Tag Archives: mentoring

Cross mentoring – Mentoring between companies

8 Mar

Most formal mentoring takes place between people within the same organisation, but this isn’t the only possibility. It is hard, for example, to create effective mentoring relationships within small national branch offices – people are often too close and the choice of mentor is too limited. While distance mentoring, using mentors from the same company but from different countries, is a partial solution, many people still prefer to experience mentoring face to face.

The first recorded example of cross-mentoring was the Irish Post Office. It wanted to launch an ambitious programme to support career advancement for women in junior and middle management, but concluded it did not have sufficient potential mentors within its senior management. So it reached out to its supply chain – some of its biggest customers and biggest suppliers – asking if they could provide mentors.

A similar situation occurred in a large UK-based bank. It wanted its regional directors to become more commercially aware – while they all had strong banking skills, their understanding of business generally was weak. So, it sought mentors from a range of customer businesses, including MacDonalds.

Over time, we have seen a variety of cross-mentoring models emerge. The two examples above illustrate non-reciprocal cross-mentoring – the flow of mentors is just one way. Another model of this kind of cross-mentoring is rooted in a large company’s corporate social responsibility and reputation marketing. For example, British Telecom launched a programme, in which directors and senior managers from one of its divisions mentored the owners of small businesses. A subsidiary motive in this programme was that the mentors learnt a lot about the challenges of running a small company. In another case, a small group of mainly service-based companies provided mentors to prison governors.

In reciprocal cross-mentoring, there is a two-way flow of mentors and mentees. The earliest recorded example of this is Petronas, the Malaysian oil company. As one of the largest employers in the country, it has multiple divisions. Its mentoring programme provided middle managers with two mentors: one from their own division and one from another division. More than three-quarters of mentees found the mentor from another division to be the most useful, because they were able to offer a different perspective.

More difficult to arrange, but at least as powerful, are exchanges of mentors and mentees between consortia of completely different companies. Sometimes this happens under the aegis of a professional body – for example, the UK Institute of Practitioners in advertising initiated a scheme that linked young owners of advertising agencies with older, more experienced peers. Similarly, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has a programme that links highly experienced Human Resource directors with aspiring HR directors in other companies; and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales has for some years now had a similar programme for aspiring Finance Directors.

Less frequently, several companies come together in a reciprocal arrangement. The arguments for doing so are several:

  • It splits the cost of training mentors and mentees – making the programme much more affordable
  • It gives the mentees access to very different perspectives and sometimes to expertise that doesn’t exist in their own companies
  • It stimulates innovation within both companies in a pairing, as mentors and mentees share ideas and ways of doing things

Examples of this approach can be seen across the UK, where public sector bodies, such as the health service, local government, police and fire services have developed collaboration agreements that allow them to train coaches and mentors together and offer people in their organisations a coach or mentor from a pool. It is up to the mentee whether they choose a mentor within their organisation or outside, but most prefer to take an external mentor.

In the context of leadership development, cross-mentoring can be part of a larger programme of leader development. In one design currently planned, for example, six companies each provide two mentees and two mentors. The 12 mentees are divided into two action learning sets with one person from each of six companies. Each set works on one issue for each of its members and shares accountability for the results. They present their results at the end of the project to all the sponsors together – with the sponsors in most cases being the CEO or another member of the Exco. The combination of mentoring and action learning seems to be a particularly powerful way of speeding up the development of leadership capability.

In other cases, where there is not an organised collective development element, consortia can encourage mentors and mentees to set up peer support groups.

However, this kind of cross-mentoring requires all relationships to begin and formally end (though they may continue informally) on an agreed common schedule. What many companies want is a more ad hoc arrangement, whereby mentees can find a mentor from another company when they are ready. In this case, member companies have to accept that there will be sometimes be some imbalance in the reciprocity, with one company providing more mentors than another for a time.

