How Question-Based Coaching Can Stunt Growth, Empowerment & Performance

How Question-Based Coaching Can Stunt Growth, Empowerment & Performance
I think the intentions of question-based coaching methods are quite noble. They are attempting to counteract the dysfunctional dependency created by command-and-control leadership styles. And, they demonstrate respect for people by assuming that we’re capable of figuring out a lot of things for ourselves without being told what to do.

However, our work with tens of thousands of leaders globally demonstrates that their use of question-based coaching often undermines the very growth, empowerment, and performance they wish to promote.

Thousands of documented cases of leadership and coaching failure submitted to us by leaders who have gone through, often quite extensive, coaching training attests to this.

In almost all of these documented cases, leaders:

  • COVER-UP what they authentically think and feel—eroding trust and depriving people of the learning that occurs when they honestly share their views
  • Ask TOO MANY QUESTIONS—creating defensiveness because their people feel like they’re being put on a witness stand
  • Ask LEADING QUESTIONS—making people suspicious because such questions activate the amygdala, the brain’s primary threat detection center
  • JUMP-TO-ACTION. When the above strategies don’t generate the actions leaders want, they sometimes resort to telling people what to do – the very thing question-based coaching approaches intend to prevent

But why do leaders use such strategies despite these consequences?

They tell us that it is because they have learned two unfortunate, mutually reinforcing lessons from their coaching training:

  • Lesson 1: Don’t tell people what you THINK because that’s tantamount to telling them what to DO
  • Lesson 2: ONLY ask questions

Question-based coaching often undermines the very growth, empowerment, and performance leaders wish to promote.

A modernized approach toward coaching is needed

While I agree that leaders should stop telling their people what to do as often as they do AND that they should use questions a lot more frequently to help their people think for themselves, I don’t agree that leaders should stop telling their people what they authentically think and feel.

What is needed is a modernized approach toward coaching that is better suited to the pace and complexity of business today, one that combines effective questions with authentic self-expression.

Leaders need to learn how to give honest feedback in ways that invite people to challenge their thinking. And, they need to share their ideas in ways that empower others to think for themselves.

Bottom line: leaders need to STOP treating their people like fragile children who “can’t handle the truth” and START treating them like the strong, capable adults that they are.

Leaders who learn how to get the BALANCE right between thought-provoking questions and authentic self-expression find that their people:

  • GROW faster,
  • PERFORM better,
  • Embrace EMPOWERMENT,
  • Feel more ENGAGED, and
  • Are more RESILIENT, AGILE and CAPABLE of thinking for themselves.

Learning this modernized approach toward coaching requires training and unlearning. But, it is a learnable skill that almost anyone can master.

In future articles, we will explore how leaders can develop this expertise and become the kind of coaches that their people want and their organizations need.

Todd Holzman is an organizational consultant and CEO of Holzman & Company, a global consulting firm. He helps CEOs, senior leaders & CHROs in the Global 2000 make massive progress on their toughest business challenges while building high-performing top teams and leaders across an organization through his “Real Work Process”.