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Coaching – The Right Model for the Motivationally-Challenged Performer

by Todd Kasenberg

Learning ultimately addresses behaviour.  Behaviour is defined as what a person says or does.  Behaviour is, therefore, inherently observable (although you may not always be there to observe it!).

Behaviour is not the same as judgement. Judgement is more subjective, and is not observable.  To understand the difference, consider the following statements that reflect what can be heard in learnable moments:

“You show weakness in developing a budget.” (Judgement)

“The budget you developed for Project X was missing information about Assumptions.” (Behavioural assessment).

To help others to learn and to drive better performance, you must focus on behaviours!

Behavioural change focuses on a specific thing that a person is expected to say or do (“the desired behaviour” or “outcome”) that differs from historical observation.  A desired behaviour must be within the control of the person, and is commonly established by a standard (which reflects what the behaviour looks like, and therefore includes parameters such as what, how, when [or conditions of behaviour] and how the outcome is measured or observed).

Boiling it down, there are three factors which influence behaviour and can be leveraged in efforts to change behaviour:

  • Enablement (or systems and structures that support the desired behaviour);
  • Motivation (or feelings/emotions that push the person to adopt the desired behaviour); and
  • Understanding (or the knowledge required and rationality, including analysis skills, that will support the behaviour).

I like to remember these factors using the acronym EMU.

An excellent analogy of these factors, described in the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, portrays a rider of an elephant on a path.  The rider is the understanding factor, the holder of information and intent. The elephant represents the motivational factor, since it will take motivation (and desire) to move the elephant!  The path in this analogy represents enablement through structure and systems – without it, both the rider and the elephant go through bush, water or something even worse!

The Three Types of Learners

As a learning facilitator, you will encounter 3 learner profiles:

Type 1 Learner

The learner who is new to the subject material, has very little knowledge, and undeveloped or poorly available analytical skills (the “I don’t know it” learner).


Type 2 Learner

The learner who has some knowledge or experience with the subject matter, but who is not demonstrating in practice the desired behavioural outcome (the “I don’t wanna” learner).

Type 3 Learner

The learner who has knowledge and desire, but is constrained from action by systems (the “I can’t do it” learner).


For the “I don’t know it” learner, use a training approach, since the first (and perhaps only) deficit truly rests with knowledge and facts. For the “I don’t wanna” (or Type 2) learner who knows but doesn’t do, use a coaching approach. For the Type 3 Learner, who is systemically-impaired, efforts may mix learning with non-learning methods such as process re-engineering and safe practice.

Coaching – Best Strategy for the Type 2 Learner

Coaching is for those who know (although it is entirely possible that the knowledge is soft or incorrect), but do not do because they are unmotivated. 

Coaching is a guide at the side technique; it is usually done individually or in very small tight-knit work groups. It does not place the same requirement on the learning facilitator to “teach”; instead, it makes use of questioning to help learners formulate their own commitment to behavioural change towards the outcome.

In order to coach, there are a few “pre-requisites” for the interactions:

  • You, as the coach, have knowledge and insight about the desired behaviours or actions
  • You have access to observable behaviour of the “coachee” that requires coaching
  • The coachee has knowledge – but has failed to act in accordance with desired behaviour (diagnosis: why?  What’s missing here?)
  • The coachee feels pain or has experienced suboptimal results
  • There is a defined behaviour that will lead the coachee to success
  • There’s enough trust (in absence of authority) that you can be the objective “guide on the side”
  • The coachee convinces herself/himself to change (a man convinced against his will…)
  • The coachee can model the change
  • The coachee can account for their actions after the coaching

The driving philosophy is this: never do for a learner what he or she can do for him/herself.

In coaching, this is realized by having the coach ask good questions, which encourage reflection and commitment to change, and are structured to help the coachee:

  • evaluate behaviour or experience;
  • explore for implications and outcomes of sub-optimal performance;
  • explore alternatives or options to improve performance;  and
  • make commitment to act with relevant supports provided by coach

Coaching requires 3 skills: observation, questioning and listening. 

Coaching as an Observation Exercise

Observation of behaviour requires immersive engagement in the experience, a strong understanding of the expected standard (often, leveraging a checklist of best behaviours), an understanding of what behaviours are being exhibited, the ability to watch and listen carefully and intentionally and to break down what is experienced, and a strong memory to recall key behaviours and compare these to the expected standard(s).

While we all believe we process just fine, and are thus capable observers, practice is often a useful exercise for the coach. Typically, practice involves observing just one behaviour. For example, a coach observing a salesperson during a call might just focus on the handling of the first objection offered by the prospective buyer. Sometimes, this observation skill set can be encouraged, in future coaches, by watching video or role play scenarios.  Key to validating that the coach is making progress towards being an effective observer is the “play by play recall” – can the observer effectively tell what was seen, heard, experienced in the dedicated observation experience?

As the observer matures, more complex scenarios are presented, and the scope of what is observed is gradually expanded. More emphasis is placed on the whole – and observers are encouraged to continue towards full recall, but selecting one or two behavioural objectives that reflect best change/improvement opportunities.  This requires the coach to become more integrative, and a better judge of what is important and of priority in a total performance, yet also more reductionist, in that the coach must still be able to isolate the small parts of observed performance which warrant change and be able to support the coachee in exploring these small things.  While technologies may enable this type of observation, many human endeavours just aren’t well suited to cameras (tell that to Instagram!) – so the coach must become a fair and reliable human camera.

