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Coachability: The Employee Centered Link Between Training And Performance


January 8, 2015 | by Dr. Joseph St. Meyer, Senior Consultant, St. Meyer and Hubbard



How can I focus my developmental efforts to be successful in a world of abundance.



A study in 2007 discovered that US employers spend more than $126 billion annually on training and development. This gargantuan number more than doubled the investment that was made a decade earlier. The US market for training and coaching is part of a worldwide effort that annually sees trillions of budget dollars change hands. Despite this commitment, 52% of employers surveyed consider themselves ineffective when it comes to employee development. To compound this bad news, only 13% believe they have a proper understanding of the skills and capabilities necessary to actionize the training. The major problem with training is transferring it to real world situations. It is estimated that only 10% of this huge investment pays off in the end.


These statistics emphasize the imperative to align training/coaching with daily efforts to improve performance results. Development isn't a procedure that a person goes through once a year as if it were a trip to the dentist. To burn in learned skills, the individual must adhere to a regimen of autonomy and self-motivation. Management articulates and encourages a specific vision, but it is up to the employee to strive every day toward his/her performance goals. To return to the dentist metaphor, if you want a healthy mouth, you need to practice proper hygiene every day.


What goes wrong?


Recently my father and I were chatting over a glass of wine and I asked him, rather naively, why individuals are often reluctant to devote themselves to improving their effectiveness at work. My Dad replied that several observable trends consistently emerge during the training workshops he leads. Participants come to training with differing levels of ability and, more importantly, desire to improve their sales skills. A portion of participants is willing to discuss and practice behaviors in a learning environment. They become rejuvenated and are eager to apply new skills to help their clients. A second cohort is willing to discuss and practice skills in the classroom, but won't apply to the job what they've learned. A third group of participants shows little willingness to practice new skills in the classroom and spends more energy making excuses and subverting the practice activities.


Some graduates of Dad's workshops return to work and achieve their goals, and some don't, but meeting or not meeting goals doesn't explain the willingness to be open to learning new skills. Clearly some participants enter training with an advantageous mindset, open to guidance and determined to improve, while others arrive in a protective shell, unwilling to challenge themselves.


My curiosity caused Dad to reflect on his twenty-five years of training and coaching experience, which provided some insights that we think are worth examining. To test his perceptions, Dad suggested that I explore the psychological dynamics of this problem. We wanted a scientific foundation for our conclusions about what is happening in offices all over the world. To illuminate the mechanisms of varying responses to training and coaching, I began by researching academic studies in organizational behavior, motivation, goal setting, self-management, and other related fields.


Psychologists have reached consensus in many topics related to career development and the importance of self-management. In this series of articles I will translate their findings from academic jargon into common parlance. We will explore concepts and approaches that will clarify what happens in our heads when we have an opportunity to change our orientation to work and life in general.




Buckets of ink have been spilled discussing the importance of leadership and management. Most of this literature discusses the employee as a passive object to be molded. Too often the employee is described according to some rubric of abilities. In short, thinking about management has become a way for employees to be herded into the categories that management invents. The authors discuss the employee's perspective only rarely and as another means to objectivize the employee. Management success is cut off from the employee's autonomous action. The manager is effective or ineffective in relation to her tactics, and the employee is only as good as the management he receives. Development is often considered a fixed outcome, rather than an ongoing process. An employee either gets it or doesn't. It's no wonder the stats above demonstrate that employees leave development training without internalizing the intended skills and perspectives. Nobody apparently councils them to consistently pursue—at their own initiative—the mental strategies and orientations that will enable them to excel and to achieve what the organization considers valuable.


After studying the conclusions of management experts, we see an opportunity to take a look at the issue from the other end, from the employee's position, where a coach's/manager's efforts are either heeded or rejected. We consider the relationship between management and employee to be like that of a coach and player. As in sports, management and employee have a mutual interest in the latter's development and success. Sharing an interest, however, doesn't always produce good results.


