We Interview Michael Bungay Stanier (@boxofcrayons), Author of The Coaching Habit

Theresa Moulton recently spoke with Michael Bungay Stanier, author of The Coaching Habit, to discuss the differences between coaching for development and coaching for performance, as well as the impact each has on organizational development and, potentially, change management. During the course of their conversation, Moulton and Bungay Stanier touched on a busy manager’s ability to better coach staff in ways which impact development, rather than focusing solely on specific problems or issues — and do it in ten minutes or less. Of particular interest to current organizational challenges, both Moulton and Bungay Stanier agree that, by changing management to a dynamic where advice giving, asking questions and empowering others is rewarded, you’re opening up an environment where all employees feel safe and heard, which means they are better engaged.

Michael Bungay Stanier is the founder and Senior Partner of Box of Crayons, a company that helps people and organizations all over the world do less Good Work and more Great Work. Box of Crayons is best known for its coaching programs that give busy managers the tools to coach in 10 minutes or less.

Michael left Australia 25 years ago to be a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, where his only significant achievement was falling in love with a Canadian… which is why he now lives in Toronto, having spent time in London and Boston. He has written a number of books. His latest, The Coaching Habit, has been praised as one of the few business books that actually makes people laugh out loud. The book he’s proudest of is End Malaria, a collection of essays on Great Work from leading thinkers that raised $400,000 for Malaria No More.
 Michael was the first Canadian Coach of the Year — pretty good for an Australian. He was recently named the #2 Coaching Guru in the World, which caught him by surprise as he’s not entirely sure why.

I think we both believe, Michael, that coaching is an important skill for managers and needs to come closer to the change management profession in terms of active practitioners. How did you become interested in coaching?
 “Even as a teenager, I found myself on the listening end of conversations. I’d be talking to some friend about his angst-filled life with his girlfriend. As it turns out, I was good at listening as well as holding the space for them to talk. I do remember being in that experience and thinking, ‘Well, it’s good that they’re talking about it, but I have no idea what I’m doing. Should I be saying more? Should I be saying less? How should I be fixing this?’

“When I went to university in Australia, I signed up for a volunteer role with a crisis telephone counseling organization called LifeLine. I did some training with them, basically around Rogerian counseling as a structure for being more active in response to somebody in crisis. There were questions you asked to go beyond the surface to find out what else is going on. So I did that throughout university in Australia and also in England as well.

And then shortly after joining a change management firm in England in the mid-nineties, I started noticing the rise of coaching in the States and this touchy feely West Coast vibe. When you are in England, you can be pretty skeptical about that stuff, so I had some skepticism about it.

However, when I moved to the States, Boston, I hired a coach to get a sense of what that was about. While she may not have been the best coach, she gave me a window into the coaching experience. I started reframing some of my consulting relationships as coaching, not really knowing what that meant, but just changing the language and changing the frame. Shortly after I moved to Toronto in 2001, I started my formal coach training. Meanwhile, the jobs I had included doing a lot of facilitation. And tangled up in all this, I spent years working for an innovation creativity company at the heart of which was market research. There are a number of different disciplines in marketing about curiosity, about being participant-focused, allowing people to find their own path and their own journey. You could argue that market research, facilitation and coaching actually have similar disciplines at their heart.”

That’s a very eclectic combination of disciplines. Do you believe that your own diverse background has given you an advantage in your profession?
 
“I do love the quote that says, ‘Inspiration is when your past suddenly makes sense.’ I have an eclectic background, which I love. Having these eclectic aspects of who I am feeds into a perspective — a way of framing content or framing approaches that can feel a little different, a little interesting to people. Fundamentally, what I’ve done is pour old wine into new bottles. I do not feel like I have untangled a secret that has never been said before. I do feel like I have poured good wine into some different decanters that may make it more drinkable for people.”

The context, the story that you have set up in your book for something so basic as ‘ask one question’ is, I believe, profound in this day and age. It really does mean something to be silent for the conversation and see what happens with that.
 
