By Martin Goodyer (United Kingdom)
Stress all starts with a belief that ‘things are as they are, and that’s that!’ Often managers believe that stress is useful, and that it needs to be embraced because it helps the job get done quicker, better, or more efficiently. On the other hand, they may also accept that stress can be bad for you, that it’s better if you have less stress, or if you do get stressed, that you have a way of managing it. The difference between the two is usually that the first applies to the people who work for them, while the second is how they think about themselves.
It turns out that both are factually accurate, but only if they are actually believed: One of the most quoted studies into stress started just before the end of the last century; 30,000 adults in the United States were questioned about their stress experience and if they believed it was harmful to their health. 8 years later the 30,000 were analysed to establish how many had died, and how that might relate to their beliefs about stress; it appeared that those with high levels of stress may have increased their risk of dying by 43%, ouch! However, what’s interesting is that this increased risk of death was only reflected in those people who already believed that stress was bad for them. It may sound weird, but the research suggests that those who admitted having high levels of stress, but didn’t see it as harmful were not more likely to die than anyone else; even more strangely, their risk appeared lower that those who reported not being very stressed at all. It’s a disturbing piece of evidence for anyone who has bought into the idea that stress is the enemy; stress might not be the enemy at all, in fact, it could be that it’s the idea that stress is the enemy that’s causing people to have problems, and maybe even dying early. It’s clear, therefore, that if coaching in the workplace is to improve managerial effectiveness, it needs to do something about changing managerial beliefs about the causes and effects of stress. If they are to be more effective, and keep their employees from an early grave, then they must find a way to prevent stress getting in the way of performance.
If I have learned one thing in twenty-years of full time coaching it’s that trying to address a limiting belief is not easy; a belief may be at the heart of a problem, but the manager rarely sees their own situation clearly at first, and the time it takes to help them ‘get there’ can make the coaching intervention appear somewhat long-winded. I have therefore come to the conclusion that a simpler, faster, easier and instantly effective means of shifting behaviour will deliver better results. That’s not to say that more traditional approaches to coaching need replacing, merely that they are better supplemented by an ‘in-the-moment’ coaching approach; an approach that changes behaviours without any needing to engage with beliefs.
Coaching ‘in-the-moment’ happens when managers acquire tools to change the way they engage with difficult, often stressful, situations; the premise being that their current approach isn’t giving them the best results, and that if a quick and simple way of getting better results were available, they’d like to have it. This premise works because it’s grounded in reality, so when the question is posed; “Would you like to know how to do get better results more quickly?” the answer is almost inevitably “Yes, please!”
Now, acronyms are a useful way of communicating a simple idea, and in this instance my own is ‘HALT!’, but let me be clear; it’s not a clever acronym that changes behaviour, but the way a coach engages with a manager or a team of managers, and helps them acquire an effective way of using it. The coaching ‘in-the-moment’ approach is simple; it is to change the way a manager deals with difficult situations, achieved by finding a way to hold back from rushing in, to hesitate and hold on for a moment before doing what they would usually do, and then having reflected, to take the opportunity to ask a good question rather than leaping in with an instruction. After asking the question, the manager must then listen not only for the reply, but also raise their awareness of the underlying meaning of that reply, before then taking some action that creates forward momentum. Hopefully leading to a better outcome; it’s coaching, but not necessarily as we know it, it’s ‘coaching-in-the-moment’. The acronym isn’t necessarily important; there are any number of potential clever memory triggers that could be made up, some of which are fabulous. However, as I said, it’s the concept that matters and not the hook that goes with it, so go ahead and knock yourself out if you want to make up your own. For me, HALT! pretty much says it all; Hold on, Ask a better question, Listen between the lines, and then Take appropriate action that ‘!‘ has a positive impact, now!
Stress often appears when the competing issues of process management and people management tug away at each other, and ‘Coaching-in-the moment’ is a brilliant tool for addressing this most common of problems. It’s normally stressful because neither one is more important than the other; the business can’t run properly without effective processes, yet the processes can’t be effective without properly managed people. It’s not one or the other it’s one and the other. When the tugging starts, ‘holding on for a sec’ and creating space to reflect, helps. It’s as simple as that; it helps, because the manager has time to breathe and think more clearly, and because they raise their awareness, they see more choices, and because it moves them from feeling their own emotions of being focused on a better outcome. By asking better questions, and genuinely listening to the answers, they more easily bring the two apparently opposing poles or ‘process’ or ‘people’ together without one pushing the other away. Processes and people both matter, and stress end up being either ‘creative tension’ or a ‘pain that won’t go away’ depending on how difficult conversations are managed. Taking action to move a problem closer to a resolution is far more effective when negative stress appears to have been removed.
‘Coaching-in-the-moment’ and the use of acronyms like HALT!, intrinsically connect the needs and desires of the people involved in the conversation, and are exclusively focused on the task in hand; by breaking existing patterns of their own behaviour, the manager is learning how to achieve better results with what they have, and by deepening their engagement with employees they are likely to get better results from those employees as they utilise more of what they too already have. Like tuning a radio to a better station, they learn to adjust their behaviour in particular circumstances so that what was once their ‘normal’ response to a situation now is a trigger that reminds them of a better, more productive or more effective way to respond. When managers become ‘coaching managers’ then ‘management effectiveness’ improvements are pretty much guaranteed.
- Tough to break patterns of behaviour are changed in a heartbeat when HALT! is applpied.
- Beliefs about stress are only a problem if people worry about stress being bad for them because they’re not in control; ‘coaching-in-the-moment’ provides stress relief by giving back a feeling of control.
- There is a spectrum of behaviour ranging from being purely process driven to completely people oriented; ‘coaching-in-the-moment’ allows managers to stay focused, and move up and down the spectrum as appropriate.
HALT!© copyright Martin Goodyer 2016 All rights reserved; may only be used on the express condition that reference is made to the copyright owner.