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  • Writer's pictureDr Kiran Chitta

Performance coaching supports agility

Many or most people in my network are aware that I have pursued ‘organizational’ or ‘occupational’ psychology as a professional discipline for a long time, and that my focus is the design and development of agile organizations (i.e., organizations with a high capacity for change) with agile leaders (i.e., leaders who are good at managing disruption and harnessing change).

Alongside mainstream organizational psychology, coaching psychology is increasingly becoming an area of deep personal and practical interest to me. Its relevance to the development of agile organizations is profound. In a nutshell coaching psychology is the underlying science – in one sense it is the human software – that powers most coaching practice around the world, at least where and when coaching is done ethically, and well by accredited professionals.

I plan to share regularly on different aspects of coaching psychology and its applications to work. My aim is to demystify the field and raise awareness of evidence-based coaching practice.

This first installment is a quick introduction to ‘performance coaching’ which has been popular for decades and at the same time, can easily be both misunderstood and misused.

Coaching is the art of facilitating the performance, learning and development of another[1]. John Whitmore defines it as unlocking peoples’ potential to maximize their own performance[2].

These definitions lead us to believe the goal of any coaching – whether we call it performance coaching or not - is the enhancement of performance. That is debatable. But at its heart, most coaching, whether it is conducted internally within an organization between colleagues, or externally by a professional coach, carries with it some implicit or explicit desire to make a change. This in turn very likely will need a person to make choices, to alter their actions and ultimately, to better themselves in some way.

It is possible to think about performance coaching as a process of fine-tuning or improving skill and behaviour, enabling goal clarity, and supporting action planning both in the short and long term, with the possibility also of enabling a deeper, personal transformation[3].

At a very basic level, performance coaching can help individuals and teams to reduce or get rid of the discrepancy between actual and required, desired, or targeted performance at something very specific that matters to them.

Performance coaching can also help individuals and teams to increase their ability to perform under pressure[4]. So, if you find that performance under pressure creates specific problems for you or your team at work, then performance coaching may be helpful. In this sense, it is very different from building and refining the physical or technical skills of your chosen profession, whether that is in the arts, business, technology, finance, law, medicine, sales and marketing, or human resource management.

So, performance coaching can help you to develop sustained enhancement in your ability to define, meet and exceed your goals.

It is not just about handling underperformance. There is no shame in seeking coaching for performance or being offered coaching to improve your performance. Indeed, the offer of professional coaching by your organization is usually a sign that others believe in you and want to invest in your capabilities.

We should also remember to differentiate between typical or regular performance from maximal, one-off ‘peak’ performance. It is regular or typical performance which has become the focus of most psychological performance coaching in work settings[5][6]. Managing a thirty or forty-year professional career in industry or government is not necessarily like training for peak athletic performance or for sporting events – even there are some parallels.

Performance coaching does have some of its historical roots in sports psychology. At the same time, performance coaching has evolved considerably. Elite sport - especially in today's celebrity sports culture - does have serious limitations in terms of generalizability to most ordinary work settings. Occupational psychology and coaching tools which have been researched in workplace settings are more likely to be relevant to people considering how to improve their performance consistently and over the long term in business or at work.

A psychological approach to performance coaching at work tends to differ from less psychologically grounded approaches to coaching by enabling both the pursuit of goals and personal wellbeing[7]. In my mind this combination is one of the hallmarks of psychological coaching. Qualified, practicing psychologists who are also trained in psychological coaching are required by statutory regulations that govern all recognized healthcare professions to be ethical, evidence-based, to know their own limitations, and always to act in the best interests of their clients.

Performance coaching has been applied in workplace settings for decades with positive results, for example to support organizational change[8]. Applications that have demonstrated the most success have tended to emphasize tapping into personal strengths and generating solutions to performance issues, rather than an analytical focus on problems.

Coaching research suggests that solutions-focused approaches can be highly effective and practical because they are intrinsically agile. While diagnostic or quasi-clinical analysis of problems or personal histories can still be relevant to understanding the core beliefs of a person, solutions-focused coaching approaches tend not to dwell on these for very long (ibid). Performance coaching has been applied in several different ways in myriad contexts. It can help address performing in public, managing pressure, assertiveness, confidence, time or task management, communication, decision-making, sustaining high performance. It can also help people to find and implement ways to deal with specific skill or knowledge deficits.