“Thank you. As I have been talking about this book and in the programs we have around it, I emphasize that we have to think, fundamentally, about a simple shift of behavior, which is a little less advice and certainty and a little more curiosity. Shifting that behavior, however, is quite a journey; it is not a casual or easy thing.”

What do you think gets in the way for people when they hear this — get a little more curious about a conversation?
 
“The easiest level to point out is that most consultants have had a whole lot of practice being rewarded, encouraged, promoted and paid to be advice-givers. There is a way that most organizational life is framed into answers and actions. We have deep habits that, honestly, are established in school as much as anything else where it is about being rewarded for knowing the answer.

I think there is even a deeper level beyond that — when you are in the position of giving an answer, it is a more comfortable place to be than asking a question. When you are giving an answer, you have status, you have control, you have certainty, you know where the conversation is going, you know that you are the smart person in the conversation, you can see how it gets wrapped up, you feel like you are adding value. When you are asking questions, you get that little hit against your ego. Even though your advice may not be that good or useful or listened to, it still feels better.

As soon as you ask a question, it is a much more ambiguous state. You hand over control of the conversation to the other person and now they are responsible for the answer. You are not even sure if it is a good question; you are not sure if they understood the question; you are not sure what answer they are going to give; you are not sure if you are going to be able to react to the answer they are going to give; and, you are not sure what that two seconds of silence means — whether it is about you or the question or about them and what is going on there. You have given up status, rank, certainty, control and power. It is a microcosm of what servant leadership is — putting the other person’s goals and capacities ahead of your own level of comfort. I believe that is the equation people do not think about around empowerment. When you empower somebody, if you can even do that, their taking more power means you having a diminished sense of power. Everyone is for empowerment as long as it does not mean any loss of control . . . which is contradictory.”

One of the points that you made in your book was about distinguishing between performance-based coaching and development-based coaching. Even though their judgment is needed for conversations between managers and their reports, what do you think some of the opportunities might be for managers in having coaching conversations around performance?
 
“It is useful to define our terms because those terms can mean slightly different things to different people. The way I think about it is: coaching for performance means that you are typically focused on ‘the thing that needs to be sorted out.’ When coaching for development, you tend to be focused on ‘the person who is trying to sort the thing out.’ When you ask people about what instances of coaching have had the biggest impact on them, people will almost always articulate a coaching for development conversation where they have been helped to realize a new insight about themselves rather than ‘I got the thing done.’

At the same time, getting the thing done is an important part of organizational life. One of the key things I say to managers is, ‘As a manager, you are not giving up forever offering advice or giving someone an idea.’ We are just trying to slow down the rushed and default reaction a little. When somebody comes to you saying, ‘Here is my problem and I cannot figure it out,’ and you are pretty sure you know what they should be doing, it is not that you will never get a chance to share that, if you need to. However, if you create just a bit of space to help them figure out what they could be doing, there is a decent chance that they are going to figure out the solution without your needing to tell them. In doing so, they have made new neural pathways, new connections. You have literally increased their capacity and their potential because you have helped them think differently and make new connections in their brain.”

I was interested in the neuroscience components of your approach. From what you are studying and applying, how do you see some of the neuroscience concepts really applying to people who are receiving a coaching experience, even if it is less than ten minutes in the workforce?
 
What we talk about in the book is called the TERA model. It is my version of a model David Rock [of the Neuroscience Leadership Institute] proposed called the SCARF model. The basic concept is this: five times a second everybody’s brain is asking one question — Is it safe here or is it dangerous? Is there a risk or reward? If it feels safe, it feels like a place of reward and people stay engaged. By engaged, I mean stay in their prefrontal cortex, making them smarter, more subtle, more nuanced and better able to bring their full self and their full talents to whatever is going on. If it feels dangerous and it feels like a place of risk, then they move into fight-or-flight mode, down in the amygdala, where everything gets a bit more black and white, everything is against them and they are in self-protection mode. The more you can make an experience feel safe, the more engaged are the people around you. The four TERA factors are: T–tribe, “Are you with me or against me?;” E–expectation, “Do I know what is going to happen or do I not know what is going to happen?;” R–rank, “Do I feel more or less important than you?;” A–autonomy, “Do I have some choice here or are you making the choices for me?”

