Anyone who has ever heard of coaching has usually heard of GROW. A simple model, created by Sir John Whitmore, an English motor racing driver turned performance coaching expert.
Anyone who has ever done any training at work probably also knows how hard it is to translate training in a classroom to real life practice. This is usually not about intention – it is because we are brilliantly, imperfectly human!
What we know from reasonably recent neuroscience is that however great the training was, we are wired to carry on as before when we get back to real life.
There are four key neuro-scientific reasons why, actually, we are wired to forget training – however good the material or trainer. These brain-tricks that hold us back, also interestingly kick-in regardless of whether the techniques trained would drive increased business performance if we used them. Good training which would deliver a sound ROI can still fail because we are actually wired to stay as we are, rather than to integrate our learnings into real life and to change. Here in a nutshell is why:
- The clever bit of our brains (the pre-frontal cortex) can only think about one thing at once. You can’t make a decision about a complicated problem and remember a model you learnt in a training session at the same time, if that new model isn’t so wired in that you can remember it without thinking. The only way around this is to make a training or business model automatic – so you can remember it and use it without really thinking about it.
- In the heat of the moment, where the learning would probably help us the most, if our heart is racing with nerves or we get excited about a new idea, our physiology means that our brains are starved of oxygen momentarily to power those reactions elsewhere in our bodies – so the technique we learnt in the classroom becomes even harder to dredge up out of our brains!
- Our brains are pattern machines. Because we can only do one thing at once and that is really energy intensive (ever noticed how tired you get after learning something new?). Our brains create patterns so that once something is learnt, it can go into a different bit of the brain that does things automatically, so that the clever bit doesn’t have to keep rethinking about it and spending energy on it.
This is why once you pick up a habit or learn a new skill, it is really hard to unlearn the skill or break the habit. You will know full well how often you have failed in keeping a New Year’s resolution, so imagine how hard it would be to forget to know how to swim or drive? But the problem for leadership development is that whilst a new technique learnt in a classroom might evidentially drive a really successful new behaviour, your brain actually wants to repeat the pattern it already has – and stick with managing in a way it knows has worked OK in the past – even if that management practice is now outdated or recent science has proven it to be less effective.
- In order to make it feel like the right grown-up choice to keep doing what you are doing (even when you were nodding in wild agreement last week in the training session that modifying what you do is proven to be much more effective) you will lie to yourself. That’s right. Because your brain wants to conserve energy and not expend energy in remembering your training from last week, you will tell yourself “I don’t have time” or “this is not a moment to use coaching.” And you will convince yourself that you are absolutely right. Even if you are dead wrong.
So this “pattern” wiring is so powerful that even if in reality the new thing could work even better, or even where a behaviour is unhelpful or out-dated because managerial life has moved on, our brain will find “evidence” that behaving as we always have is the right choice. Again the only way around this is to practise a new behaviour over and over – so that it too becomes a habit.
Practise makes perfect right? Easy to say – but to understand how hard that actually is, re-read points one and two!
So back to GROW. When it comes to training leaders to coach, because everyone knows about GROW, to start with, I don’t use anything more complicated – whilst I have created some models I’m quite proud of, I don’t start with them. I start with GROW. Partly because it does the job pretty well but mostly because it is easy to recall and for many people it is semi-automatic already. This means that the brain of a business leader has more than half a chance to recall it at the very moment when it could be of most use. They can use it to help them to enhance performance in real life – even when the heat is on or they are super-busy with a tired brain but still pushing themselves to make decision, after decision, after decision.
When I am training coaching as a skill that enhances general leadership performance, I also train the importance of not seeing coaching as the must-do intervention for every circumstance. Bad coaching training has a lot to answer for and I have had leaders trying to coach anyone with any issue in any circumstances. You can sometimes hear an audible sigh of relief when I tell them that TELL is not a dirty word! I don’t apologise for continuing to use TELL. As a Mum to 5 teenagers, there are some occasions where I am the person with the most expertise and I want something doing my way because I am the person paying the bills!
The skill in coaching on the job and integrating it into your general management style is knowing when to TELL and when to COACH instead (or when to SELL, TEST, CONSULT or CO-CREATE in between).
When I was still working in full-time corporate life and looking at established models to help leaders to learn to coach as part of their day to day jobs – so not just coaching in a performance review or a 1:2:1 career conversation, but using their coaching skills to power up a two minute conversation or to facilitate a heated meeting – none of the models quite fitted my purpose.
Some were clever but many were over-long or complex. I realised that even the most simple ones weren’t going to be easy for a busy manager to recall and use on the job, on the floor, because of our imperfect wiring (see 1, 2, 3 and 4 above!) I realised that even if someone remembered the first part of a super-clever 4 letter acronym, they probably wouldn’t remember the whole thing – and thus would find a good excuse to do nothing different – as opposed to trying something new. And back we go in a perfect vicious circle to points 3 (You are a pattern machine, remember!) and 4 (You are a liar!).
So I went back to GROW. I had already created a concept of “State G” or “Skip G” when the Goal is not up for grabs. See blog here: https://www.toprightthinking.com/2016/02/12/different-ways-to-use-grow/
I wanted to see if I could also construct a variant of GROW that would help people to remember what they intended to do in my “Leaders who Coach” training sessions – to use their coaching skill in the moment.