A fantastic coach can lose his voice trying to get through to a player, and no amount of admonishment will overcome the player's rigidity. The player must be coachable, which means having a learning mindset that considers skills and aptitudes to be acquirable and improvable, not as inherent entities. Coachability is an attitude that sees work as a developmental activity that is an ongoing journey of growth and achievement. It is a willingness and ability to be open to challenges, guidance, and feedback. A coachable person is self-motivated to overcome weaknesses and refine strengths. Coachability internalizes the wisdom of the coach and views the relationship as mutually beneficial. It invigorates one's career, ushering in new strategies and honing new skills. Coachability is the missing link between management's developmental investments and the employee's performance.


In these articles we're formulating practical information about how our mental life affects our behavior. Our objective is to provide you with fresh perspectives of what happens at work and how it affects your mind—or saying it in a more autonomous way, how your mind influences what happens at work. Our emphasis is that your mentality, thought processes, attitudes, and strategic behavior are in your control. You have the power to digest the inputs and stimuli related to your career, and it is your choice which nutrients you get. We will explain the advantages—in terms of professional success and personal well-being—of having a learning mentality and admitting that management's developmental efforts aren't simply humbug or harsh criticism.


This monthly column analyzes coachability in terms of: 1) how we experience management's efforts; 2) how we view outcome expectancies; 3) how we contribute to our success or failure; 4) how we use each day to develop our skills; 5) how we communicate, listen to, and process information; 6) how we learn to help our clients and to be better teammates.


Step One


The first step of being coachable is to believe unwaveringly that management has your best interests in mind. This controlling insight is the best explanation for most events. It forms the matrix of your responses to management and events at work. It is a rational view of management as a partner and investor in your career. With this conviction a learning mentality develops. This isn't as simple as it sounds because it requires a potentially delicate acknowledgement that you have room to improve. This means being vulnerable to the identification of shortcomings and being open to new performance challenges. For this process to be successful, it is essential to uproot deeply buried assumptions about yourself, your job's requirements, the opinions of others, and how you experience work. In many ways your discomfort level might increase as you are disturbed from your daily habits. Habits are indeed a source of control, but unlike being coachable, they restrict growth and therefore success.


To be coachable you must overcome several fallacies—originating internally—that restrain your ability to improve. These false notions include thinking that:


  1. I either have skills or I don't
  2. My boss must never see me admitting insufficiency
  3. I must always know
  4. I must always be right
  5. I must never admit that I need to learn
  6. Everyone must consider me innately qualified


A personal example of how fallacies can be dysfunctional happened regularly to me during graduate school. My advisor would comment on my written work with such salvoes as "heavy handed," "clumsy," or "you need to work on your writing." I had no idea what such commentary meant or how to use it to improve my writing. What I took from his comments were injury and insult, rather than guidance. If I had been more coachable and adopted a learning mentality, I would have asked him to elaborate and give me practical suggestions, instead of convincing myself that he was an unhelpful naysayer.


Many of us are motivated by a fear of seeming incompetent; unfortunately, too many of us have made avoiding incompetence a goal. Coachability involves admitting that competence isn't a fixed entity that one has or doesn't have. Instead, it is a conviction that learning and development, practice and process are the ways to be and feel competent. Coachability is the engine for progressive mastery at work. Pursuing mastery is a significant motivation because it never ends completely; once the process of mastering one thing has been accomplished, you will find more challenges to master. You'll feel the exuberance of the mastery process, and you'll become addicted.




Next month's column will examine the second step of coachability: self-appraisal. We encourage you to reflect on your assumptions and beliefs about your development. Are you a finished product? Do you have a learning mentality? What skills have you learned recently? What skills, if learned, would improve your performance? How does management contribute to your development? Are you being coachable? Review your answers and identify any irrational impediments. Focus on things that you can control.



Dr. Joseph St. Meyer has earned bachelor's degrees in psychology from the University of Iowa and in history from Northern Illinois University. In 2013, Dr. St. Meyer was awarded a Ph.D. in history from Stanford University. His intellectual training focuses on the origins and developments of modern psychology, philosophy, and politics. He has taught at Stanford University and delivered research papers at universities nationally and internationally. Dr. St. Meyer is a senior consultant at St. Meyer & Hubbard. He writes about coaching and coachability, especially the relationship between thought processing and performance.