The Subtle Different Between Coaching Up and Being a Pain the Ass
How to improve your ability to work up in the organizational chart
I’m sure many of you in organizations of every shape and size see the need and opportunity to coach up. But coaching your boss, or other leaders beyond that, can be a tricky business. Despite it being one of the most substantial areas of leverage for a change agent, it is also a grossly underdeveloped skill. The efforts I see from many are not only not moving the organization forward, they are often working against the goals. You cannot become a true change agent until you develop this capability. But do it wrong, and you’ll just be a pain, a source of frustration, and counterproductive to your own cause.
There are several gaps to close to be capable of coaching up. Here are a few that I have observed frequently. I will focus them primarily on coaching your immediate boss, but the lessons really apply to any upward coaching and influence.
1. Attitude and orientation: your boss isn’t the enemy
This is often not how we espouse our feelings, yet the observed behaviors would indicate otherwise. You’re trying to coach up. If you look at how your boss is behaving with distain, lack of respect, or worse, then those attitudes will come through in your coaching. You’re not that good of an actor to hide it.
2. Bosses have bosses
You want your boss to turn left, but his boss is telling him to turn right. Can you hold it against him? I’m sure it depends on the severity, but we have to keep in mind that bosses do have constraints – policy, direction, bosses.
And what’s more, if your boss was directed to do something against their will, they are not going to air their dirty laundry to their directs – at least not if they’re worth their salt. You may not really have the opportunity to know that their degrees of freedom have been reduced. You just need to know that this might be the case.
The more you know about your boss’s constraints, the more you can support them.
3. Care about their success more than yours
Ask yourself, why do you want your boss to do something differently…it is for their glory, or yours?
If you want to be effective in coaching up, then it has to be done with the objective of helping them be successful. If you are trying to influence their behavior, it will be much more sustainable adopted if it is connected to their own reasons and benefit. If the behavior you want to them to adopt doesn’t help them to be more successful, then you really have to question why you are doing it.
4. Engage them in the problem statement
It is much easier to get people to buy-in to a solution if they already buy-in to the problem statement. Focus your energies first on understanding a problem statement that your boss already has a commitment to. With a problem statement in hand, it is a smaller move to show them how a new behavior might help with their problem than it is to convince them of a new problem.
5. Find a surrogate
Sometimes, just sometimes, we’re not the right person to do the coaching. Maybe it’s just a personality match issue or maybe it’s some unresolved baggage. Either way, if we care about the outcome more than our ego, then sometimes we need to step aside and find someone else to do the coaching or influencing.