Applying the psychology of human performance within coaching in robust ways also helps to address psychological barriers to performance, or behavioural issues that may arise out of complex personality traits and developmental ‘interruptions’, such as perfectionism or procrastination[9][10]. This is where it possible to draw partly on clinical, or occupational, or other academic psychology roots in coaching practice[11].

It is possible to use performance coaching to support workplace stress reduction, even to the prevention of burnout[12]. If coaching can be a synthesis of performance enhancement with wellbeing, then individuals and whole organizations can flourish[13]. Coaching psychology researchers[14] have also pointed out that a coaching culture has both performance and people at its core, not just one or the other. This reconciliation of the need for high performance and human-centricity is also at the heart of organizational agility.

The research suggests that large-scale adoption of an evidence-based approach to performance coaching within a business, enhances organizational learning, leadership quality, innovation, creativity, and psychological safety. This is not the same as outsourcing coaching to a coaching company who then provide access to coaches (usually virtual). External coaching programmes are an important aspect of leadership development. However, it is not a proxy for building a coaching culture which supports the capacity for change within a business.

The precise and accurate definition of key constructs, measurement, and establishing longitudinal causal relationships amongst variables are ongoing challenges in all coaching psychology research. However, the evidence suggests that internal performance coaching undertaken well, in an evidence-based manner by appropriately skilled people, is likely to be helpful for human performance and wellbeing. This can be true both individually and at a wider systemic level, in pressurized and uncertain contexts.

Coaching – whether offered virtually or face-to-face - therefore acts as a complement to other organizational change tools and methods. Its impact should not be overstated or oversold. It is not a silver bullet. Equally, business leaders can be seduced by very sophisticated sounding business ‘transformation’ methodologies which require millions of dollars of consultancy spend. But the impact, relative ease of implementation, low risk, and cost effectiveness, of building a coaching culture, in improving organizational agility and performance are easily and - in my experience often - underestimated.

[1] Downey, M. (1999). Effective Coaching. London: Orion Business Books. [2] Whitmore, J. (1996). Coaching for Performance. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing. [3] Auerbach, J. (2001). Personal and Executive Coaching: The Complete Guide for Mental Health Professionals. Ventura, CA: Executive College Press. [4] Kaiser, R. B. (2019). Stargazing: Everyday lessons from coaching elite performers. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 71(2), 130-139. [5] Mouton, A. R. (2016). Performance coaching in sport, music, and business: From Gallwey to Grant, and the promise of positive psychology. International Coaching Psychology Review, 11(2), 129–141. [6] Lai, Y. & Passmore, J. (2019). Coaching psychology: Exploring definitions and research contribution to practice? International Coaching Psychology Review, 14(2), 69–83. [7] Grant, A.M., (2012). ROI is a poor measure of coaching success: towards a more holistic approach using a well-being and engagement framework. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 5(2), pp.74-85. [8] Grant, A. (2013). The Efficacy of Executive Coaching in Times of Organizational Change. Journal of Change Management, 14. 10.1080/14697017.2013.805159. [9] Palmer, S. & Gyllensten, K. (2008). How Cognitive Behavioural, Rational Emotive Behavioural or Multimodal Coaching could Prevent Mental Health Problems, Enhance Performance and Reduce Work Related Stress. J Rat-Emo Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy, 26, 38–52. [10] Ellam-Dyson, V. & Palmer, S. (2010). Rational coaching with perfectionistic leaders to overcome avoidance of leadership responsibilities. The Coaching Psychologist, 6. 5-11. [11] Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2002). Perfectionism and maladjustment: An overview of theoretical, definitional, and treatment issues. In G. L. Flett & P. L. Hewitt (Eds.), Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment (p. 5–31). American Psychological Association, [12] Grant, A. (2017). Solution-focused cognitive-behavioral coaching for sustainable high performance and circumventing stress, fatigue, and burnout. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 69. 98-111. 10.1037/cpb0000086.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Whybrow, A., & O'Riordan, S. (2012). Developing a coaching culture at work. In M. Neenan & S. Palmer (Eds.) Cognitive Behavioural Coaching in Practice: An Evidence Based Approach (p. 203–236). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

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