Among lessons learned so far in this emerging concept of cross-mentoring are:

  • Training together in the roles of mentor and mentee is essential. Having a common understanding and expectation of mentoring provides a foundation for managing different perspectives that arise from each company’s culture and business style
  • Very clear agreements are needed from the start about issues such as confidentiality and non-poaching. In general, consortia reduce potential problems here by ensuring that members are from non-competitive sectors. Indeed, the more innovatively consortium thinks about who potential partner organisations might be, the better!
  • Participants need support – both online resources they can draw upon and someone to talk to about the mentoring relationship. Having a neutral programme manager (someone from outside the participating companies) makes this a lot easier
  • There must be a mechanism for ensuring that all partner companies feel fairly treated, in terms of giving and receiving mentoring. We recommend that there is a steering group of sponsors, tasked among other things with having open dialogue about such issues.

The concept of cross-mentoring is still quite young – not much more than 20 years old. However, it has great potential and is clearly a growing trend.

© David Clutterbuck, 2017

Working with SUIs (Significant Unresolved Issues)

8 Mar

The concept of Significant Unresolved Issues arose from David Clutterbuck’s unpublished research in the 1990s on what issues mentees brought to their mentors for discussion. Participants in workshops were asked to write down and reflect upon all the issues, about which they felt a level of anxiety that they had not resolved them, or found time to think through. Comparing these lists with how people felt about their levels of stress and ability to focus on their work, a very rough and ready guide emerged that most people in professional and managerial roles, who were mature, stable in personality, and mentally healthy, could cope with between 25 and 35 SUI’s before they noticed a severe impact on their ability to cope.

Of course, this crude indicator couldn’t take into account the intensity of the SUIs – just one major issue (for example, a life-threatening health matter) could have the same effect. What’s more, people vary considerably in terms of their personal resilience. So over the years, the approach has been refined so that the person listing their SUIs assigns them an anxiety score of 1-10, with 1 indicating “I am not worried about this at all” and 10 indicating “I am in total panic about this”. Multiplying the score for each item by itself and adding these secondary scores together gives an overall score. So 5 SUIs at an anxiety strength of 6, would give a score of 5 X 36 = 180. A score of 10 on one issue would equal 100 SUI points.

For a coachee or mentee under stress, it is helpful to help them work through this analysis until they have an understanding of the scope and pattern things they need to think through. If they have an issues with an initial score of 10 (so 100 SUI points), it is normally necessary to help them reduce their anxiety level about this first, by establishing some control of the situation, before they can attend to lesser issues.

As a tool of self-management, reviewing SUIs in this way helps people decide what they want to focus attention on first. Many people use the tactic of “rewarding” themselves for dealing with a relatively high-point issue (say 36 or above) by allocating the next hour or so to working through a batch of lower scoring items – this can be very satisfying! The process also helps them to work out when to seek help – “When I see my total points going over 150, I know I’m in trouble…”  — and to become aware of repeating patterns of SUIs.

In general, the greater the level of anxiety someone feels about not having dealt with an issue, the more important it is to have a reflective conversation about it, both with themselves and with someone else, who can help them with the quality of their thinking about it. We therefore now recommend that coachees and mentees include some time for this in their preparations for coaching and mentoring sessions.

We have only anecdotal evidence for the impact this has on building a person’s resilience, but it appears that regularly reviewing SUIs leads people to develop better tactics for self-management, become more skilled at knowing when to say “No”, and to re-establish more rapidly a sense of being in control when anxiety-producing issues mount up. With practice, people learn recalibrate their own thresholds, such as when it is important to take time out and step away from single problems and examine their SUIs from a wider perspective.


© David Clutterbuck, 2017


Parallel processing in coaching and mentoring

8 Mar

Parallel processing happens when a coach, mentor or therapist reproduces a behaviour or emotion within their client, or more subtly, when they conflate the client’s experiences and issues with their own. It can distort the coaching or mentoring conversation, so that it focuses – usually unconsciously – on the coach or mentor’s agenda, rather than the client’s.