When you give somebody advice, typically what you do is you decrease the TERA Quotient, making it less engaging for people. The sense of tribe-iness goes down, the sense of rank goes down, the sense of autonomy goes down, the sense of expectation probably comes up a little bit, but overall, you are going to make that encounter a less engaging conversation. By contrast, when you ask a good coaching question, the sense of tribe-iness goes up, the sense of rank goes up, the sense of autonomy goes up, the sense of expectation probably drops slightly, but overall the TERA Quotient rises. When the TERA Quotient rises, you have a smarter, more engaged person who is working with you around an issue. Neuroscience is providing us terrific evidence on why coaching works and why it is so effective.”

As you were saying in your book, the concept of our subconscious or our unconscious really governs a lot of what we are doing. What connections have you seen with the TERA model and how it really can help impact the subconscious when you are trying to make a behavior change?
 
“As you probably know, the basis for the behavior change is this new habit formula which connects to understanding the trigger. What is the situation that sets you off? The connection between TERA and the trigger is that both are unconscious moments. The neuroscience of engagement is unconscious, five times a second you are scanning the situation.

The habit trigger is unconscious until you decide to make it conscious. Part of the connection between TERA and the habit formula is that you can take what is currently unconscious and happening automatically, and start making it more conscious by working through that formula. Rather than the default action of continually checking your email, you consciously think, ‘When I sit down at my desk and immediately move towards checking my email, instead of checking my email, I will…’ and you do something else instead. I think there is a way, certainly, that one of the things you are doing to build new habits likely increases the TERA Quotient rather than decreases it.”

It is awesome that you have had experience with change management as well as with a consulting practice. Where do you think the most opportunity lies for a change management professional to use the mindset and concepts of your book to positively impact the experience of stakeholders going through change?
 
“I believe that the reason most of us do change management work is to make cultures better. We are trying to improve organizational life. It is filled more with meaningful work and engaging work when people are treated like human beings. I once heard Peter Block use the phrase, ‘Helping give people responsibility for their own freedom.’ How do you create a culture where people get to show up as adults and behave as such? I recently heard someone say, ‘Look, a corporate culture is just a collection of habits.’ If you define culture as the way we do things around here, that means these are the habits we have, these are the default ways of working that we have. Often change, in my experience, stays a little bit theoretical and a little bit high-level and a little bit abstract. When you say we are doing culture change, I think most people go, ‘Well, good for you; carry on and let me know how it goes.’ Because, it is hard for any individual to say, ‘I am just a tiny, tiny, tiny part of the equation in all of that. So, what is my role in changing the culture?’ However, when you start thinking about culture change as being habit change, they immediately start to ground the conversation by saying, ‘Well, what are we all doing habitually? Do we want to start changing some of those behaviors?’

With a coach approach, you are trying to slow down the rush to action. I have a bee in my bonnet that most approaches to change effectively default back to thinking that we are working with a system that is complicated but not complex. ‘If we just figure out the right levers and pull them in the right order, then good stuff is going to happen.’ If you have done change at all, the experience that everyone has had is that it is much more messy than that. Complex organizations are not linear in terms of cause and effect, they are systemic. You try something out and then you see what the repercussions are. Sometimes they happen like you were expecting and sometimes not at all. I think coaching can help contribute to people’s resilience around managing through complexity, which is hard and messy and confusing. I think coaching is a better- suited way of thinking when dealing with complexity because giving answers fits well with linear complicated systems, less well with complex systems. Staying curious and spending more time finding out what is at the heart of an issue. It seems better aligned with managing and understanding complex systems, which are what every organizational system actually is.”

How do you think the change management professional work can work with their project team and help them feel better or gain more internal energy with less project fatigue by using some of your coaching ideas?
 
