• Why coaching makes more brain sense than advising

  • 13 Mar 2015
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Helping employees overcome issues themselves is the key to creating lasting change, says Jan Hills

Many managers are still in the habit of thinking they know the answer to issues and their role is to advise their employees on how to do their job. But is this realistic? And does telling employees what to do work anyway? The alternative is to coach employees to find solutions for themselves.

Coaching assumes the employee can deal with issues and problems that arise in their job with some help from their boss. The manager’s role is to help them to get unstuck or to bring about new ways of thinking.

In a recent breakfast club meeting and webinar that examined the neuroscience findings on whether coaching or telling is more brain-savvy, 50 per cent of participants told us that 10-50 per cent of employees have at least one career limiting issue. Helping employees overcome such issues is important for organisations as well as individuals.

Participants also told us that many issues were to do with personal style (56 per cent) or managing people (43 per cent) – the hardest types of behaviours to change, as people are often personally invested in their working style in a way they’re aren’t about technical skills.

A small but interesting study sheds light on why it’s important to coach rather than tell employees what to do when they are faced with these type of issues. Scientists looked at the brains of people in a scanner while they were being told typical advisory phrases such as as ‘the best way to manage people is to…’. This type of advice created a threat response in the brain, meaning people were more likely to resist or ignore the suggestion.

People in the study who were coached based on what was important to them or asked questions that helped them connect with their purpose, showed activity in areas of the brain that are associated with reward networks.

Our webinar participants, however, said they believed 10-50 per cent of people do succeed in making lasting change to their career-limiting issues. Maybe these people are getting the benefits of coaching rather than advice. One way to do this is ask powerful questions that generate insight and motivation to change.

Some participants said they gained insight when these questions prompted feeling of empathy and the sense the coach was listening to them. In these situations people feel comfortable and relaxed, meaning their brains are quiet and their attention is focused. But others said they experience ‘a-ha’ moments when they reflect on their own learning or they leave an issue ‘on the back burner’ for a while.

Insights can be powerful, bringing with them a burst of motivation – but they can dissipate quickly unless captured. Easy ways to do this include:

  • Keeping a small notebook by your side and jotting down notes
  • Working with a buddy to embed the idea by applying it to a live issue
  • Sharing the insight with colleagues and asking them to help you follow through on actions
  • Planning how to create a new habit based on the insight, using a method such as Tiny Habits

So the evidence suggests that coaching creates lasting change when it’s centered on personal or people issues. Consider these questions when reflecting on your own experiences:

  • How did you react when you were last told to change?
  • Have you ever actually changed when told to do so?
  • When have you had an insight and how did you feel?
  • When, for you do insights occur? How can you have more insights?
  • What good surprises have you experienced by reflecting?

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  • I really do see how coaching can improve relations between managers and their teams.  I'm appalled to see that it isn't utilised enough.  Too many managers/leaders are power hungry and "tell" people what to do.