Coaching as a Questioning Exercise

A key premise of the coaching model – tailored for those the Type 2 or “don’t wanna” learner, is the drawing out of opportunities for behavioural change from the coachee. That old axiom that a person convinced against her will is of the same opinion rings true in coaching – so telling the coachee is far less valuable than getting the coachee to tell you what went amiss and what must change.

The best way to draw someone out in a coaching encounter is to ask some great questions which allow them both to replay the behaviours exhibited in the evaluated scenario, and to invite them to self-assess for the sake of generating commitment to change.

 A few model questions that should be used in coaching are depicted in the table below.



Replaying to help learner self-evaluate behaviour or experience

“Tell me about…  Replay that for me.  What happened?  What happened next?”

Exploring the problem (getting at the pain)

“Is that what you wanted to happen?”


Exploring the implications of the problem (amplifying the pain so it becomes clear)

“What are/could be the consequences of that?”

Exploring alternatives or options that might be more suitable

“So what could you do differently?”

Prompting selection of an option

“Which option seems best to you?”

Modifying an idea that is inadequate

“Have you thought about what that approach might [mean/do] in this area?”

Gaining commitment

“Will you do that?”


Coaching as a Listening Exercise

Not all of us are good at listening.  I know I struggle to listen and be present in a whole range of interactions in my life. Listening requires a patience, an interest in people, and a curiosity. It is to be expected that many star performers are, in work habit, drivers who push forward to get things done. These individuals, so valued, are often bulldozers when it comes to listening. And yet – it often has seemed intuitive to promote those who do a job so well, only to realize that these very same individuals just don’t have developed managerial skill in listening for coaching. In organizations large and small, we often rue these promotion errors.

So what are the common sins of poor listeners?

  1. Multi-tasking
  2. Interrupting
  3. Giving advice too soon
  4. Discounting
  5. Stage hogging

These big 5 sins are significant behaviours that should be evaluated prior to appointing one as a coach and/or mentor. In the coaching model, there is a clear need for focus on the coachee. It can be tempting to direct behaviour, since the distance to the goal may seem shorter, but in dealing with performance, this is usually counterproductive. Interrupting a coachee’s description of their thought process too soon, to either give advice, discount current performance or just to cut to the chase, usually backfires. And some coaches, figuring they are on stage, want to play to the audience; coaching is about the needs of others, not personal vanity, and stage-hogging is one of many great ways to shut down the trust in a relationship.

Giving Feedback

The coaching model, shown later, requires reinforcement across the use of the model.  Most importantly, the coach must be positive about what was done well, and offer praise for sound decisions.  This “praise” element should routinely come first before exploring sub-optimal elements of behaviour.  As well, coaches should remain positive and encouraging about areas for development, and pledge needed learner support.  Finally, a coach never provides direct feedback unless the coachee shows evidence of not being able to answer the questions (forgot, etc.); constructive silence from the coach is helpful.

Focus on Behaviour

Performance assessment focuses on the observable behaviour. Words that reflect judgment are largely absent from a coach – since the coachee is providing self-evaluation.

Ask Coachee to Replay Behaviour

To initiate a coaching encounter aimed at behavioural change, ask the coachee to review – in a play-by-play fashion – the “experience” that warrants modification. The coachee must be very detailed in this review. Should important detail be omitted from the replay, ask questions of the coachee to surface these.  Only provide insight if the coachee seems unable to accurately surface details of the experience.

“Is that what you wanted to happen?”

This question, asked about an undesired behaviour, helps the coachee focus on their thinking and expectations. This reflection prompts an awareness of intentions vs reality, and as the coachee ponders and responds, s/he tends to root back upstream through the experience to understand what went amiss.

“What are/could be the complications or implications of this?”

The coachee is pushed to fully realize the possible consequences of the undesired behaviour when this critical question about implications is asked. Not asking this question is perhaps the most significant process error in coaching.

“What could you do differently?”

Coachees need to learn to troubleshoot their own experiences – and this question helps a coachee unfold alternatives of behaviour that might be tried. This is truly a brainstorming effort – so coachees typically should not be permitted to give just one answer, especially if it is suboptimal. Encourage thought and detail by asking additional questions, like “what else?” or “why?”

“Which option seems best to you?”

This question helps the coachee establish commitment to a potential change in behaviour. Coachees may select a suboptimal choice.”

Modify ideas

When a coachee makes a suboptimal choice, the coach may ask further questions about why that choice was made, or, in some circumstances, take the choice presented and modify it to yield the desired outcome.  When the latter is done, the coachee should be asked and allowed to answer “Why does that represent improvement?”


When a coachee identifies the appropriate behavioural change, the coach should praise and reinforce the choice. This must be heartfelt, sincere, and may include the telling of any personal anecdote that will help this selection become sticky.

Provide Alternatives

Sometimes, a coachee won’t agree with the optimal approach, and even after idea modification, appears resistant to change. In this case, the coach may become more directive, providing appropriate options for consideration, and inviting the coachee to choose and act on an option from the list.


Your Mastery Opportunity

Here’s your chance to apply the coaching model through role play. Pair up with a colleague, and work with the following scenario, with one of you playing the coachee and the other acting as coach.

Scenario:                   The coachee has just submitted a report to the manager that has been delivered late, and is not consistent with the format expected by the client (e.g., sections out of order, sections missing, extra sections). 

When you’ve completed the role play exercise, write a letter to yourself, explaining what you learned, and how you will apply it in your routine work.


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