honestly understand oneself, to take personal responsibility, and abandon excuses you can be sure that any change will be superficial and fleeting at best.  Stop the process.

Exploring the common themes of failure:

Coaching Skills:  If the coach lacks the skills, experience, or perspective to effectively provide the necessary support for a successful outcome it is unlikely to happen.  A coach needs to have a deep understanding of human behavior.  A coach needs to understand the business context within which the ineffective behavior occurs, and in which successful outcomes are grounded.  Coaching isn’t meant to be psychotherapy.  It needs to be grounded in a sophisticated understanding of the business process, its goals, its culture, and its necessary operating assumptions.  The goal of business coaching is effective behavior in the business setting, not a search for personal happiness.  Don’t confuse coaching with psychotherapy and don’t let the coach forget it either.   A coach needs the personal strength and professional distance to parry the predictable efforts of the person being coached to initially resist change.  It can be expected that the person being coached will use many of the same tactics that were non-productive in other relationships in their day-to-day interactions.  The tactics of resistance can be many, but the coach needs to be personally confident and self-possessed enough to identify resistance as resistance.  The coachee needs to embrace the opportunity to change, if change is to occur.  A good coach should be able to handle dominant personalities, excuse-makers, blamers, and the myriad tactics used by people to avoid change in the first place.  If a coach falls short in one or more of these areas, stop the process.

The person being coached resists efforts to change:  You can expect that the person needing a coach is already using the behaviors that s/he believes are the most likely to get them the results that they want.  Think of behaviors as the tactics that people use to get what they want or to avoid outcomes they don’t want.  Even when their tactics aren’t very effective, you can be sure that people are using the tactics with which they are most comfortable.  In order to realize significant change, people have to gain confidence that different tactics will lead to better outcomes.  Without the acceptance of this basic premise, people won’t change.  Here, acceptance doesn’t mean a verbal acknowledgement (saying what someone else wants to hear), or simply describing his or her intentions (remember that good intentions are paving stones on the road to hell), it requires an active effort to practice the behaviors that create different outcomes.

People resist change that they see as imposed upon them.  This is often the case when coaching is initiated, especially if the impetus comes from someone else.  If they are already using their best (or most comfortable) tactics, they will be reluctant to act differently.  Unless they are helped to gain new experiences that offer new insights, they are unlikely to change.  They believe that their preferred tactics have worked adequately in the past.  Sometimes the lessons they’ve learned are obsolete.  That is, their circumstances have changed, but they don’t recognize the fact that they are in a different situation with different dynamics.  Sometimes the assumptions underlying their tactics are unexamined.  Whatever the reason, if you don’t see evidence that the person is literally struggling to test their assumptions and acquire new knowledge, their efforts will prove to be unsuccessful in the end.  Stop the process.

The organization is not a safe place to admit to one’s vulnerabilities:  Perhaps yours is a culture where mistakes are ridiculed.  Perhaps the person’s manager is demeaning or degrading to a person who exposes vulnerabilities.  Perhaps the person being coached realizes that while he or she is being told to act one way, something else is actually valued and rewarded in the day-to-day workings of the organization.  Whatever the reason, you cannot expect that people will recognize their vulnerabilities and acknowledge them under such circumstances.  A degree of trust is essential for real change to take place. This is essential between the coach and the client, but that alone is insufficient if the work environment is not trustworthy.  Assess your own organization first.  Look at the trust levels within the person’s functional unit second.  If it is an unsafe work environment change won’t happen.  Address the barriers to trust first, and be realistic about the harshness of the environment within which the person is expected to operate.  If there is not sufficient safety for the coaching process to work, don’t initiate a process doomed to fail.  It will not work until conditions change.  Stop the process.

Personality disorders:  Characteristics that look promising at first can be facets of a deeper personality disorder which are quite resistant to modification.  Personality disorders are defined by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the culture of the individual who exhibits it.”  Some people exhibit behaviors that look good at first blush.  Competitiveness, candor, confidence, aggressiveness and other behaviors can look effective in a particular situation, but when they are part of an enduring pattern that is the person’s default response, they prove to be destructive.  When they are over-used or excessive in their intensity, these traits are manifestations of more extreme and unmodulated aspects of a darker characteristic.