Professional coaches are generally taught to recognise parallel processing (which takes quite a lot of self-awareness) and to park it. At more advanced levels of competence, the coach brings his or her own emotional and physical reactions into the open, to stimulate awareness in the client of what is going on for them. Overall, however, parallel processing is depicted as a “trap” of unconscious collusion that the unwary coach can fall into.

Experienced mentors, however, can and do use parallel processing much more frequently to help them help the mentee. Recognising and emphasising with what the mentee is saying allows the mentor to consider how their own experience may be relevant and to choose whether or when they should share knowledge, which will inform and enhance the mentee’s thinking.

It will often happen that the mentor realises that they have a similar issue or dilemma to that presented by the mentee. Rather than regard this as interference in the learning dialogue, the mentor welcomes the opportunity firstly to gain clues as to what is going on in the mentee’s mind, and secondly to use the conversation to stimulate insights into their own issue. The key to managing this process is curiosity – with questions such as the following constantly in the mentor’s mind:

  • What is the mentee’s understanding of the situation?
  • How does that differ from my understanding of my own comparable experience?
  • What aspects or perspectives does my own experience suggest they may be missing?
  • What is significantly different in their overall narrative to my own?
  • What can we learn from each other’s experience and perspective?

A key skill for the mentor is recognising when to introduce their own experience – judging if and when it will be helpful to the mentee’s thinking – and how to do so. Ideally, this should be a joint decision, with the mentor making an offer – for example, “Would it be helpful if I share what happened when I had a similar challenge?” They should not launch into sharing their own experience without first seeking permission from the mentee. With the mentee’s assent, the mentor should check in at intervals that both of them perceive the sharing as relevant and helpful. It is important never to lose sight of the intention of sharing – to inform and enrich the mentee’s thinking, so they can work towards solutions and understanding that is truly valid in their context, rather than a reflection of what the mentor would have done in their circumstances.

An indication that the mentor is using parallel process well is that they are able to say at the end “In exploring this issue with you, I have learnt some things about myself or my situation.”

© David Clutterbuck, 2017

Why coaches and mentors shouldn’t beat themselves up when client change doesn’t happen

16 Jan

Every beginner coach or mentor goes through a phase of questioning their own competence, based upon a sense that they could (or should) have had so much more impact. Even very experienced coaches and mentors sometimes feel that they have “failed” their client. While there are some professional coaches and mentors, who think they are worth far more than they are paid, it’s more common for effective coaches to harbour doubts about whether they are giving good money’s worth.

One of the restorative functions of professional supervision is to help restore a realistic balance between learning from every assignment and managing expectations about what it is reasonable to achieve in a given time period or a given number of meetings.

The key issues to consider here begin with the purpose of the coaching/mentoring relationship and the purpose of coaching and mentoring in general. It’s a common misassumption that the purpose of coaching or mentoring generally is to resolve a client’s problem or issue. The dangers with such an assumption are that it shifts responsibility subtly from the client to the coach/mentor and that it encourages the coach/mentor to do too much. In reality, the purpose of coaching and mentoring are to help the client become more aware – of themselves, of the world around them and of the interaction between these – and as result be able to make better informed decisions and take more control of their circumstances.

The purpose of the mentoring conversation equally is not to come to decision. It is to advance the client’s thinking to the point where they can either make a decision, or have a shift of perception, on which they can reflect – when they are ready to do so. Jumping to solutions too early is not helpful for the client – and the “right” time for decisions and resulting change may be well into the future. A while ago, someone, who I had given some brief coaching to 15 years before, wrote to thank me for the questions I had asked, explaining that it had taken him most of that time to answer them to his satisfaction and then to make significant changes in his life and work.