“There are some questions which we talk about in the book that might be useful, in particular, the focus questions, for example, ‘What is the real challenge here for you?” if you get at the heart of what the real challenge is on any project, you are less likely to spend time flapping around trying to figure out and work on the wrong stuff. It is very tempting to try and solve the first thing that shows up rather than the real thing.

I think there is also something in the learning question, as well, the very final question in the book. Put simply, asking what is most useful or what is most valuable in order to create a cycle of continual learning helps keep our focus on the complexity issue. Asking and capturing answers to questions such as, ‘What did we learn from that? What does that now tell us? So, now what should we do?’ then making that wisdom and that learning explicit helps to creating that learning cycle.

I think the tool that has helped me to be more resilient and aware of self-preservation, during change, is the model called The Drama Triangle, which has its roots in something called transactional analysis. It connects us back to adult-to-adult relationships and parent-child relationships–understanding that when things get dysfunctional, these three different roles, the victim, the persecutor and the rescuer, play out and they trigger each other. When you are stuck in The Drama Triangle, you are at suboptimal. You are being reactive, you are behaving in a way that is not the best version of yourself, you are probably using up energy, feeling frustrated, feeling sad, feeling angry. In my experience, being able to continually frame what is going on through the Drama Triangle, noticing where I get caught up in The Drama Triangle and what that tells me about doing things differently is another way of trying to create resilience around change work.”

It sounds to me that, if project teams are given a framework within which to work then perhaps, as individuals, they could find more internal space to move their own psyche forward. Would you agree?
 
“Yes. The people who end up being some sort of champions of change, are often keen, well-meaning, big-hearted, thoughtful people who are trying to do their best by themselves, their peers and their organization. I loved Edgar Schein’s book called Helping. His important insight is that the very act of offering help one-ups the person offering it and one-downs the person who is on the receiving end. In doing so, the offerer creates a resistance to the very help that is being presented. So many of us in the change world get entangled in this. ‘I am here to save everybody.’ ‘I am here to help you fix you, save you, make this happen.’ In doing so, we immediately create resistance to everything we are trying to, with the best of intentions. So, there is a way of being able to watch that, to stay in the place of what Schein would call the ‘Humble Inquiry,’ to actually create that level of engagement and that invitation into a change process.”

It hit me as I was rereading your book that the coaching habit can be for everybody — it is not based on any hierarchy. It is a way of thinking about how you interact with people. So, given what you just mentioned about the Schein Helping theory, how do we as change management professionals help people slow down and feel like it is okay to use this approach in their day-to-day life?
 
“I can only suggest what I have tried and what has worked for me. Try and help people see that how they are currently operating is not suiting them as well as they think. Talk to them about the three vicious circles that managers and leaders often find themselves in — having an over-dependent team, having a sense of overwhelm, having a sense of disconnect from the bigger purpose of their situation. Help them sit in The Drama Triangle for a moment and understand how much time everybody spends in rescuer mode — how exhausting that is and frustrating and irritating, because you finally realize that when you are in rescuer mode, you are actually creating victims. You are not just trying to save them; you are also responsible for creating the victims. You have to start by asking, ‘Are you happy with how this is all working out for you so far?’ Make your question genuine, because if people respond by saying, ‘No, I am delighted with how it is all going at the moment,’ then it is hard to shift and show why they should change. However, if people respond by saying, ‘Yeah, I could do with this being a bit different.’ Then, it starts to be interesting.

For me, it is around demystifying coaching so that coaching does not feel like it is the purview of executive coaches or HR people or OD people or all touchy-feely people. Coaches are just ordinary people trying to be better managers and leaders by being more coach-like. Our core philosophy is that if you cannot coach in ten minutes or less, you do not have time to coach. Coaching is not meant to add additional burden, it is about trying to transform the interactions you currently have to make them more coach-like.

There is no point in trying to pour water into a full glass. Rather, try squirting a new color into the glass so it changes the nature of the water that is already there. It is an approach that you can incorporate it into your style of interaction — a way of being with each other.”


Originally published at www.changemanagementreview.com.