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Changing the state people are in – coaching feature


This feature was contributed by Dr Michael Waters, Senior Coach and Consultant for Performance Coaching International.

Skills aside, what is the key factor affecting the performance of people at work. I have no doubt that the key factor is the state(s) people are in.

Before I elaborate, let me explain what I mean by state.

‘State’ is broadly equivalent to ‘mood’, though I prefer ‘state’ because it suggests something more active and volitional. We talk about ‘being in’ a mood but about ‘getting ourselves into’ a state. We often mean ‘bad’ state, but if we can get into a bad state then we ought to be able to get into a ‘good’ one.

At any one time, the state we are in will include our thoughts, our feelings and bodily sensations and what we are doing with our physical body. State is an holistic phenomenon and so changing one component may affect others. For example, we can change our background emotion by shifting the focus of our thoughts or by changing our posture in specific ways.

There is no one entirely satisfactory compound adjective to evoke the totality of a state. Here I shall use ‘neurophysiological state’ or ‘mind-body state’ (which includes emotions) or simply ‘state’.

State is critically important because how well we perform at virtually any activity depends upon the state that we are in at the time. For one thing, the kind of state we are in determines how well we are able to access and use the relevant task skills. I may be a generally good golfer, but how well I play a particular round of golf will depend mainly upon my particular neurophysiological state at the time. If I can’t focus on the game, or my focus is disabling in some way, then the chances are that this will impact negatively upon my muscular-skeletal system (amongst others) and I’m not likely to play at my best. Having skills is one thing; being able to utilise them when you need to is quite another.

What is true of a game of golf is true of any activity in which we engage, from making a presentation to writing a report to dealing with a difficult client to making love. In the ‘wrong’ state our performance is likely to be below par. Being in the ‘right’ state can mean optimal performance - or, at least, the internal conditions for it.

The excellent news is that we don’t have to put up with being in a state that is unhelpful to us. We can manage our state so that we move from a less resourceful to a more resourceful state. We need to do this intelligently and with respect for our feelings; becoming more estranged from the wisdom of our bodily sensations than most of us already are is not a good idea.

Managing our mind-body states intelligently, then, does not mean pretending most of the time to feel something we don’t (like ‘positive’) or ignoring what we do feel. Rather, it means having some awareness of factors which impact on our state - such as what we eat, our sleep patterns, exercise, time of day and self-beliefs. Above all, it means acquiring through training and coaching the skills and techniques to move ourselves into the states that are going to be most supportive of the tasks we need to do and the behaviours we need to display.

If, for example, we need to accomplish a learning task, then it might serve us to shift into a moderately aroused state of curiosity. If we have to deal with a sudden surge of paperwork, then the best state may be one of calm confidence. Whatever the task, the ability to get into a productive and appropriately resourceful state will significantly affect our efficiency, effectiveness and well-being.

In the last few years, I have been developing state management techniques for organisations as well as for individuals. I call this application, unsurprisingly Organisational State Management (OSM).

OSM involves training the people who work for a company, a school, a hospital or whatever to be better at managing their own states. But it also involves giving them the skills to manage or influence respectfully the states of co-workers, pupils, patients etc. Few people in management and leadership roles ever receive training in this crucial area, and yet state management skills may be the most fundamental skills that effective ‘leaders’ require.

Let me give a simple example of a state management technique in practice. Joan, a team leader, has asked David, a junior co-worker, to do a job. Joan knows that David has the necessary skills, but notices that he isn’t confident about it. One thing Joan can do is get David to recall a time when he did something really confidently. If Joan does this skilfully, then David won’t simply recall a situation, he will also return to the mindbody state he was in at the time. This should put him in a confident enough state to tackle the task. If Joan has really done a good job, then David should also be able to enter this confident state more or less at will whenever he needs to in the future.

The value of investing in state management training becomes clear when we consider what tends to happen when the senior people in an organisation perceive the need for major changes to the ways their people operate. One response is to change the culture. This can involve shifting entrenched values and attitudes, and is usually long-term and risky in terms of producing the intended outcomes. The other response is to require staff to do things differently. Attempting to change behaviour directly can be one of the biggest mistakes an organisation can make. There’s usually resistance, and if the required behaviours don’t stem naturally from how people think and feel, the chances are they won’t be sustained.

Training a critical mass of key managers (or equivalent) to better manage the states of their people, both individually and collectively, has more obvious and immediate effects than culture change, and can lead to behavioural changes that flow naturally from the states people are in. That is, state management can be the ‘middle way’ to achieve the best of both worlds.

There is another massive benefit to state management training: those who experience it very soon appreciate that it has personal as well as professional applications. People like to feel that they have some control over how they think and feel away from work as well as at it. State management skills can also be applied to non-work contexts, such as home. The strong WIIFM factor means that training in state management rarely has to be ‘sold’.

I’ve found that training is most effective when coupled with coaching. Having acquired the basic skills and techniques, managers (and ideally, most or all staff over-time) benefit from discussing their application in practice, getting some feedback on performance and probably some further ideas and the opportunity for fine-tuning of their techniques.

Is there more to Organisational State Manager than training and coaching? Yes, OSM can and usually should involve the following:

- ‘auditing’ the current dominant and characteristic states of the organisation, and determining whether they are the best ones for it;

- setting specific state goals and a strategy to move from present states to desired ones (‘climate change’);

- looking at aspects of the social and physical environments of work settings to see whether they can make more positive contributions to 'office moods'.

Over the last few years a number of books have been written about improving the climate of the workplace. Some are about positive states in general - such as Cranfield and Miller’s focus on self-esteem in Heart At Work (1998). Others focus more specifically on fun - David Firth’s How to Make Work Fun! (1995), for example.

OSM covers both of these things, but it’s not primarily about making people feel good about themselves, important as this is, nor about having a great time at work (interestingly, there’s evidence to show that a state of fun and happiness does not always get the best out of people). OSM is about getting people in the kinds of states that make them want to be in their current job. Above all, it’s about enabling them to get into the best mental and emotional states to perform excellently and with a high level of personal well-being. There’s nothing much more important than this for business success.


Heart AT Work (1998) Jack Cranfield & Jacqueline Miller. New York. McGraw Hill.

How To Make Work Fun (1995) David Firth. Aldershot: Gower.

Dr Michael Waters
Senior Coach and Consultant for Performance Coaching International


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