What we can achieve through coaching and mentoring is limited by many factors, among them:

  • What the client is capable of (their physical, emotional, intellectual and other resources)
  • The client’s interests and motivations
  • The many systems of which the client is a part. When a client does not implement changes they say they want to happen, the reason is often that there are strong forces preventing them from doing so. These might include colleagues, who are resistant to change, or a boss, who doesn’t want to provide support when it is needed.

When two or more of these limiters operate together (for example, when a manager keeps getting involved in the detail, because that’s what she enjoys, and her team go along with it, because it is easier for them to delegate responsibility upwards), then the task of the coach or mentor becomes much harder. While you can be helpful to them in developing greater understanding of these systems and systemic ways of bringing about change, some systems are just too powerful to change through coaching or mentoring alone. The coach or mentor has little opportunity to exert direct influence on the situation.

In measuring the success of our coaching or mentoring, therefore, we can look to the question What has changed in the client’s capability to self-manage the issues we have explored together? Measuring whether specific goals have been achieved is, of course, often valid – but we should not confuse these relatively simple, relatively easily delivered impacts with the deeper learning that takes place in the truly effective coaching or mentoring conversation.

And if our conversations do not bring about these simple achievement goals? Rather than beat ourselves up about what we did or didn’t do, better to reflect upon:

  • What learning can we draw from the factors, that limited the client’s ability to bring about the desired changes?
  • What is it about the client’s systems that inhibits change?
  • If the systems inhibiting change are too powerful to overcome with coaching or mentoring, what can the client do to move to a more supportive environment, where they can break ingrained dysfunctional behaviours and ways of thinking?
  • What will you leave them with, which will make them more self-aware and more capable of facing future challenges?

Above all, it is important to be compassionate towards ourselves for our imperfections as coaches or mentors. Remember that every coaching or mentoring conversation that delivers lasting change is an experiment  — one of a series of trials that progressively develop the insight and knowledge the client needs to fulfil their aspirations. If we can let go of the need to be perfect, the need to demonstrate that we are adding value and the need to help the client find immediate answers, we can be much more relaxed and attentive in our coaching and mentoring. And that allows us to grow our own capabilities as agents of change.


© David Clutterbuck, 2017



When to refer a coachee or mentee for professional counselling or therapy

16 Jan

Suggesting to someone else that they need counselling takes courage. As a coach or mentor, you will in most cases not be a qualified therapist – and even if you were, there are potential conflicts of role between mentoring/coaching and therapy. The two key questions here are:

  • How can you tell if the other person needs therapeutic support?
  • How can you broach the subject without damaging the mentoring/coaching relationship?

What to watch out for

Signs that the person will benefit from therapy include:

  • When they have a constant depressed mood (as opposed to a temporary “down” related to a specific setback)
  • If they have problems of alcohol or drug abuse
  • If they are long-term lonely
  • If they have difficulty setting or achieving goals, or simply concentrating on the task in hand
  • If they have been getting uncharacteristic negative feedback from work colleagues
  • If they are constantly angry or show other signs of not being able to control their emotions
  • If they exhibit abnormally high levels of anxiety that affect their performance
  • Sexual dysfunction (yes, it does occasionally come up in the intimacy of disclosure within mentoring/coaching)
  • When the mentee/coachee reveals a traumatic event (such as sexual abuse), which they have not been able to deal with (this may be some considerable time in the past); or, if it is a recent event, when they can’t stop thinking about it
  • When they show the same pattern of destructive or dysfunctional behaviour repeatedly. (For example, some people appear to be functioning well in a job role or relationship, then sabotage their efforts, as if they are afraid of success)
  • When the person can’t form relationships
  • Breakdown of relationships
  • Unexplained health problems, such as recurrent headaches or stomach problems that don’t appear to have a physical cause – for example, neck pain is a common symptom of distress
  • Frequent and severe mood swings
  • Frequent panic attacks
  • Disconnection from activities they used to enjoy at work or outside
  • Friends are concerned about them

This is by no means an exhaustive list!

