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Coaching for Excellent Performance


Coaching for Excellent Performance
by Graham Guest

This article first appeared in the December 1999 issue of Training Journal and is reproduced here with the permission of the Editor, Debbie Carter.

Many businesses proclaim that their people are their greatest asset. This is an attractive idea, particularly to the assets themselves. Some of the businesses making this statement actually believe it. Of those that believe it some will try to put the philosophy into practice.

This might seem like a cynical opening to an article, but it is true that if we observe businesses closely we see that manipulation and control are still the favoured tools of management. Kofman and Senge (1995) ask, ‘Why do we confront learning opportunities with fear rather than wonder? […] Why do we create controlling bureaucracies when we attempt to form visionary enterprises?’ They suggest that the main dysfunctions in our institutions - fragmentation, competition, and reactiveness - are actually by-products of our success over thousands of years in conquering the physical world and in developing our scientific, industrial culture.

What, from a modern-day business perspective, are indeed dysfunctions, in the past served humankind well in the battle for survival and in trying to understand the workings of the universe. To find out how something worked it was necessary to break it down into its component parts. It was then understood as being no more than the sum of those parts. It was not only inanimate objects that were understood as mechanisms, but also organisations and the human beings which they comprise. If something is wrong with a mechanism we try to find the part responsible and either fix it or replace it. This procedure works well for most objects, but can be disastrous when applied to organisations and people.

Managing an organisation has traditionally been a mechanistic operation. When part of the organisation malfunctions the manager attempts to put it right by some form of localised intervention, only to discover something going wrong somewhere else. Consider the carpet-laying metaphor. When we amateurs try to lay a carpet we find that a bump mysteriously appears in one part of it. Being amateurs, we put our foot on the bump and it disappears. We think we have cured the problem, but when we turn around another bump has appeared as mysteriously as the first one. Indeed it is the same bump manifesting itself in a different way. We need to adopt an approach to solving the problem which is holistic rather than mechanistic - an approach involving the whole carpet!

Mental models

Mental models of reality help us to make sense of the world. A simple example of a model is a map of a city’s metro system. The chaotic arrangement of tracks, stations and interchanges existing in reality is represented on the map by an orderly pattern of coloured lines, small spikes and circles. It is perhaps unlikely that anyone would assume the tracks to be prettily coloured in reality, but people might well assume that the actual layout of the tracks is accurately mirrored by the map. In any case it is the model that we carry in our mind. How we imagine the metro system does not have a great effect on our life or that of our friends and colleagues.

But we also carry more important models, such as models of how people think or act, or of how organisations are structured and operate. From these models we can draw generalisations, such as ‘all the people I work with are dishonest’ or ‘my organisation doesn’t trust anyone to act on their own initiative’. Senge (1990) says that the problems with mental models lie not in whether they are right or wrong - by definition all models are simplifications. The problems arise when the models are tacit - when they exist below the level of awareness. Some of our models, including those of people and their roles, can be deeply ingrained. Here is an example:

A boy is brought into a hospital, having been in a car crash. He has serious injuries and a surgeon is called to examine him.

The surgeon arrives, looks at the boy and says, ‘There is an ethical reason why I can't operate on this patient - he is my son.’

But the surgeon is not the boy's father, so what is their relationship?

The answer is near the end of this article and it is surprising how many people end up kicking themselves for not seeing the "obvious".

Learning and change

When we are faced with a problem, such as the bumpy carpet, we can take some sort of action to resolve it. If we solve the problem by our action we have had a learning experience such that if the problem occurs again we can draw on our learning and apply the same solution. But what if the problem, when it occurs a second time, is not solvable by the same action? Generally we will look for another way to solve it. However, when problems occur in complex systems it is not always easy to detect causal connections and we might go on applying one solution because our mental model of the situation tells us that that is the correct solution.

Argyris (1957) labelled the ability to assess the environment and make changes "single-loop learning". The ability to look at the mental models we hold about the environment and our resulting behaviour he called "double-loop learning". The inability to recognise that we apprehend organisational situations as mental models, with the associated inability to apply double-loop learning to these situations, means that organisations become rigid and resistant to change.