And that is how WOW! was born. It’s an acronym (no surprise there) but “Wow” is also the hoped for consequence of using the acronym. The WOW consequence is twofold – for the Leader themselves:
“Wow, that worked?! I wasn’t sure it would, but I’ve just proved to myself that coaching can be quick and easy…and it seems that person has gone away with the confidence to do something themselves rather than me having to make a decision for them and add their problem to my list…”
And their colleague:
“Wow, OK that was interesting…I went to ask for help, but instead I have realised I don’t need help…I’ve got this…”
You can see how in the case of the leader, experiencing this WOW moment, could help you to battle your inner liar – once we start to create times where doing things the new way does work in real life, we have equally powerful “evidence” that they know the new way works too, that we didn’t lose face by trying it and that it was quick and easy. Practise does make perfect, but we might have to crow-bar those first few practices in as soon as possible after we have learnt them! !
And to make it so easy to remember to WOW (sic) our teams with our new skill, that it is a bit of a no-brainer (sic again!)
The beauty of WOW as an acronym is that managers already generally know the O and the W – from GROW. So for some leaders, this is already in the autopilot bit of their brain.
O is about asking what the Options are:
“So what could you do?“
”What are your Options?”
W is the Will – so asking about what comes next and whether the person will actually do it:
“So what will you do?”
“What could get in your way of getting that done?”
So knowing O and W already, the beauty of W is there is only one thing to remember in the moment!
The first W simply acts as a reminder of what you, as the leader might not remember to do because you have a brilliant but imperfect human brain. If you don’t WAIT and take a minute to WATCH the person and to think about the context. And then to WONDER whether this person really would benefit from you telling them what to do? And if you don’t tell or answer their question directly WHAT question could you ask them instead? WHAT question would help you to understand if they did indeed lack the skill or knowledge and they needed to be told what to do, or that they were looking for reassurance or confidence in taking a next step?
There you have it WOW – The W part of the acronym simply stands for the things you can do as a leader to get a grip of your brain before you go into autopilot on TELL mode. You WAIT, WATCH, WONDER and think about WHAT question could tell you more here about whether a lack of Skill or whether a lack of Will is behind their question.
If a person lacking Skill or ‘know how’ asks you a question, it can be perfectly OK to give advice or tell them the answer. But if a person is lacking Will – so the confidence or insight to see that they have a transferable skill that could help them to answer that question for themselves – you have just blown it. As someone once fed back to me…
“Unfortunately Dulcie, in trying to be helpful and giving them your answer, you just stole an opportunity for them to learn…”
WOW helps you to get a grip of your brain before you answer a question – and gives you a fighting chance when someone asks you something when you are busy, or in the heat of the moment. It better enables us (as imperfect but brilliant human beings), to use the coaching skills we might already have in a different context to add even more value.
In adapting GROW, we are using what your brain probably already remembers, so that when you are on autopilot, you are not asking your brain to remember something completely new.
Remember the usual default position for a successful leader with experience is that when someone asks you a question that you could answer in your sleep, your brain looks for the lowest energy option possible, something that has served you well in the past and that you have an established pattern for. For most leaders that is to give a quick, sharp answer – To TELL.
WOW, simply helps you to consider your options before you open your mouth.
Even if you don’t remember the 4 W’s (and why would you – four is a hard number of things to remember at the best of times!), you might remember just to WAIT. Or you might from somewhere think, “Hang on, WHAT QUESTION could I try here…” remembering all 4 Ws is not the point of the model. The point is to remember something that gives you pause.
WOW works because it is so simple and many leaders know 2/3rds of the acronym already! It works because it helps leaders to vaguely remember at that point of being asked a question that TELL isn’t always the best option – and the W’s – whether you remember just 1 of them or 3 of them gives you options of your own. You can of course choose to tell at that point, but usually, something rather clever happens instead…
Just as we are about to be foiled by our brilliant but very imperfect brains – to lie and tell ourselves that tell is perfectly alright because “we don’t have time” or “they should know this without asking me, I can’t be bothered coaching them!” or “this one is important and they will mess it up if I’m not directive” …We get a quick short shock of our own.
“Oh God…It’s that WOW moment thing…”
I have found from experience that simply recalling WOW, in and of itself, as the most simple word possible, is often (and usually) enough to get the coaching cogs going.
I have been training managers and leaders to coach on the job for many years now. I always insist with clients that there must be a follow up session – where we can explore what leaders did and didn’t do with the learning once they got into real life so that we can really get a return on the investment.
My favourite story about WOW from one of these sessions is when one of my leaders, who, shall we politely say was a “Raving Fan of TELL because it is quicker and I’m the boss approach” came back and told the group:
I have turned WOW into a way to think about myself now. When I manage to stop myself and WAIT I find myself saying to myself afterwards – a reflective statement – “WOW – I nearly got caught out by my pattern machine brain then and nearly did a TELL when actually that would have stolen the opportunity for somebody to learn something…”
My shocked response? -(Yes, he was that much of an “old-dog”!)
Well there was only one word for it.