How to broach the subject

The guiding principle here is that the mentee/coachee needs to feel safe both in admitting they need help and in seeking it. Telling them bluntly “You need help!” probably won’t achieve that. Instead, share the responsibility with them — “I am feeling that this situation needs more expertise than I have. What other sources of help have you considered?”

Express your concern – “I’m worried that this problem could get worse, if you don’t deal with it.” Point out that seeking help at the early stages of a problem is a sign of strength. Thank them for the trust they have placed in you by sharing the situation with you.

If they have fears about therapy, you can explain that the vast majority of people, who go to counselling, are normal, mentally healthy individuals, who want to learn some better coping mechanisms. For these people, counselling is essentially a more specialised, personalised form of consultancy – it just places more emphasis on our skills of managing emotions.

If they don’t want to know…

That’s their choice. Accept it, but make it clear you are willing to revisit the subject, if or when they wish. If you eventually think that they cannot be mentored/coached effectively until they do address the issue – which will only sometimes be the case — then be prepared to say so and suggest you suspend mentoring/coaching until they can take full advantage of it. Don’t fall into the trap of feeling guilty about not helping them enough; or worse, the trap of becoming an amateur psychologist.


© David Clutterbuck, 2017



Working with ethical dilemmas

2 Dec

Many of the issues that coaches and mentors encounter can be classified as ethical dilemmas. These occur when a person either feels that they are being asked to do things that are against their moral values, or when they have a conflict between two or more of their own values. An example of the former would be where someone working in a pharmaceutical company is asked to consent to overcharging a hospital. An example of the latter would be where a doctor is conflicted between duty to colleagues and duty of care to the patients.

The key to working through such issues is a six-step process. The steps are:

  • Articulate the problem
  • Consider the context
  • Consider the implications
  • What other opinions/ perspectives may be relevant?
  • Balance the arguments
  • The final check 

Articulate the problem

This step is vital, because the person may not have had time to think the issue through on their own, or may be avoiding doing so, because the conflict is too painful. It’s common to rationalise away the conflict, in the hopes that the discomfort will fade. The starting point for the coachee or mentee is often therefore that they are deeply confused. They may not understand the consequences of their behaviour / decisions. The unethical behaviour may appear to be the norm in this organization and they may feel that they are the one out of step.

In helping them understand and describe the issue, we can ask questions such as:

  • Who does it affect, how and why?
  • What is the nature of the conflict of interest?
  • What specific personal, organizational and /or societal values are involved?
  • What are the conflicts that you feel within yourself? (What is making you feel uncomfortable?) 

Consider the context

Here we try to understand the scope of the issue and the environment, in which it takes place, using questions such as:

  • Who is involved, directly and indirectly?
  • Is this a new issue, or an old one in a new guise?
  • What are your specific and general responsibilities?
  • Who has been consulted?
  • Who needs to be consulted?
  • Is there a relevant code of conduct or guideline?
  • What is the general ethical climate here?

Consider the implications

Now we can begin to explore what will or is likely to happen as a result of following one path or another. Very often, the person’s attention is focused on the small picture and the short-term. By widening their view and looking to the longer term, we begin to create a different perspective.

  • What risks are involved? (Safety, financial, reputational etc)
  • What precedents may be set by this decision?
  • What would be the impact if this were done on a much larger scale?
  • Would the implications be different if this were played out publicly v privately

What other options or perspective may be relevant?

Here we are widening the perspective even further, using questions such as

  • What might you be avoiding acknowledging?
  • Who might provide a robust challenge to your thinking?
  • How can you make other people feel more comfortable about speaking up?
  • Have you genuinely sought and listened to dissenting views?

A useful approach here is to explore the issue from the perspective of people, who are affected by it. “Walking in someone else’s shoes” helps us appreciate how they might feel – and how we might feel in their place.

