By Tom Ucko
Not everyone who gets coached signs up voluntarily. Many coaching clients are conscripted—by a mandatory program that includes all managers in a particular organization or at a certain level, or by their boss or human resources who think they need special attention. This "special attention" may be clearly positive—often the manager is on a fast track for promotion and needs some skill building to be ready for the next assignment. The attention may have less positive implications when the manager is singled out for coaching to address performance problems.
Those selected for coaching to enhance their upward potential are likely to have positive reactions. After all, how many of us will object to being groomed for higher-level positions?
Managers who are part of an entire group that's been designated for coaching may have mixed reactions. Many will welcome the opportunity for learning, while others will resist. They may resent the intrusion into their time, or may be uncomfortable with coaching itself or with feedback from colleagues.
The most troublesome reactions are from those who are picked for coaching because of a performance issue. Jim, an executive with a manufacturing company, was devastated when his boss handed him a four-page memo outlining his deficiencies for the past year, and told Jim that a coach was being engaged to work with him. Of course, Jim's boss could have handled the situation far better, by giving him feedback along the way, rather than saving it up for the end of the year. But even in the best of circumstances, managers' reactions to being told they must work with a coach to fix a performance problem are likely to be difficult.
When you're the performance problem
It's never fun to be told that you need to address a performance problem, and that a coach is going to work with you to help you to do so. This situation can stir up a range of reactions, which may include one or more of the following emotions:
• Numbness ("What reactions? I don't feel anything.")
• Denial("Who me? I'm fine. No problem.")
• Defensiveness ("There's nothing wrong with my performance!")
• Self-criticism ("Boy, I've really screwed up now!")
• Disappointment ("And I thought I was really getting somewhere in this organization.")
• Anger ("Who does he think he is, telling me what to do!")
• Relief ("They finally found out I can't do this job as well as I pretended I could.")
• Confusion ("What does this all mean?")
• Fear ("What will happen to my job, my career?")
• Embarrassment ("What will my colleagues think of me when they hear about this?")
All these emotional reactions are valid, and are a normal response to being told you're not doing the job as well as you thought you were. They may persist for a while and may even interfere with your ability to focus on your work. To the extent you're able, talk to your coach about your reactions. An experienced coach can help you to sort out your emotions and lead you to taking useful next steps.
What's in it for you?
Despite the above and your coach's suggestions, you may still feel that this whole coaching process is for the benefit of the boss or to satisfy organizational requirements. You don't really need this work. You're going through it grudgingly, to keep the boss off your back. Here's something else to consider.
Since you have to go through coaching anyway...what would you like to get for yourself out of the process—apart form what the boss wants?
Many clients have found that thinking through the answers to this question converts the coaching experience from a meaningless "have to" to a useful and productive activity.
Jane, a territory manager for a sales organization, didn't accept that she had a problem in her working relationships with peers and reports. She even disputed that she had a perceived or political problem. When encouraged to think about what she wanted to get from the coaching process (since she was stuck with it anyway), she eventually raised the question of whether the job she was in was a good fit for her. After her coach reassured her of the confidentiality of their discussions, she agreed they would explore the issue of fit together. In time, Jane discovered that her current job, which required significant hands-on management of and collaboration with others, was not a particularly good fit with her need to perform independently. She applied for and ultimately received a promotion to a higher-level position, which required far less people interaction, and in which she was able to be highly successful.
Your response to the coach
Your point of view that you don't really have a problem can affect your attitude toward the coach and the entire coaching process. A coach I met has a stock line which she uses to greet new coaching clients: "Congratulations! Your company thinks so highly of you they're willing to pay me lots of money to work with you." She has a point. By investing in your coaching, your employer is announcing that you're a keeper.
Talking with your boss
One of the most critical next steps you need to take when told you have a performance issue is to talk to your boss about the situation. You need to find out more about the problem, how serious it is, and what the boss expects. Here are some questions to ask:
• What led you to conclude there's a problem? Can you give me specific examples of what I've done (or not done)?
• How serious is the problem?
• What will success look like? What will you need to see or hear to be satisfied that the problem is solved?
• If I'm on a "performance plan," what will I need to do or demonstrate to be off the plan?
• Who else knows about this? What have they been told?
Since most coaching begins with 360-degree feedback, your peers and reports will be involved in the process. If you're in a company where coaching or feedback from colleagues isn't customary, asking them to rate your leadership skills, or even using a coach at all, may send the message that your performance needs "fixing”—not a message you’ll care to broadcast. What to do? Agree with your boss on what you will tell people about the coaching process. Your boss is unlikely to object to your putting a positive spin on the situation. For example, you may want to say something like this:
"In the spirit of continuous improvement, I've decided to work with a coach to enhance my leaderships skills to become the best leader I can be. As part of the coaching process, you will be asked to participate in an interview (or complete a survey). Please answer the coach's questions as openly and honestly as possible as this will provide me with the most value from the process. All responses will be anonymous. They will be summarized in a way that does not reveal who said what.”
Don't confuse your boss with your coach. While your coach will undoubtedly be sympathetic to your emotional concerns, your boss may be entirely uninterested in your feelings. In talking with your boss, focus the conversation on actions and behaviors, not your inner reactions.
When you genuinely don't see a problem
Robert, sales manager for a large insurance company, was dumfounded and resentful when told by his boss and the human resources director that he "needed coaching." "I don't have a problem," insisted Robert. All those people who complained about his "imperious" attitude and unwillingness to listen to others? Why, they were just malcontents who were jealous of his position, or resented him because he demanded superior performance from others.
If you, like Robert, refuse to accept that you have a problem, consider this:
If your boss thinks you have a problem, you have a problem. It may be aperception problem, or a political problem, but it's a problem.
There may or may not be other problems lurking beneath the perception problem, but you clearly need to address at least this one. If there's a perception that you have a problem, you need to work on changing that perception. As you work with your coach, you'll want to further explore your own contribution to the perception.