The Role of Reinforcement in Executive Coaching

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Sep 3, 2019

When hiring a coach for executives, it’s important to understand how he or she defines a successful engagement.

Some coaches view the process as striving to get leaders to try out new behaviors or approaches — either through in-depth work with them or by framing issues in a compelling way that makes the case for change difficult to argue. Then, through “trial-and-success,” leaders see that the new ways work better and are able to apply them successfully in a range of circumstances going forward. And that’s that.

While the process certainly can work like this, it also can be limiting. Even when executives totally buy in to new approaches, the situations where they apply them often involve factors they haven’t run into before.

Imagine you’ve practiced a new and better way to hit a golf ball out of a sand trap. It works the first few times you try it out on the course, but then you find yourself with a downward-facing lie in a trap. Will the new approach work here too?

In business, unlike golf, the factors differentiating one situation from another can be extraordinarily complex and not always obvious. Executives may not even realize that they face the equivalent of a downward-facing lie until they try the new approach and find it doesn’t work. Or they may not try the new approach at all because of something they can’t quite put their finger on that suggests it won’t work.

Stymied, they either delay taking action or fall back on old behaviors.

Reinforcement is more than follow-up

This is where the coach can step in, helping the executive recognize the new elements in play and make adjustments. It’s a part of coaching that some refer to as follow-up, but which I call “reinforcement” because it’s so often an integral and ongoing part of the coaching process.

For example, an executive may have been asked to take on a role with responsibilities that require acting differently — whether it’s to think more strategically, exert more control, collaborate more, etc. They may try to do just that yet find it hard to make headway.

When this happens, it’s often easier for the coach to see what’s going on. One possibility, for example, is that the executive’s co-workers may not be ready to accept his or her new way of doing things. Co-workers frequently profess that they want an executive to play a new role while at the same time, not really believing the person is up to it. They talk supportively, but push back when they see the executive doing things differently, even when the new behavior may be beneficial. Some co-workers may also, for competitive reasons, want the person to fail.

Already feeling they’re on unfamiliar ground, executives in a new role may be more impressionable, leading them to question their own abilities or the value of the new approach.

Coaching through the situation

With the coach there to provide insight into the situation and suggest ways to handle it, executives are better prepared to “hold their ground” in unfamiliar and awkward moments and make the new way of doing things part of their standard approach.

Reinforcement is doubly important when leaders are willing to experiment with new approaches but don’t yet see the role played by their deeper mental models. Any failure or confusion they encounter can easily knock them off track.

With these executives, reinforcement also allows coaches to take advantage of the golden opportunity provided when a new approach yields better results.

Encouraged by the coach, executives become more open to recognizing other limitations posed by their deeply held attitudes and beliefs. Fortified by this awareness, they may find themselves ready to explore more significant opportunities to become extraordinary leaders.

With many coaching and training approaches, “follow-up” simply refers to checking back in with coachees to see how they’re doing. Reinforcement is, instead, a core part of the coaching process and, in many cases, essential to bringing about lasting improvements in leadership effectiveness.