To coach or not to coach, that is the question

Posted On Oct 27, 2021 |

Many leaders who are being introduced to the idea of coaching as a leadership style raise one important question: When should we coach? Underlying this question is a natural dilemma around the effectiveness of different leadership styles in different situations and with different coworkers. Well, when should we opt for coaching then?

A way to think about situational leadership is to connect a leadership style with a typology of situations according to the complexity theory and the Cynefin model.

The Cynefin model was introduced by Dave Snowden in a HBR article in 2007. According to the model, leaders need to respond according to the  context that governs the situation at hand.

Building on Snowden’s model we could say that for simple context, characterized by stability and cause-and-effect relationships that are clear to everyone, simple telling as a leadership response would just be enough. The right answer is self evident – no need to coach! As an example, a coworker may ask you as a leader about a certain procedure or process. In case the answer is obvious, you would definitely not need to mentor or coach this person – but instead tell the person about the procedure.

When the situations are complicated, they still contain a clear relationship between cause and effect, but not everyone can see that, we would call for a mentoring response from a leader. Offering an expert analysis and your own expert experience may serve as leadership response. As an example, a coworker may ask you for advice on how to make a decision regarding a choice of different technological options. You may serve as an expert and a mentor, offering to analyze the situation and find the right response (or a couple of them).

However, the situation may complex so that the right answers can’t be found at all. What needs to happen is to experiment with calculated risks. This type of situational complexity creates the best case for coaching coworkers. As Snowden points out, most leadership situations in organizations are complex because they involve unpredictability and constant change. The best leadership response is therefore not to impose a course of action, but to patiently allow the path to be found through behavioral experiments. As an example, a coworker may be asking you how to increase engagement in a team during the pandemics. The response is definitely not obvious and most likely not complicated! It involves complexity and unpredictability, leading to coaching as a leadership response.

Snowden himself has pointed out that the greatest challenge for leaders facing complex situations is a fall back to traditional command and control type of leadership. Telling coworkers what to do in complex situations may not only be restrictive in terms of learning and innovation, but also may be a path to failure. Uncertainty intolerance in leaders may just drive towards the quickest solution to exercise control over a situation, without the actual test of a wider array of possible solutions.

Previous models of situational leadership have connected the choice of leadership style to performance readiness of a coworker. For example, back in 1979 Hersey and Blanchard developed their situational leadership model that assumed that we could choose between leadership styles based on maturity level of a coworker. Blanchard  assumed that we should only coach coworkers with low to middle competence and low commitment. In other words, the popular model “married” development level of coworkers with leadership responses, without taking into account the task at hand or the wider context.

Many questions normally get triggered by leaders. Should we coach youngsters? Should we coach experienced colleagues who are highly committed? Who should we coach actually?

We could say that complexity requires coaching as a leadership style. Back to the question in the title of this blog: To coach or not to coach? It seems that we should be looking for the answer not in the coworker, but in the level of complexity involved in a situation. Mentor when you assume your experience provides clues for the “right answer”. Coach whenever the “right answer” first needs to be found.