Coaching at Work – the Basics


Author: Mags Treanor



When done right, developing people at the workplace is always a win-win. For the employee, receiving one to one coaching that focusses on his or her direct developmental needs, can be a fast track to moving in the right direction, be it a lateral move, an upward one, or even an understanding of how the current role can be improved. It is also a strong point in retention, sending out the message to the employee that the organization values them enough to invest in their personal and business skills.

Unlike a private coaching contract, coaching at work normally involves a number of stakeholders, all of them concerned with supporting the employee. This can be a difficult situation for the coach, as typically, the contract between the coach and client is ideally set as being confidential. In a workplace setting however, the client’s manager and the responsible HR partners are also involved.

As a coach, setting up a contract with all parties involved is the essence of making the coaching work. Not only do you need to get clarity on what parts of the coaching will be shared (typically the key goals of the coaching are shared with all stakeholders) but also on the shared responsibilities of all those involved. It is important that the direct manager of the employee participating in the coaching understands that just because there is a coach involved, it does not mean that the manager is no longer responsible for supporting the developmental needs of the employee at work.

For this reason, a coaching contract with the manager involved is also a necessary prerequisite and should point out that the coaching may even put more pressure on the manager, as it may happen that during the coaching some of the initial goals may change, and this can mean revising various projects that had initially been agreed upon before the coaching.

In his excellent article ‘managing the three way contracting in executive mentoring and coaching’, David Clutterbeck suggests three key points that need to be included in the contracting stage:

  • Provide active support and encouragement (not to abdicate responsibility to the coach to “fix” the client)
  • Accept that greater understanding of the issues is likely to lead to a revision of the goals – and potentially further demands on them
  • Agree how they will recognise positive change as it occurs (bosses tend to give less significance and attention to behaviours that don’t fit with their pre-suppositions about direct reports than behaviours that do.)

Establishing this three-way agreement is the true essence of the coaching process. It brings clarity and starts with the end in mind. If there is not a clear commitment from all involved right from the outset, the coaching is already in danger of failing, as there may be a conflict of expectations.

Naturally, the different stakeholders will have varying expectations, but they must at least be aligned. Clutterbeck suggests the following criteria when establishing a contract:

  • To set a sense of direction and purpose for the assignment
  • To ensure that expectations are aligned (outcomes, process, responsibilities, behaviours)
  • To provide a practical basis for relationship review and assessment of progress

A coaching contract contains various different elements. Firstly, the psychological contract, which will focus on the motivation of all involved: why the parties involved believe that coaching is the correct intervention, what previous experience, how committed they are to making it work and who has ownership for what elements of the coaching?

The outcomes contract needs to address the expectations of the coaching. This can explore current expectations versus unforeseen outcomes, and what has to happen to know that these results have been achieved. Will the results be measured in learning or performance? Are they long or short term goals, etc., and importantly, who is the key sponsor, who ‘owns’ the goals?

The systems contract encourages all those involved to see the bigger picture, acknowledging that in order to come to a successful outcome it depends not only on those involved but also on the systems influencing the coaching. Clutterbeck gives us the following questions when addressing the systems element of a coaching contract:

  • What forces will work in support of the outcomes contract?
  • What might get in the way?
  • What is our strategy for ensuring the coachee/ mentee gets the support they need?
  • Who else’s support is needed and how?

Ultimately, to create a strong coaching culture within the organization; one that will end with success for all involved, the initial contract and commitment to results is an absolute essential from the outset.

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