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The pitfalls of coaching on the fly

Quick-fire coaching has its place but is fast becoming the norm as opposed to reflective and insightful coaching discussions

What does coaching on the fly and a plaster have in common? Both are quick fix solutions not long-term remedies to addressing a problem. Would you use a plaster to patch up a wound which really required sutures? No, of course not. Yet this is what is happening in the world of coaching.

Speaking to a colleague a few weeks ago, we reflected on the evolving coaching cultures in organisations and how some bad habits were becoming all pervasive. This led us on to coaching on the fly. So, what do we mean by this? Put simply, it's coaching conversations which take place ad hoc, as opportunities present themselves. Sure, it has its place yet we had both observed that this was fast becoming the coaching norm as opposed to investing time in reflective and insightful coaching discussions. And this is where the problem lies. So, when should we use Coaching on the fly?

This is a great tool to use in the moment. You observe an interaction between two members of staff say, which could have gone better not least because neither party seemed to be actively listening. It makes perfect sense to share perceptions, learn from the experience and commit to a strategy to alleviate any future occurrences. It’s a timely intervention as it focuses on the situation, the behaviour and the impact; the fact that it is also solution -ocused helps to reinforce the learning.

However, would it be appropriate to use coaching on the fly in a situation where there is ongoing conflict? Possibly, if you observe an interaction or it is reported to you. However by engaging in short bursts of discussion is this likely to effectively address enduring behaviour? Is it a good return on investment for the organisation? What is the impact on the coach's time and overall performance? And does it in the long term devalue the coaching programme in an organisation? Let’s take each in turn.

Persistent behaviour is usually a learned behaviour, and using the current example, it may very well be that one party has developed the strategy of not actively listening as way of wearing others down and eventually getting their own way. They may, of course, be genuinely unaware of how they are perceived by others. Coaching on the fly may address the issue presently but is it really likely to get to the actual root of the behaviour? I would suggest not.

If it is a learned behaviour asking the person in question to reflect on what the behaviour really achieves is a powerful starter for ten. Coaching them through their reality shows commitment and investment in them, and will be more successful in encouraging them to realise for themselves that the strategy in the long-term is not an effective one for all sorts of reasons, not least that it will erode trust and rapport. This can then progress to a discussion on what other options there are to achieving the same goal as well as testing their will to really change the way they think.

Does coaching on the fly deliver a return on investment? Probably difficult to set initial targets and measures for, but arguably it is effective as a short burst intervention. Addressing an issue in the moment is really good performance management and all managers should be trained on how to manage this effectively. Nipping issues in the bud prevents situations escalating and leading to costly grievance investigations, individuals going off sick, and the impact on the wider team. Coaching style conversations negate any adversarial perception and more likely restore working relationships quickly and effectively, thus saving the organisation time and money.

What about the coach? Arguably, coaches who favour coaching on the fly may find their own work characterised by fragmentation and brevity which impacts on overall performance and effectiveness. Frequent interruptions can impact on train of thought, encroach on time and if, left unmanaged, can have an adverse impact on the overall effectiveness of the coach. It may also lead to the skills of the coach being eroded over time as they never have the opportunity to really hone their own skills through good quality coaching conversations using a range of tools and reflective practice both for self and the coachee.

Finally, let’s consider the value of coaching programmes in organisations. Endorsing coaching on the fly as a preferred way of coaching may very well impact on the value people attach to the coaching programme. Coaching relies heavily on trust and rapport, and if each conversation is only ever short bursts then one could argue that true trust and rapport is never truly established as the core problems or issues are never fully explored. Consequently, over time the strategies deployed by the coachee may become less and less effective and as a direct consequence they may very well believe that the coaching has not worked for them.

In short coaching on the fly has its uses but is no substitute for a targeted coaching intervention.

Louise Frayne is an executive coach and OD consultant