Balance the arguments

By now, the issue will have become both more complex (in the sense that there is a lot more information to consider) and simpler — because the choices, while they may be finely balanced, are much clearer. We can make a choice about what is the right thing to do by comparing choices both rationally and emotionally. We realise that no decision is going to be purely right or wrong, but that an ethical decision is one that tries to achieve a fair and compassionate balance. Useful questions include:

  • What would an impartial adviser see as fair?
  • What priorities should we apply to conflicting objectives and values?
  • What are the “zones of ethical acceptability” and what lies outside them?

The final check

This last step is equally important, but easy to miss out, because it requires an extra burst of energy and self-honesty at the end of what is likely to have been a gruelling and painful conversation. Useful questions we can ask include:

  • What decision-making biases might you be applying without realising?
  • How honest are you being with yourself? (How pure are your motives?)
  • Do you truly feel this is the right thing to do?
  • If we were to give this issue more time, would we come to a different conclusion?

Implementing the decision about the most ethical way forward poses its own problems. When someone takes an ethical stance, the reaction of other people is often very negative, because now their integrity is being questioned. The instinctive responses are fear and resentment. So the coach or mentor may also need to help the other person develop a strategy for helping others overcome their instinctive hostility and engage in open, considerate dialogue.

The key to this stage is to focus on values and on people’s sense of their ideal selves. The coachee or mentee can engage with peer or more senior colleagues by asking them to confirm the values that they and the organisation espouse and try to live up to. Helping them to work out where the organisation might not be living up to its values is less likely to evoke the sense of personal threat. And discussing how they collectively might be able to live up to the organisational values and their personal values more consistently and more thoroughly is still relatively unthreatening. But from that point it is a lot easier to focus on specific behaviours or policies, which need to be changed.

This softly, softly approach won’t always work. Sometimes blowing the whistle is the only recourse. However, the coach or mentor can be a great support in working out tactics, giving encouragement and rehearsing difficult conversations.

© David Clutterbuck, 2016

Helping the coachee or mentee work with anger

5 Sep

While anger is usually seen as an unhelpful emotion, it doesn’t have to be so. Managed anger can be a force for good, and has been a significant factor in every peaceful social change, from the abolition of slavery to equal opportunities at work and in society. While someone, who seems to be angry about everything, requires specialist help from a counsellor or psychotherapist, coaches and mentors can provide valuable support to someone, whose anger concerns a specific issue or situation.

Unmanaged anger tends to be dysfunctional, because it alienates others and reduces their willingness to support or collaborate or even listen to us, even if they are only spectators. Unmanaged anger tends to push us towards extremes – for example, “You are either with us or against us”. And it tends to make us less respected. It also makes us less able to listen to others, or to consider other perspectives.

Managed anger achieves exactly the opposite. When a black woman recorded and streamed her conversation with the white policeman, who had just shot her innocent partner, the driver of their car, it was her presence of mind and manifest control of her anger that gave her credibility and a tsunami of support across America.

So how can we help someone work with their anger to achieve positive outcomes? A practical approach involves four stages:

  • Recognise and accept the anger
  • Clarify the cause
  • Clarify the purpose
  • Make choices (about how to feel and how to behave) that are more likely to achieve positive outcomes

Recognise and accept the anger

 Much of the intensity of anger comes from or perception that are feelings, needs and views are not being taken seriously. Simply acknowledging the anger can start the process of helping them feel sufficiently supported to confront their emotions. Use language such as “I can feel just how angry you are” to establish common feeling. Then you can begin to shift their focus from simply feeling to thinking about feeling. Here is one useful approach:

  • What do you think the outcome is likely to be, if you let your anger drive you, instead of you taking control of it?
  • How could we use this anger positively?
  • Let’s explore what’s going on here and how you might gain greater control…

Clarify the cause

Anger can arise from a wide variety of sources. Among the most common are:

