My individual coaching assessment guide

As an agile/lean coach and “change agent,” I often find myself working with dozens of individuals at the same time at any given client. I’m not a great fan of “assessments,” but I do need some practical way to keep track of where everyone stands and how they tend to think and collaborate. To do that, I consider the following factors.

Bear in mind all these factors are subjective on my part. I make no claim to be an expert in any of these areas. Even so, I’ve found it helpful for selecting an approach and effective words to engage various individuals who have different perspectives, assumptions, and experiences.

1. Invitation to coach

This represents the degree to which an individual appears to be open to coaching. I use a simple scale of 0-5, where 0 means the individual is not open to coaching, and 5 means the individual is (perhaps) too open to it (suggestible?). I hope to find people at a 3 on this scale, which means they are open to coaching but also confident in their own ability to reason through things.

2. Needs

This is where I’m taking a chance by stepping into psychological territory. I am by no means a qualified psychologist. Yet, I like to try and get a sense of a person’s needs so that I can connect them with whatever coaching advice they are willing to entertain.

So, I’m talking about things like a need to be respected, a need to belong to a group, a need for personal growth, and so forth. Soft stuff. Hard stuff.

3. Fears

Yes, here we are again in psychological territory, which is not in my comfort zone. Yet, it’s helpful to understand what each individual might fear. It could be loss of perceived status as a specialized technical expert, loss of formal authority, lack of confidence in being able to learn a new skill, or something of that nature. But it isn’t a work-related thing, like fear that the lean initiative won’t stick.

4. Motivation

What I’m after here is the relative importance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. It’s only a rough-and-ready subjective assessment on my part, and it often changes as I get to know a person.

A person who is motivated mainly by intrinsic factors will be interested in things that support his/her needs without much regard for what management wants. A person who is motivated by extrinsic factors will be interested in whether the proposed organizational changes might result in a promotion or raise.

In my experience, most technical professionals I’ve met have slightly stronger intrinsic than extrinsic motivations.

5. Triggers

Triggers are words, phrases, or ideas that produce a negative reaction from the individual. Many people have had negative experiences they associate with particular words, phrases, or ideas. Others have misconceptions or assumptions regarding certain concepts, methods, or practices, and are not open to discussion of these topics. In some cases, negative behaviors are triggered when the coach’s choice of words reminds a person of his/her fears.

An understanding of each individual’s triggers can help the coach choose constructive language when interacting with people.

6. Mindset

For this factor I jot down a couple of words or phrases that seem to me to reflect the individual’s general mindset about management, technology, change in general, or other things relevant to the coaching engagement. It’s just a reminder for me, as time may elapse between opportunities to work directly with each individual.

I might write, “Reluctant to extend trust to staff,” or “Tayloristic,” or “Theory X manager,” or “enthusiastic about agile.” There are no standard terms or phrases. It depends on the individual. And it’s not scientific. It’s just my subjective impression, to use as a guide when interacting with the individual.

7. View of authority and social forces

This is a rough-and-ready subjective impression of how the person might fit into the Spiral Dynamics model. It is in no way a formal or proper Spiral Dynamics analysis. I just find that model to be convenient shorthand for this aspect of a person’s mentality.

Here is how this model maps to personalities commonly encountered in coaching.

  • Beige – Archaic-instinctive (unlikely to occur in a professional setting)
  • Purple – Animistic-tribalistic (unlikely to occur in a professional setting)
  • Red – Egocentric-exploitive (industrial era non-management)
  • Blue – Absolutistic-obedience (industrial era management)
  • Orange – Multiplistic-achievist (post-industrial self-centered)
  • Green – Relativistic-personalistic (post-industrial self-centered, advancing)
  • Yellow – Systemic-integrative (natural affinity for agile and lean thinking)
  • Turquoise – Holistic (rare and likely to be suppressed in a large organization)

I want to be very clear that this is not an attempt to apply Spiral Dynamics properly. It’s just a shorthand way to remember how a given individual is likely to respond to various styles of interaction.

Using this model loosely and subjectively, we can say that people at the Beige and Purple levels are unlikely to be able to hold a steady job, so we won’t encounter them in coaching work.

Red and Blue are common in traditional (industrial-era) organizations, where their personal traits function as an effective survival mechanism. These individuals will not necessarily be able to adapt to contemporary organizational patterns. As coaches, this can give us guidance in “picking our battles.”

Orange and Green are the most common among people who work in traditional organizations and who are keen to be among the first to try something new, with an eye toward improving their organization. Yellow is a very good fit for an agile culture, but unfortunately by the time you get to the Yellow level in this model, you’ve almost run out of people.

A person at the Turquoise level would not be happy in most conventional organizations, although they might fit in well in a synergistic culture, as defined by Bob Marshall. As a lean/agile coach, you’re unlikely to encounter anyone like this in the organizations that require your assistance.

