Common barriers to coaching culture

Coaching is arguably the most vital part of an organisation’s learning and development strategy today. It has numerous advantages as a way to accelerate learning and performance, including the highly contextualised and personalised nature of the approach to meet vastly differing learning requirements and styles. Coaching in the workplace can also bring about a more empowering, inclusive and innovative culture where the full value of employees’ strengths and talents are unlocked and people take greater responsibility for finding their own solutions.

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Given the importance of coaching to performance improvement and growth, many organisations are attempting to create “coaching cultures” where coaching is an integral part of day to day management practice and is deeply embedded in regular check-ins and performance and learning conversations.

However, there appears to be a big ‘gap’ between theory and practice and most organisations are struggling to create a culture that supports constructive and regular coaching. I have outlined below some of the common barriers we see in our work and how organisations can overcome these.

Lack of leadership from the top

One of the major barriers to a coaching culture is that top management pays lip service to coaching and doesn’t set a good example of what great coaching looks like. A good starting point therefore is to get the CEO and other management team members to tell their coaching stories and to lead by example by practising good coaching techniques with their teams. Eric Schmidt, the previous CEO of Google, is one leader who spoke openly about the benefits of coaching and this set the tone for coaching to be legitimised throughout the company.

If the organisation’s prevailing style of leadership is that of telling individuals how things should be done in a top-down manner and focusing only on short-term productivity gains, then coaching is unlikely to thrive and the top team culture will need to be changed first. The organisation’s leadership needs to be supportive, encouraging and motivating with a strong commitment to longer-term sustainable growth and competitive advantage through people for coaching to become part of the company’s DNA.

Lack of understanding of the value of coaching in the workplace

Coaching in the WorkplaceAnother major barrier getting in the way of a coaching culture is a lack of understanding of what coaching can achieve and misconceptions about what it is all about.

Many still see coaching as a time-wasting activity and only necessary when employees are performing poorly, what is often called “remedial coaching”. They don’t fully understand the benefits or the need for managers to get involved, seeing it as the preserve of executive coaches outside the company.

For coaching in the workplace to succeed, top management and HR need to ensure managers at all levels understand their role as strengths coaches and workplace energisers. It needs to be positioned as part of a wider culture change process to ensure top talent is attracted, developed and retained by the company rather than a ‘nice to have’ or an exclusive programme reserved for a small talent pool.

Any successful coaching programme requires strong management, promotion, communication and a high level of internal coaching expertise to support managers. Without this investment, coaching results are unlikely to measure up to expectations.

Time to learn and practice

Most companies provide very little training and subsequent time to practice coaching so managers never become competent at it. In fact, a recent CIPD survey showed that only 5% of organisations have properly trained all their managers as coaches. We always recommend to clients that after training, managers are allocated into peer coaching groups and encouraged to meet up at least once a month to discuss coaching challenges, successes and learning. In addition to peer learning groups, companies can use the latest technology including cloud-based social learning platforms to help encourage the sharing of learning and knowledge about better practice coaching techniques.

In organisations where coaching thrives, there is the fundamental belief that coaching opportunities occur with almost every interaction and happens during both formal and informal conversations.

Over-complicated techniques

Many manager training programs try to turn managers into pseudo psychologists bombarding them with a host of techniques from NLP to cognitive-behavioural models. Although these can be useful for advanced coaches, we suggest organisations start by training managers to be skilled to apply one pragmatic and proven coaching process such as STRONG Business Coaching™ or GROW, as well as equipping them with core coaching skills including deep listening, powerful questioning, challenge and constructive feedback. We recommend creating a series of video vignettes to show managers what good coaching looks like and to provide them with varying examples of how it can be used to raise performance and motivation across different people and situations.

Finally, it is important managers are given access to straightforward coaching tools for different applications such as individual development, resilience, confidence building, delegation, dealing with change, etc. to enhance their confidence, competence and self-management of the coaching process within their teams.

Insufficient reward and recognition

One of the most commonly used sayings in HR is “what gets measured, gets done”. However, behind this adage is a lot of truth. In order for a coaching culture to take hold, coaching behaviours and outcomes need to be part of the performance management system so managers get measured and rewarded not just for the results they achieve, but also how effectively they engage, coach and retain their people.

The business impact of coaching on employees’ behaviours and relationships, as well as business results, also needs to be studied and the results shared with managers and executives to ensure continuous improvement and reinforce successes, learning and better practices.

Organisations can also introduce creative recognition schemes for exceptional coaching to raise the visibility of such practices and the value they bring to the company.

There is already a high level of usage and belief in the power of coaching and most organisations already see it as an essential part of their learning and development mix. But major problems remain including the integration of coaching into the DNA and daily practices of the organisation. By identifying and tackling barriers to a coaching culture, companies can ensure that coaching not only accelerates learning and performance, but also becomes a key driver to bottom line growth and competitive advantage through people.

James Brook