Some people are narcissistic, destructive, domineering, amoral, predatory, or reckless to name a few.  While you can’t be expected to perform a sophisticated psychological diagnosis on your employees, there are signs that should warn you that the traits you’re seeing are enduring parts of the person’s character and are unlikely to change with the efforts of the usual coaching process. There is an old saying, “by their deeds you shall know them.”   You can make a good layman’s guess about the likelihood of success if you already have an abundance of reports that this person’s behavior tends to be pervasive across situations and above and beyond what is normal at work.  In such cases, no matter what the benefits you can accrue with this employee, the long term costs of this person’s style on the organization will mitigate any occasional advantage that might be gained.  Find a less costly way to accrue the same benefits at less cost. Replace them.  Reassign them.  Let them find a different company where the culture is more compatible with their personal style.  In your organization, coaching will be unsuccessful.  Stop the process.

Looking for easy answers:  Coaching is about building or adding new interpersonal skills to a person’s repertoire.  Coaching fails when the person being coached is unwilling to build the new skills necessary for future success.  Such skills won’t be acquired in a workshop or seminar.  They don’t come from reading a new book.  There is no easy way to acquire meaningful new skills.  At the basic level a skill is defined as a “practiced facility.”  The practice field for attaining that facility needs to be the workplace itself and the routine work required of the person involved.  Any successful coaching effort should include a series of guided experiences where the person engages in the desired behaviors and, where those experiences are monitored and measured.

These interpersonal skills are best practiced in interpersonal situations, and are most valuable if all the people involved are engaged in learning or sharing the lessons of the person being coached.  Being coached is nothing to be ashamed of.  It doesn’t need to be hidden from those with whom the person works.  Indeed, the more secretive the process, the greater are the feelings that something shameful is being dealt with.  If coaching is to produce meaningful results in the work environment, then using the naturally occurring work of the organization is the best place to do it.  At the same time, the intent of the organization, and the good practices promoted in the coaching process, can be modeled and taught to everyone involved.  Perhaps the learning is not as intense for the extended group as it is for the person being coached, but there is much to be gained if these directed experiences are open to others who also work in those processes.  The coaching process is not simply about learning what’s expected, but about learning how to successfully engage in the desired behaviors while accomplishing one’s work goals.  If the efforts to coach the person are not grounded in the work of the organization they will not ultimately produce the results you seek.  Stop the process.

Conclusions

Like any tool, coaching can be effective.  However, it is a process that is relatively easy to do badly.  Many things can impede its effectiveness.  The shortfall that dilutes the impact of coaching can be the fault of the coach, the coachee, or the organization’s culture.  I have identified some of the broad issues that contribute to less than effective results coming out of a coaching assignment.  The after effects of a poor coaching assignment can be no change in behavior, change that evaporates over time or under stress, cynicism, a belief that behavior can’t change, or people trying to disguise their habitual behaviors better so that they don’t “get caught.”

It is difficult to predict when coaching will be successful, but the signs that it will fail can be seen early.  If the person being coached resents what s/he sees as efforts to change her, or if the only reason to change is that someone else wants it, then the process won’t work.  If the person is looking for a quick fix by reading a book or attending a workshop, rather than carefully building skills through practice and rehearsal, coaching won’t work.  If the cause of the person’s workplace inadequacies stems from a deep personality disorder then the coaching process at work is unlikely to change those dynamics.  It the coach lacks the personal skills and the business savvy to nurture success in the work environment, then the process won’t work.  Finally, if the work environment is a damaging place for people to work, psychologically speaking, if trust is absent and vulnerabilities are exploited, then change won’t occur.  In these circumstances, it is best to stop the coaching process quickly and to employ more appropriate tactics to address those underlying issues that make using a coach a non-productive strategy.

© 2009 – 2015, Daniel D. Elash, PhD. All rights reserved.

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