8. Ego development

Here I’m using another published model in a loose and subjective way, as a sort of shorthand to help me understand how best to engage with each individual. In this case, it’s Jane Loevinger’s model of personal ego development. It goes something like this:

  • Pre-social (E1) – this is the level of ego development in an infant; it does not occur in mature adults
  • Impulsive (E2) – acts on impulse, no sense of responsibility
  • Self-protective (E3) – self-centered, all problems are caused by others
  • Conformist (E4) – follows rules, has binary “right/wrong” worldview
  • Self-aware (E5) – interest in interpersonal relations, ability to see alternatives
  • Conscientious (E6) – nascent sense of personal responsibility with recognition of guilt as opposed to blame
  • Individualistic (E7) – respect for self and others, tolerance of differences
  • Autonomous (E8) – ability to synthesize and integrate ideas, desire for self-fulfillment
  • Integrated (E9) – ability to reconcile internal conflicts, pursuit of self-actualization, acceptance of natural limitations
  • Ich-Entwicklung (E10) – focus of life is self-development and transcendence; probably not useful in a work environment

Levels E1 through E9 are part of the basic model and E10 is an extension of the model. An adult will not exhibit E1 ego development. Adults who exhibit E2 ego development would most likely be diagnosed with some sort of sociopathic or psychopathic disorder. Thus, these levels are not relevant to lean/agile coaching.

E3 is common among managers in industrial-era organizations, and E4 is common among non-management personnel in such organizations.

E5 through E7 are quite common in professional organizations such as those in which we coach teams and individuals in most of the industrialized world. My observation is that the Nordic countries are at a higher level of social development than the rest of the world, so we find more E7 and E8 individuals there.

People who exhibit E9 ego development are rare. Those at E10 are unlikely to regard conventional employment as a meaningful use of their time, and so we do not find them in IT organizations.

Bear in mind this is a loose, amateurish, and subjective use of the model on my part. It’s only a kind of shorthand way for me to remember how each individual is likely to respond to interactions.

To put it into context with a tool the agile community uses quite a lot, I would say that a person below the E6 level would be unable to apply Christopher Avery’s model of personal responsibility. A person at the E5 level would probably be able to understand it on a theoretical level.

So, this can serve as another “pick your battles” tool. We want to focus our coaching effort on those who are most likely to benefit from it.

9. Strengths

Personal strengths are traits or habits that enable the individual to achieve favorable outcomes and to be a happy and well-balanced person. There are no fixed keywords for this concept. This is not meant to be a qualified psychoanalysis. It’s just a subjective impression that can help understand how best to engage an individual.

Some possible observations include:

  • able to perceive the important issues through the fog of information overload
  • able to recognize different points of view and reconcile them to achieve consensus
  • determined and persistent when solving a problem or performing a task
  • has a knack for connecting with others

Personal strengths are the levers a coach can use to help a person progress toward goals, solve problems, or advance toward self-actualization.

10. Weaknesses

Personal weaknesses are traits or habits that inhibit the individual from achieving favorable outcomes or to be a happy and well-balanced person. This is the opposite of the strengths category. There are no fixed keywords for this concept.

Some possible observations include:

  • Tends to relent under pressure from managers or peers, even when right
  • Has talent, but lacks self-discipline to develop that talent
  • Tends to jump to conclusions and become argumentative
  • Appears not to value the contributions of others

Personal weaknesses limit a person’s ability to achieve his/her own goals, and may reduce the effectiveness of his/her interpersonal interactions. When the coach is invited to address these, an understanding can be helpful to identify promising areas of improvement and to craft an effective coaching approach.

Typically, coaches are not invited to address personal weaknesses, even when people are open to advice in other areas. You must have a specific, personal invitation to do this.

Also, be realistic about your own qualifications to address this sort of thing. Personally, I’m not qualified to help people in the way a therapist could help them. You might be, but I don’t know you, so I can’t advise you. Use good judgment, as this can be a very sensitive area for people. If they come to trust you as a coach, they might extend that trust farther than is really justified. You might feel flattered when this happens, but please be aware of your limitations.

11. Coach bias

Coaches are human and humans have biases. Some of the individuals we work with might be difficult for us to tolerate for no reason other than our own experiences or feelings. It’s useful to be aware of that and mitigate it so that we can provide the best possible coaching advice to our clients. It isn’t necessary for us to like them.

It may or may not be feasible to overcome or avoid our biases. Some research indicates it is not possible to negate our biases, while other research suggests there are some contexts in which certain biases can be mitigated. We can, at least, try to recognize our own biases and take into account their effect on our interaction with people we are coaching.

There may be specific things about the way individuals interact with us that cause us to avoid those individuals, to minimize the time we spend with them, to be less receptive to their needs than we ought to be, or to be less forthcoming with advice than we ought to be. It is useful to make note of these issues as a reminder to ourselves, so that we can mitigate the effect of our biases when working with each individual.

This does not require self-psychoanalysis to identify biases in a general way. Instead, make note of behaviors on the part of others that cause a negative reaction on your part, and keep it in mind so you can try not to let it interfere with your responsibilities as a coach.

Conclusion

So, there it is, non-scientific, subjective, a point in time model only, maybe useful, maybe not. For whatever it’s worth, I have found it helpful in my own work.

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