People can’t change, so what’s the point of coaching?

The book Peopleware has this bleak take:

Managers are unlikely to change their people in any meaningful way. People usually don’t stay put long enough, and the manager just doesn’t have enough leverage to make a difference in their nature. So the people who work for you through whatever period will be more or less the same at the end as they were at the beginning. If they’re not right for the job from the start, they never will be.

That hurt to read because I know it’s true. The old cliche “be slow to hire and quick to fire” gets a lot of crap, but nothing else makes sense.

But if managers can’t change people, then what’s the point of coaching? Why do we care so much about giving feedback? And why the frick are we wasting so much time with our people on personal development?

Simple: managers can do two things to help their people improve, and neither of them involve changing anyone.

#1: Managers can clarify expectations. This is what feedback does. It doesn’t change anyone. It teaches people what’s expected of them.

Have you ever seen someone get a performance improvement plan (PIP) and then turn it around and become a wild success in that role? When that (rarely) happens, it’s not because they changed. It’s because the PIP taught them what’s expected of them in a way their manager failed to do.

As they say: never underestimate people’s ability to just not hear you. The one thing PIPs are great at is making people hear you.

#2: Managers can support learning. This is what professional development does. It doesn’t change anyone. It helps people find the right things to learn and feel supported in learning them.

So where does coaching fit in? It’s the combination of the two: clarifying expectations and supporting learning. (And remember, giving advice is the last resort. Good coaching isn’t telling people what to do, it’s helping them discover it by themselves.)

Managers can’t change people, but through clarity and learning they can change results.

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