Regardless of how high-performing we may be, we all have areas which may call for improvement, both known and unknown. Sometimes we uncover these areas for improvement but lack the discipline or accountability to actually carry through with this process. Other times we simply have blind spots about our performance. We all have that friend or family member who is confident they are a great singer. They unabashedly display their “talents” at the first opportunity, while everyone else internally cringes. These types of blind spots can come up in a professional role too, since people often overestimate their knowledge, skills, and abilities.
The way to address both these known and unknown challenges is through coaching. Coaching is probably the most misunderstood and underestimated professional growth methods in the entire talent and development field. This is not completely surprising, given the fact that the coaching field is fairly new, quite broad, and overwhelmingly diverse. Even executive coaches have wide divergences in their skillsets, experience, and training. Some define coaching on their own terms, attempting to align what they have been doing for years or even decades without any formal parameters to the higher standards now expected of the profession.
Coaching is not even that well-defined by the International Coach Federation (ICF), the premier global organization charged with assessing the skills and talents of coaches and providing coaching certifications. The ICF defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential, which is particularly important in today’s uncertain and complex environment.” I personally think this definition, while a useful start, encompasses far too much vague jargon and is too broad to be meaningful.
Further complicating this situation is the frequency with which large, prestigious, and complex organizations require their leaders and managers to perform coaching without providing uniformity in their training curriculum. The mistakes often made in the name of professional development include “coaching” just to get someone to do something a certain way, limiting coaching to dealing with performance issues, being overly rigid in the set-up of coaching conversations (only asking questions, assuming that coaching can only be done in a time-intensive manner), and thinking of coaching as something that is done to someone versus actually co-creating a professional development relationship.
Rather than follow the ICF definition or what companies may mistakenly self-define as coaching, I offer my own definition, based directly on the business needs of my own clients: a future and solution-oriented method of personalized collaboration with others to illuminate blind spots and maintain accountability towards goals. My definition and that of the ICF is not so different, I just think it is a bit more direct and business oriented. I hold the same assumptions as the ICF: the importance of the partnership framework between coach and coachee, reached through empathy, the assumption that the coachee is capable of ascertaining their own creative solutions to problems and challenges, and the overarching importance of the self as a powerful source of motivation and accountability. Put simply, we are only going to undertake the work to improve when we accurately know our capabilities and areas for improvement and we have a supportive accountability partner to keep us moving forward.
Workers today have a tall order: maintain competitive skillsets and agility in executing business goals, remain engaged and committed to whatever is necessary to achieve business results, and almost continuously adapt to change (in roles, processes, work environments, work culture, and technology) at a time when organizations themselves have more competitive pressure than ever. What we do at work, how we work, who does the work, and where we work keeps changing, all the while our very human blindspots remain as a stubborn vestige of our less sophisticated past. Regardless of generation, all of us in the workforce today have experienced more rapid change over the course of our professional lifetimes than at any other time in human history. And as if that isn’t enough, our brains aren’t actually that well-equipped to manage this pressure.
Research by psychologists Justin Kruger and David Dunning conducted in 1999 demonstrates just how unaware we may be of our blindspots, even without the pressure experienced by workers today. Their groundbreaking work demonstrates that humans typically overestimate their capabilities in a wide variety of domains. This overestimation not only gives us a false sense of our own skills, knowledge, and capacity, it has a more troubling aspect: our lack of competence may curiously prevent us from realizing just how below-average our performance may be.
Human brains being what they are, without accurate knowledge of our blindspots we may easily assume that we have performed well, robbing us of the opportunity to see ourselves clearly and also know definitely what we need to do to improve our performance. Put simply, if we are not as accomplished in any given area, we will also lack the full capacity to see our performance in that area accurately. As unintentional novices, we do not have the overarching capacity to know what great performance actually looks like.
Kruger and Dunning’s research indicates that, through training and high-quality coaching, we can overcome our incompetence and also attain a more realistic picture of our capabilities and also what we need to improve to meaningfully enhance our skills. Curiously, those that already are “above-average” in a domain may also possess a false belief in their capabilities that is quite opposite from their “below-average” counterpart. They may underestimate their abilities, based on the false assumption that their peers are better than they actually are. What the less competent (their own capabilities) and the most competent get wrong (capabilities of others) are equally problematic. People in either category greatly benefit from the clarity provided by working with a skilled coach.
One of the main questions posed by Kruger and Dunning is, how do the less skilled get as far as they do in their careers without realizing they have these distinct blindspots? Quite simply, they may never receive the truly honest feedback from colleagues, friends, and/or family that they need in order to be aware of their weaknesses. Further, even if they do receive useful feedback or information that could be helpful in forming an accurate assessment of their performance, they still need assistance in understanding the full picture of their performance. For any given situation to be a success, many factors must simultaneously work out, yet for failure, any one factor may sink the entire undertaking. Therefore, even if a less-talented person does receive helpful feedback, their brain may still attribute their overall challenges to other factors. Finally, the less skilled are not as likely to learn by watching the behavior of others and comparing themselves, simply because they are less able to spot the skillful (and their particular success behaviors) in any given situation.
In each one of these situations, the benefits of coaching are clear: coaches spur the coachee to attain more accurate feedback (through assessments as a part of their engagement), deliver this information to the coachee in a non-threatening and supportive way, create the psychological safety necessary for the coachee to fully digest this new and more precise information about their capabilities, and assist in co-creating a roadmap that is squarely focused on achieving improvement goals. Equally as important, coaches serve as accountability partners, keeping coachees focused, engaged, and committed to a defined course of action.
Now that you are aware of our own human limitations, on our own self-perceptions and our need for external accountability, coaching seems essential, doesn’t it? We cannot improve what we either don’t want to be accountable for improving or we don’t even know needs improving. Since coaching provides a crucial external “mirror” reflecting back and overcoming our incompetence and/or lack of interest in doing the work to advance our skills, it is an incredibly powerful method of achieving professional development results. I would argue that it is an absolutely essential method, since it provides the crucial next step of awareness and accountability that will ensure that training, mentoring, feedback, and other development resources are actually put to use. Put this way, how can you afford to not provide coaching or train your staff in appropriate coaching skills? Are you comfortable with ‘good enough’ or are you ready to obtain even further advanced performance for yourself and from others?
 “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1999), Vol. 77, No. 6, 1121-1134 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10626367