Learning by Doing or Telling shares how Know and Do have found the techniques of coaching and action learning improve motivation, engagement and performance of teams in a business. Andrew Ramwell shares examples of how the skills have been deployed in companies and a quick tool on assessing and applying effective open questions when line managing a team member.
I recently had the pleasure of working with one of our clients over a 12-month period. I really enjoy these extended pieces of work as they allow us to get under the skin of a company, and also observe how they embed the training and skills we work with them on.
This particular client has over 100 employees spread across multiple sites and like most businesses, have experienced significant change over the last few years. Know+Do were hired to put together a package that helped to support the managers in managing change more effectively. This support consisted of two main strands of training - applied Coaching Skills and Action Learning Sets.
Both coaching and Action Learning have communication skills at the heart of their effective delivery. Our training was designed to test managers’ habits and the application of their communication skills. The company has a strong tradition of ongoing investment in its entire staff. This meant that in all likelihood the managers would have been previously exposed to most of the material we were going to cover. Our approach was to see how it was currently and systematically being applied. What we know is that in periods of repeated change it can become easy for managers to end up being stuck in what’s known as ‘directive mode’. This subject was covered in more depth in an earlier Think Paper entitled Coaching for Change (Series 2; Paper 2).
The training helped to remind the managers what skills are most important and fundamental for effective communication, namely:
This was about checking their knowledge and filling in any theoretical gaps. The next phase was testing the managers’ application of communication skills and this is where the training became interesting; it revealed habits of behaviour that potentially created an overly directive environment.
The coach and author, Michael Bungay Stainer has written about some of the issues faced by the time crunched manager. He proposed the following three negative cycles that the modern manager can experience:
Overdependency can creep up on us. We tell a staff member what to do without explanation as it’s quicker. They do it. It works. They ask again, I’m still busy, so I tell them what to do quickly. They do it. It works. And so on. You get the gist.
Being overwhelmed is a common issue for virtually every manager in today’s workplace as our attention is demanded by incessant pings reminding us that too many emails, texts or social media notifications are waiting for us. Constant interruptions from people and phone calls, unexpected meetings, urgent deadlines etc. and all this on top of our existing work plan. It’s too easy to lose focus and even worse to lose half a day doing trivial stuff.
When we find ourselves overwhelmed, it’s too easy to disconnect. This does not mean to drop out, but rather to tune out and forget what drives us. We can aim to get the work done but forget to bring our whole self to work and be really engaged in what we do. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi termed this engaged state ‘flow’. When we disconnect, this can sometimes be more sub-conscious than conscious and is reflected in our daily habits.
In delivering the training for this client, we deliberately chose exercises that would scrutinise their communication methods. What we found was that the managers had picked up habits that were inadvertently creating a state of over-dependency amongst their reports. Working in a fast paced environment, they were constantly called upon to make decisions and therefore they were used to offering advice or telling staff what to do. In a crisis, or important situation, this is probably needed however, when this becomes the habitual default it can cause problems and dependency.
Michael Bungay Stainer explains the issue thus ‘Without quite knowing how it happened, the team has become overly dependent on the manager. Any sense of self-sufficiency has gone, and every decision has to be provided, checked and double-checked. At the same time, the manager has likely become the bottleneck to the team. The pace of work has ground to a halt as the team waits for the manager to provide the answer and make the call.’
This can be further compounded over time as when new members of a team come on board they fall into line and join the queue to see the manager and be instructed. It doesn’t take too much additional work or another crisis to highlight the bottleneck scenario alluded to above. It can also cause problems by ignoring obvious solutions that staff sit on because they act only in the way instructed. Staff also potentially don’t get exposed to the decision making process and why the suggested action has been proposed. Its quicker just to say “do this” without explaining why. Over time this makes it more and more difficult to stop this approach and staff learn to do as they are told. Initially, this might speed up an interaction for the manager but ultimately, this creates more and more call on their time and makes them more responsive as they run out of time, which in turn leaves them less time to explain things. You get the all too familiar picture of staff disempowerment and dependency.
Stainer recommends the following three actions for managers to better support learning by doing with their staff:
This sounds easy and looks obvious, but in undertaking the Action Learning Sets training, we realised how engrained the ‘advice monster’ had become within most of the managers. It’s worth stating here though, that this is typical with organisations that have undergone significant change and operate in fast paced service environments.
Pioneered by Reg Revans, Action Learning is a technique to tackle issues within the workplace by working through them together in a small group of 6-8 people called ‘sets’. By using the knowledge and skills of a small group combined with probing questions, individuals are able to focus on real issues currently affecting their work performance and find solutions they can action and learn from.
At each meeting there is an ordered process whereby each member of a set reports briefly on what has been happening to them. From this, one person can present a situation, problem or challenge. Others listen carefully and then ask open questions focused on helping that person come to a deeper or different understanding and so be open to new solutions, attitudes and behaviour changes. Advice, anecdotes and judgement are put to one side. After reviewing their experience of sharing the presenter leaves with actions – i.e. initiating changes and trying new ideas or approaches – to put into practice, ready to share the results at the next meeting.
Action Learning is not about answers or advice but about opening up the learning experience for the person presenting the problem. All actions elicit outcomes; helping someone to change their actions and measure the outcomes is at the heart of Action Learning. It’s the former that most managers struggle with, as they classically give advice or answers to the problem posed without first trying to open up the learning experience for the person with the problem. Even more so, if they have experience in the subject area.
We typically find that it takes 4-6 sessions before managers are weaned off their automatic response of giving advice and are able to catch themselves doing this and stop. We also find that although managers stop giving direct advice many of them start to phrase their questions to lead the presenter to a certain conclusion or view point. Action Learning is challenging in that an active set requires deep thinking and a focus on communication skills for all concerned. To ask questions in such a way that it opens up the learning for the other person is not the way that most managers habitually operate in their day-to-day environments. It most definitely requires pause for thought.
Action Learning helps to ensure that the person offering the problem forms their own understanding and any potential solutions they present. We might have a view but that will be based on our experiences and knowledge and therefore different. Depending upon their life experience the other person may choose to tackle it a different way than we would. The key to the success of the process is that the person with the problem reports back on any new actions taken and the outcome can be explored.
Facilitating Action Learning Sets always reminds me that it’s so easy to fall into the managerial ‘problem solving trap’ and by doing so we can miss the learning moment for the other person. This approach needs to be balanced against the needs of the workplace, as sometimes a directive approach is needed. As managers we must remain flexible in our communication styles and check with staff from time to time that we are employing the best methods to ensure we are creating efficient and effective approaches to achieving any stated outcomes.
Communication skills are fundamental to good business, but like any skills they require practice and testing from time to time. Test yours with the following exercise:
You may find it easier to explain to them upfront you’re trying an Action Learning approach with them, so they don’t get confused about why you might be withholding advice. This can work for big or small problems. I’d suggest starting with small issues and testing your communication skills and problem solving habits. So have a quick conversation and if actions are agreed the person can go and implement them immediately and feedback to you in an hour or so.
However you choose to do this, reflect on the experience and interaction and keep running notes. Think about some of these questions to guide you, e.g.:
Know+Do publish regular Think Papers on a variety management related topics. To help managers, we offer in-house training on a range of business success and management issues. We also have expert performance coaches available to encourage organisational and leadership growth.