Leaders as Coaches
Leadership requires emotional intelligence (EI). Research evidence from almost three decades has shown that leaders who possess key EI skills – self-awareness, empathy, self-regulation and use emotions, are more likely to be effective and have greater positive impact on their organizations. But leading is not simply rallying troops, and charging headfirst into the competitive business environment. The emotionally intelligent leader also needs to know how to mentor, and develop talents within their teams and followers. Often understated, and occasionally overlooked, organizational leaders need to also play the role of a coach – and being emotionally intelligent, can help in this regard.
Emotional Intelligence in Coaching Relationships
The science suggests that EI is a skill that can be developed. EI is an ability which relates to one being able to recognize triggers of one’s emotions (self-awareness) and to regulate one’s emotions (self-management). Arguably more important for a coach, however, are the two other-oriented subskills of EI – identifying and empathizing with others’ emotion states, and using emotions to facilitate thought and action. Effective, emotionally intelligent coaches use emotions to guide sustained positive change in others. If you have ever been coached before (or had someone whom you considered to be a mentor, a role model for your profession), think of what made the experience memorable. It doesn’t matter if the relationship was positive or negative – both types of coaching/mentoring relationships can be useful in helping you distinguish between effective and ineffective coaching.
If you are in a formal coach role yourself, reflect on what success stories and challenges you have faced in the past as a coach. There’s a very good chance that these personal reflections may revolve around the challenges you faced in motivating, building the confidence of, or even getting the person you are coaching to even like you. Being a coach means that you have a professional relationship with another, and the unwritten rule of this relationship is that one party (the coach) provides the necessary support and imparts the necessary knowledge or skills towards enhancing the development of the other. Like any other human relationship, the interactions between yourself as the coach the person you are coaching is going to be an emotional one – but knowing what you can do in managing the emotional undertone may help you develop yourself as a more effective coach. Here are three ways in which you can use EI to better your coaching relationships.
At the very start of the coaching relationship, you might want to first establish what the person being coached wants. Often, it’s easy to assume that your employee or junior staff might want the same things as you (which can be flattering if that were really the case!). People, however, vary in their career aspirations. Even what they consider ‘success’ in their professional careers is shown by research to be easily distinguished by gender . It may be tempting to suggest, or even downright impose upon the person you are coaching the same opportunities that led you to be successful in the past. In fact, this may be even more tempting if the person you are coaching ‘reminds you of a younger version of yourself.’ The emotionally intelligent coach, however, asks first. They are likely to use ‘appreciative inquiry’ (AI) – asking the other to focus on the positives and the ideals, and to work towards that desirable state without use of force or threat. The use of such an approach opens the doors for more open, honest, and candid conversations between the coach and the trainee. AI also recognizes that effective coaching outcomes relies on, and leverages upon each individual’s unique talents and strengths. AI, therefore, requires empathy, and mindfully recognizing that one’s experiences and ideals are different from the people we are coaching. This approach focuses on strengths, rather than limitations or weaknesses, and has been shown to be useful in increasing mental toughness is the context of sports coaching .
Coaching with Compassion
Richard Boyatzis, Professor at Case Western Reserve University, advocates the use of coaching with compassion, and contrasts this with traditional coaching which he calls coaching for compliance. The former is a long-term approach to establishing coaching that recognizes the other person’s core needs and encourages exploration of ways to meet those needs. The latter, in contrast, focuses more on short-term fixes and correctives that sometimes take the tone of, “This is an area which you need to improve on.” Boyatzis and colleagues argue that to sustain long-term, self-directed change, coaching with compassion trumps coaching for compliance . This is not to say that we should excuse or poor work performance, of course – but rather, to consider coaching more as a development, growth-oriented process that is distinct from performance reviews. Think about what it might be like if your coaching session started off with your coach asking, “Where would you like to be in the next 5 years?” and contrast that with him asking, “What training can we offer you in the next 6 months to improve your skills?” More often than not, we are asked questions about our skills – most of the time technical abilities that imply that we are valued to our respective organizations for something we can do. The emotionally intelligent coach uses coaching with compassion to correct this imbalance, conveying to the other person that that they are valued who they are – and that they have a genuine wish to see them make the very best from their personal strengths and characters. This also shapes the questions they ask – less on skills, and more on personally-meaningful aspirations.
Implied in the previous two sections is the idea that feeling positive is key towards emotionally intelligent coaching. This corrective, is in some ways, necessary given how we have tended to approach coaching – as a way to adjust, fix, or improve employee behaviours so that they can do their jobs more effectively. Negative, unpleasant emotions are still essential – but when it comes to growth, and enhancing one’s motivations for self-driven improvement, positive, pleasant emotions are much more effective. And this point too, is backed by recent positive psychology research, in particular, evidence that suggests that positive emotions ‘broadens’ our though processes, encouraging creativity, exploration, and optimism . In short, we grow when we are feeling positive; when we feel negative (or threatened by say, critical feedback), we retreat, become defensive, and take a while before we try again. Emotionally intelligent coaches infuse their coaching sessions with positive emotions such as hope, validation, gratitude, and inspiration. An emotionally intelligent coach may start off the coaching session by recognizing the employees’ contributions, themselves expressing gratitude towards the employee that results in the employee feeling validated. She may then move towards suggesting projects, ideas or opportunities that reflect the employees’ skills and interests, generating inspiration towards further improvement and personal development. The session can then conclude with a collaborative goal-setting between the coach and the trainee, concluding the coaching session on feelings of hope and enthusiasm.
Why not consider ways to incorporate emotionally-intelligent approaches the next time you engage in a coaching exercise? Coaching can, and arguably should – move beyond being simply about providing performance evaluations based on some objective indicator of performance. The core of effective coaching isn’t really about changing behaviour, but perhaps, more about moving hearts.