Sana Lall-Trail is a behavioral science writer and researcher at Torch, a people development platform. She has an applied research background in coaching and learning tech and 5+ years of mix-method academic research experience in examining different facets of workplace behavior.
Elizabeth Weingarten is the head of behavioral science insights for Torch. Previously, Elizabeth was managing editor of Behavioral Scientist magazine, worked at the behavioral science design firm, ideas42, directed the Global Gender Parity Initiative at the think tank New America, and was a senior fellow in its Better Life Lab.
Like the ocean, the human brain, and the economy—modern workplaces are complex systems. That means it’s nearly impossible to forecast how they’ll behave because they contain many parts that interact unpredictably with each other—and the environment.
No wonder the jobs of managers and executives, charged with tasks like reducing attrition or increasing employee engagement, are challenging. Sure, you can try strategies that have worked for other organizations or even worked in the past for yours. But the science of complexity means there’s no guarantee it will work again or won’t have unforeseen impacts.
But there’s also an exciting side to this complexity, particularly regarding workplace change. Sometimes, even small, positive shifts in the behaviors of a few individuals have a ripple effect across the entire organization.
How a coaching culture can create change
One way to promote this ripple effect is through a coaching culture. Like many workplace buzzwords, definitions for coaching culture abound. But we like to refer back to a description from academic literature: It’s a culture where employees and managers all take a similar approach (coaching) to develop and interact with others—one where they prioritize helping other people grow in the context of work.
A coaching culture is one of those rare ideas that both sounds nice in theory and works in practice. According to one meta-analysis that looked at the influence of coaching on organizations, when managers received coaching, people on their teams were more likely to be satisfied with their jobs, more engaged at work, and less likely to consider leaving.
Other research (pdf) from the Human Capital Institute and International Coaching Federation (ICF) reports that organizations with strong coaching cultures are more than twice as likely to be classified as high-performing organizations—61% to 27%.
According to ICF research assessing hundreds of organizations, it’s one where:
- All employees in the organization have an equal opportunity to get professional coaching.
- The organization uses internal coaches and external coaches.
- Managers use coaching skills.
- It’s valued across the organization.
- It has a dedicated budget.
The ripple effect starts with individual behavior changes, encouraged by internal or external coaches or by managers, that help them become better at applying their coaching skills.
Anyone can help create a coaching culture inside their organization if they work to develop and practice these skills with others. A growth mindset can be an asset, as although some coaching skills might sound simple, they’re tricky to get right in practice. Let’s take two key examples of becoming a great coaching leader: active listening and asking better questions.
How “active listening” makes you a better coach
Listening is one of those skills that might seem easy and obvious. But there’s a crucial difference between passive listening—what many of us imagine listening to be—and active listening, which is a much more complex behavior. Carl Rogers, the father of modern psychotherapy, is credited with defining active listening as an act that “requires that we get inside the speaker, that we grasp, from his point of view, just what it is he is communicating to us. More than that, we must convey to the speaker that we are seeing things from his point of view.”
The critical parts of active listening, according to Rogers in his 1957 book Active Listening, include:
- the importance of listening for the total meaning—both what is said, and the feelings underneath it
- paying attention to other non-verbal cues
- responding, when necessary, to feelings first rather than words
More recently, researchers developed a scale for measuring active listening that suggests we must avoid interrupting, postpone judgment, show our conversation partner that we’re interested, and help organize information—like repeating something back or summarizing what was said.
Active listening was one of many skills Tiffany Wells, a director leader at a digital health company, learned when she was coached. She recalled a recent Zoom conversation that occurred during a busy time for her—the company was going through an acquisition, she was getting promoted, and they were changing the structure of her department. “You get really busy as you’re trying to keep everything afloat,” she said, which sometimes led to multi-tasking. Not ideal when trying to help someone on your team navigate change.
With her coach, Wells stopped multi-tasking and started trying to understand what the person was trying to communicate, especially in tough conversations. In Carl Rogers thinking—looking for the meaning behind the words.
That behavioral shift had a significant impact. Her team felt more open to sharing their feelings and real roadblocks instead of focusing only on the tasks that needed to be accomplished. And with that open communication – and successful removal of roadblocks—Wells saw a “change in engagement and ownership…team members expressed a desire to want more ownership because they saw the fruits of their labor, and understood the impact they could have.”
Ask better questions to be a better coach
Managers tend to feel pressure to know the answers and constantly feel like they’re adding value in meetings and Google docs. After all, they might reason. Why else would they be in charge?
But managers with coaching skills know that great leadership is more than that. The most effective leaders learn how to let go of this pressure and break the habit of needing to be right or prove their intelligence—not just for their teams, but for their own wellbeing.
Torch executive coach Stephanie Staidle knows this pressure can create anxiety. She indicated, “when they believe they’re expected to have all the answers, it can lead to imposter syndrome or just lack of confidence. When I teach leaders how to coach their teams by asking more questions and through listening with curiosity, it takes some of that weight off of them. The added benefit is empowering the other person [in conversation with the leader] to learn how to create solutions for themselves.”
What are the questions that can help unlock those solutions? In her book Bringing Up the Boss, social scientist Rachel Pacheco shares a set of coaching-style inquiries for managers to add to their toolkit, including What have you tried so far? What led to this situation? What needs to be clarified? How could you get clarity?
“Great managers reignite their team members’ desire to learn,” Pacheco writes. Part of the way they do this is through curiosity—helping others to get curious about their assumptions and self-imposed limitations.
Managers aren’t the only ones who can improve communication and work through more thoughtful question-asking. Employees can also use question-asking as a tool to not only manage up and get greater clarity on crucial projects but also to build trust—particularly during times of change.
David Dunnington, a Torch executive coach, describes the experience of clients who have had four managers in a year and a half. “This means the time to build a trusting relationship just isn’t there and suggests frequent changes in organizational strategy and leadership overall,” he said. “This isn’t just unsettling for employees, but for their managers, too, who may be just as confused about the priorities and when they might change again.”
Questions can help folks who aren’t explicitly in leadership positions take back agency in uncertain contexts: “Ask your manager, ‘how does it feel when you get the strategy frequently changed? What goes through your head?’” Dunnington suggests.
If there’s one big thing that coaching teaches us, it’s that sometimes transformative change can lie in seemingly minor behavioral tweaks: repeating what someone told you to make sure you heard them correctly, asking a question to empower someone else rather than barreling in with an answer. It also teaches us that anyone, at any time, can make those shifts, becoming an example to those around them, and creating an impact that extends beyond just one person.