I have commented on managing organisations, but what about managing people? Murphy (1995) maintains that "managing" people is a guarantee that one will never create a learning organisation. He says that even now most managers don’t yet understand how manipulative most human resource approaches are and how such approaches invisibly undermine their very purpose: excellent performance. He calls for a change from managing people to coaching them and refers to what he calls generative coaching, based on the work of James Flaherty. Generative coaching is a way of understanding people in their wholeness, followed by conversations and actions consistent with that understanding. Such a process requires of both the coach and the client a continual reassessment of their mental models. They need to recognise that all models are "wrong" by definition and accept that they are participating in a mutual learning process. The essence of coaching - and to my mind all coaching is generative coaching - requires the coach to:

1. discover how the client interprets, or makes sense of, the world. What do the client’s mental models look like?

2. help the client see the structure of the mental models she is employing and indeed recognise that they are models and not reality.

3. assist the client to detach himself from the models for long enough to see that there are possibilities for new choices.

In short, it is the job of the coach to help the client see new possibilities and provide a space in which the client can consider making different decisions based on a wider range of possibilities. By accompanying the client to a new "meta-position" the coach participates in the client’s double-loop learning process. Coaching is not about teaching, supervising or instructing. It is
primarily about listening and establishing a relationship based on mutual trust, respect, commitment and confidentiality. Flaherty (1999) himself presents coaching as a way of working with people that leaves them more competent and more fulfilled so that they are more able to contribute to their organisations and find meaning in what they are doing. He describes the products of coaching as

Long-term excellent performance



Long-term excellent performance means that the client meets the high objective standards of the discipline in which coaching is occurring. Well-coached clients can observe how they are performing and are able to make adjustments to their performance without the coach’s intervention. This self-correction on the part of clients helps the coach avoid the temptation of feeling that he or she is indispensable. As human beings we can always improve. Well-coached people are aware of this and, through a process of self-generation, will find ways of doing so on their own.

Coaching and mentoring are often treated as synonymous or seen to overlap. It is helpful though to distinguish between them. Mentors have usually followed a path similar to that along which the mentee is travelling and can therefore help define and work through personal and professional issues. Mentoring generally involves a long-term relationship. Coaches, as I have tried to show, play a more proactive role in orienting a person to the realities of the organisation, helping him or her to remove barriers to optimum performance whilst maintaining personal and professional integrity.

Following Murphy again, we might summarise the coaching relationship and the role of the coach as follows:

The coaching relationship

· involves mutual commitment, trust and respect

· encourages freedom of expression

· is pragmatic in employing useful models

· recognises differences between coach and client

· is process-oriented and avoids "techniques"

· is reciprocal, with both coach and client learning

The coach

· designs coaching conversations

· effectively assesses the client’s structure of interpretation

· is non-judgemental

· speaks openly and honestly, allowing the client to act

· listens positively and actively

· is able to resolve breakdowns in communication

· acts with

rigour, upholding the standards of the discipline being coached

creativity, being inventive

flexibility, being experimental whilst staying tuned to the client

consistency, upholding standards

patience, persisting and waiting without complaint


You might be surprised to learn that in the story above, the surgeon was the boy’s mother. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you didn’t get it. Even though Dr Watson learned much from the coaching of Sherlock Holmes, he still couldn’t discover all the possible mental models for a given situation, as the following story, which you won’t find in the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, shows!

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson went on a camping trip together. After a good dinner they lay down and fell asleep. Some hours later Holmes awoke and nudged his friend, Watson.

'Watson,' he said, 'look up and tell me what you see.'

'I see a lot of stars in the sky,' replied Watson.

'And what does that tell you?' asked Holmes.

'Well, astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies in the universe. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and we are insignificant. Meteorologically, I believe we will have a fine day tomorrow. And what does it tell you, Holmes?'

'It tells me, Watson, that someone has stolen our tent!'


Argyris, C. (1957) Personality and Organisation. New York: Harper.

Flaherty, J. (1999) Coaching: Evoking Excellence in Others. Boston: Butterworth Heinemann.

Kofman, F. and Senge, P. M. (1995) "Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organisations" In Chawla, S. and Renesch, J. (Eds.) Learning Organisations: Developing Cultures for Tomorrow’s Workplace. Portland, Oregon: Productivity Press.

Murphy, K. (1995) "Generative Coaching: A Surprising Learning Odyssey." In Chawla, S. and Renesch, J. (Eds.) Learning Organisations: Developing Cultures for Tomorrow’s Workplace. Portland, Oregon: Productivity Press.

Senge, P. M. (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation. London: Century Business.

As well as being a Coach and Counsellor, Graham Guest is a Learning Consultant for The Institute of Continuing Professional Development (ICPD) and Secretary-General of the European Higher Engineering and Technical Professionals Association (EurEta).


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