Situational Leadership and Coaching

Much of the content of this post comes from my girlfriend’s masters thesis on the subject though it is quite relevant to our industry as we seem to use many words wrong and have some misguided ideas.

Many people talk about coaching within teams. Hell you can go just about anywhere to find an “agile coach”. We might for instance want to go to the We LOVE coaching in our industry. However coaching is just one tool amongst many in our belt and is actually non-effective at times.

At a talk recently I heard that we should always be coaching within our teams. This is likely as we will see to not work well. We overuse coaching.

Situational Leadership defines four learning mechanisms.

Direction: where a learner is given tasks and direction
Coaching: where the learner is doing the task
Supporting: where the learner is doing the task but lacks confidence
Delegating: where the learner is no longer a learner but is actually doing the task

We have a tendency of applying “coaching” all the way through the process. The research is looking more so at when coaching should be applied. As an example its quite common for a team to want to go to agile so they will hire an “agile coach”.

Getting Started

Highly Directive/Low Supportive

Situational Leadership would specify that when a learner is new to a task, coaching in ineffectual. Instead we should be giving direction to the learner without being highly supportive.

When I was quite young I worked cleaning cars. My first day on the job my boss did not sit with me and show me the best ways of cleaning a tire. He did not talk to me about the theory associated with rims verse hub caps. He just told me to “do it this way”. He gave direction.

Learners who are new to a subject are not good candidates for coaching. They need direction and to reach of a level of understanding before coaching will be effective for them.

no he was not Mr Miyagi though Mr Miyagi was very directive.


Highly Directive/Highly Supportive

Coaching would be the next step after a learner has reached a certain level of maturity in understanding. A classic example of where coaching would apply would be after a learner has for instance taken a class on a subject.

Years ago I took a class on how to build and deliver presentations. Oddly at the end of that class (which was mostly directive) I found that giving real presentations is well slightly different. Talking to a room full of people about a real subject is different than doing it in class. I am sure many people that have taken classes (even mine) can relate to this feeling.

I began videotaping my presentation and I had someone who was very good at presenting look over them with me, give me feedback (positive and negative). They also even would sometimes go through with me doing dry runs of the presentation. They were coaching me. I was defining and doing the work, they were helping to guide me and providing feedback.


Low Directive/Highly Supportive

The next level would be a supporting role. It would be a move away from providing feedback (constructive criticism) and moving more towards a supporting role.

Over time I learned better how to present to an audience. Admittedly I still lacked confidence in my own decision making. My mentor slowly stopped giving me direct assistance and feedback and became more so a supporting role. They would help me in having the confidence that I did actually know what I was doing. Sometimes a rightly placed “at a boy” can make a world of difference.

This brings us to the last stage.


Low Directive/Low Supportive

This is the last step in the process (the ending of the learning). This is the teacher pulling away from a now fully competent no longer student.

Care must be had as well as many leaders have a hard time pulling away from the supporting role and allowing the student/learner to flourish on their own. This is generally considered the end point of a successful learning process.

The “levels” actually flow into one another as well. Its not that one day you stop getting direction and start getting support etc its that you get less of one or more of the other.

Picture blanchard situational leadership

When we discuss “coaching” we generally discuss this whole process. This is not correct and understanding the differences in situations can be very valuable in successful learning. I can’t claim to be an expert but this was very interesting stuff personally to learn about.

Again this is based on my girlfriend’s research for her masters thesis (I got to help quite a bit and learned a lot in educational theory, maybe I am ready for coaching now!). I have been trying to convince her to do a talk at one of our conferences on the subject (this is 1-2 pages, her paper was 70!). If this is interesting to you please drop her a comment of encouragement here!

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