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Nudges in Coaching

In our last post we have pointed out that a nudge, while not a failsafe method of influence, has the advantage of preserving choice and ownership on the side of the receiver. It is therefore not surprising that nudges are a standard method of coaching interventions. The coach does something, usually very small, and the rest is done by the coachee. A client told me how as a bicycle racer she rose to Olympic level at a relatively late age. One evening before a race, her coach called her and gave her new instructions: “Tomorrow, winning the race is not your task. Put on thermal clothes, enjoy the winter scenery, and observe the field. Then let’s talk.” She did not have time to think much, having to repack her bags and get up early the next day. She put on thermal clothes, enjoyed the winter scenery, observed the field – and became third overall. Why? Her coach had suspected that one of her most important inhibitions was her tendency to put pressure on herself, to panic in demanding situations. And, being taller than most other women in the team, she probably had to think about keeping her legs warm in different ways. Had the coach said so at the beginning, she would not have believed it, and thousands of systemic mechanisms of self-justification would have come into play. 

While in this case the coachee had to make an experience for the nudge to work, it often suffices to offer an alternative perspective. Looking back at the many occasions when I was coached by someone, the most important moments were always when they broke off from the usual mode of asking questions, and stated an opinion or a fact that surprised or even irritated me. When I was in my second year as a leadership trainer, my supervisor, in one of our regular reflections on my trainings, told me: “I think you are ready for process interventions.” I didn’t even know what a process intervention is. He explained that in such an intervention, the trainer takes up something that is happening in the classroom because it serves as a mirror to the subject of the training. Often, the most important condition for conducting a process intervention, and of its success, is courage. My boss’s comment sharpened my attention, but most of all, influenced my own self-esteem. Only thus was I able to spot an occasion about two weeks later, and turn around a difficult training situation, by addressing the participants’ lack of punctuality as a means to show how to conduct a critical conversation with a team.

Years later, I started using surprising, or contradictory comments as a nudge in my own coachings. One of my more successful cases was a coachee who came to me because, as she said, she lacked assertiveness and self-esteem, being a woman in a male dominated environment, and someone with a different academic background from the majority of her peers. Having seen her on several occasions outside the coaching, I used these examples in one of our first meetings to express my incredulity to her self-assessment, since her behaviour and the other people’s reaction in the room did, to me, not appear in any way to indicate a lack of self-esteem. Within three months, and without us talking any more about the subject, the problem had essentially disappeared. 

What matters in such situations is the change of perspective, and consequently, the shift in what is seen as possible. I heard from a tech manager how at her time at a big Silicon Valley company she was put in charge of a project which was bound to meet strong resistance in the company. On her first day, her boss handed her a “Get out of jail free” card from the Monopoly game and said: “Sooner or later some powerful people will contact me and ask for your head. When that occurs, you give me back this card, and I will do whatever I can to save you.” An intervention that took 20 seconds. What was the effect? Of course, the project manager took more political risks, stood up for what she believed in, did not avoid conflict. And she never needed that card. 

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