A Concerning Trend

I see a concerning trend in the coaching-training industry that is being offered to managers and leaders.

Over the past few years, “GROW” has become a popular training program and is being used in a lot of organizations as a complete coaching solution for managers and leaders. It has been marketed and commercialized well, and for some, the workshop can be delightfully entertaining.

But I believe it does not truly serve the needs of real business coaches—and you’ll see why below.

TennisThe GROW concept isn’t new. In fact, this philosophy is nearly 50 years old and based on the observations of author and tennis coach Tim Gallwey.

He called his first book The Inner Game of Tennis and it sparked a whole line of “inner game” products: The Inner Game of GolfThe Inner Game of Winning, Inner Skiing, and so on.

Using the GROW approach to get people who compete in sports to personally identify how to change makes a lot of sense.  Unfortunately, over the years, others have hijacked this concept, applying it to a multitude of professional situations that it was never meant to target.

At its core, GROW is a form of counseling or psychological therapy that is “client driven” and requires that the coach use a lot of questions to stimulate the inner-discovery process in the person being coached—and this simply isn’t what people who are being coached in the business world really need.

Those who are teaching and promoting the GROW concept in a business environment believe that coaching should be conducted with an “inside out” approach, meaning the person being coached already knows what the issues are and how to improve them. Many people have bought into this notion and believe that the way to better business performance is to coach from the following points of view:

  • The coachee already knows why the coaching conversation is necessary.
  • The coachee recognizes that there is a need and wants to change on his or her own.
  • The coachee, by being asked enough cleverly designed questions, can figure out what to do differently in the future and how to do it.

People would like to believe that coaching is an easy, internally driven process in which asking a lot of questions will unlock someone’s inner potential. True, if you were to look at coaching through a Situational Leadership lens, the GROW approach is a good technique for people who are in the “D4” quadrant (those with a high level of readiness for change). “High potentials” or D4 individuals are naturally experienced, insightfully aware, and generally ready to act on opportunities for growth—they just need a mentor or confidant to guide their thinking.

It would be nice if our organizations were filled with these types of people, but unfortunately, that is generally not the case—and those who think that GROW is the best solution for the majority of coachees in an organization are completely missing the boat.

Its proponents would have you believe that GROW is a one-size-fits-all “coaching” technique. But the truth is that the inside-out approach isn’t effective for coaching people who fall into the D3, D2, or D1 categories, and the largest percentage of individuals in any organization fall into these three quadrants. That’s a fact.

Business leadership coaching needs to be directed to the larger population of coachees (average and lower performers), not just high performers who are eager to change or improve. When you try to use the GROW technique on people who don’t necessarily know what needs to change, the coaching conversation will inevitably fall flat.

Managers and leaders need a coaching technique that allows them to be declarative when necessary, an approach to performance coaching that encourages candid, open communication and helps them inform people when they are off track, using the wrong approach, or exhibiting ineffective behavior. Business coaches need a technique that helps them guide the coachee and offer specific recommendations, solutions, and plans to construct a future path with the person being coached.

In the real business world, managers have to be able to articulate their perspective and expectations without psychological game-playing that can confuse coachees and consume a lot of precious time.

To grow, people most often need straightforward feedback that is given in a supportive way; a constructive coaching conversation isn’t mean spirited, it’s simply an honest, forthright assessment of the coachee’s strengths and weaknesses. In true coaching relationships, the leader is a partner in helping the coachee identify how to make lasting changes.

The best performance coaching is not a coy game that whispers, “I know that the answers are somewhere deep inside you”—it helps the coachee grow through the power of frank, two-way dialogue. Personally, I have a lot of admiration and respect for leaders who say what they think.

Disguising the coaching message with leading questions or quietly hoping that the coachee will come up with the right solution is manipulative at best and lazy at worst, and assuming that employees won’t notice that they are being treated with so little respect is utter folly.

What is most concerning to me is that so many businesses have been caught in the trend of teaching managers the GROW approach, because in 80% of coaching situations, this “inside-out” technique simply won’t do the job.

4 out of 5Four out of five employees require straightforward coaching and feedback from their leaders in order to improve performance and bottom-line results, and the GROW method completely overlooks that need.

Can you imagine the business results that are being left behind? I understand that the acronym is easy to remember, and using colorful tools and catchy phrases makes sense in the classroom.

But back in the real world—at work on the front lines—relying on those techniques is neither realistic nor effective when coaching most employees.

Business coaching has very different requirements from sports coaching. Coaching in a business context is about finding a way to achieve better performance and results, and GROW won’t get you there.

PendulumIn the last 35 years, I have seen the coaching-style pendulum swing from one side to the other.

The industry started with a hardline, “my way or the highway” approach to coaching and has now moved to the other extreme: an overly soft, time-consuming, question-driven  process that fails to serve the majority of coachees.

Businesses need something that bridges the gap between these extremes—and we think we’ve found it.

Because coaching truly is an “outside in” process in most situations, I think it’s time to shake up the trend.

Businesses need to provide coaching training to their leaders that is grounded in solid research, better suited to realistic business situations, geared towards the largest population of coachees, and capable of generating better performance and results throughout your organization.

What say you?

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About the Author
Steven Stowell, Ph.D.
Dr. Steven J. Stowell is the Founder and President of the Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness, Inc. CMOE was created in 1978 for the purpose of helping individuals and teams maximize their effectiveness and create strategic competitiveness. Steve’s special interests lie in helping leaders and organizations transform into high-performance cultures that are focused on long-term, sustained growth.

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