  • Needing to assign blame for a loss or failure
  • Feeling that something is unfair or “wrong”
  • Feeling threatened, either directly or indirectly (for example, if you feel something important to you is under threat)
  • Loss of autonomy, feeling disempowered or manipulated

It can be tempting, as the story unfolds, to challenge the assumptions the coachee/ mentee is making. However, this may simply increase their sense of frustration and anger. It’s better to help them capture the sequence of events, so that they can start to challenge themselves. The sequence will normally be:

  • Stimulus (what happened to them, what someone else said or did)
  • Instinctive unconscious reaction (what fear or other reaction occurred)
  • Conscious reaction (feeling angry)
  • Resulting behaviour
  • Outcomes (e.g. not being able to shake off the anger)

It helps to preface this process with a statement like: “Try not to be judgemental towards anyone — for example, by making assumptions about their motives. Most of all, try not to be judgemental about yourself.” This tends to promote a more balanced and open exploration.

Clarify the purpose

The key questions here are:

  • What does being angry do for you or get you?
  • What could it do for you, if you managed it constructively?

These two questions either help people understand that being angry is not going to help them achieve the outcomes they want; or it connects their anger to a broader change agenda, beyond the here and now i.e. to a higher purpose.


Depending on the purposes identified, the coachee/ mentee now has an opportunity to choose whether to replace their anger with a more positive emotion, such as forgiveness; or to manage it as a source of motivation to bring about change. If they wish to change their emotion, then you can help them identify and overcome the limiting beliefs and assumptions that cause them to feel hurt, isolated, resentful and so on. If they wish to work with and channel their anger, you can help them plan how they can engage with others to drive a wider agenda of change together.

This four-stage process provides a structure for reflection and learning beyond the immediate emotional logjam. Experience shows that coachees/mentees can quickly absorb this way of thinking into their general behavioural repertoire, so that they recognise and value their anger as an indicator of potential to bring about positive change, either in their environment, or in themselves.


© David Clutterbuck, 2016

Helping the coachee/ mentee overcome complacency

5 Sep

An implicit assumption within coaching and mentoring is that the coachee or mentee is motivated to change. That isn’t always the case and even when it is, there is a big difference between externally motivated change (doing something because you have to) and internally motivated change (doing something because you want to). Internally or intrinsically motivated desire for change will always be more powerful and more sustainable. The reluctant coachee/mentee is fairly easy to identify and therefore the issue of motivation can be confronted at an early stage. Solutions include helping them to find complementary goals that will motivate them (and on which the original, extrinsic goals can piggyback) and recontracting with all the key stakeholders. But what about when the learner exhibits enthusiasm and says they look forward to and value the sessions, but is clearly not deeply motivate to change?

When faced with someone, who appears to have little ambition to change, many coaches and mentors struggle and become frustrated. Among the symptoms that cause this frustration are:

  • Little or no sense of progress (revisiting the same conversations)
  • Lack of any sense of urgency
  • When the coachee or mentee says that they have found the session very useful, but doesn’t do anything with it – using the learning conversation as an intellectual exercise without any sense of immediate application
  • When there is little or no evidence of reflection between one session and the next
  • When the coachee or mentee doesn’t see the potential or need for substantial change

The change motivation matrix below is a simple way to establish how much energy someone is willing to invest in bringing about change in themselves and their circumstances. Someone, who has high satisfaction with their life and work, combined with a high desire for change is likely to be an “ideal” client. They will grab every challenge and every learning opportunity within their reach – then cast their eyes on other opportunities just out of reach. They typically use a coach or mentor as sounding board and source of subtle steerage, helping them bring coherence and focus to the wealth of possibilities they could pursue.

People with low satisfaction with their life or work, who have a high sense of change urgency, are also relatively easy to work with. They know what they want and why, they have the energy to invest in making it happen, but need help with the practicalities of change management.

People with low satisfaction with their life or work, who have a low sense of change urgency, pose a more complex problem. To quote Wharton professor Adam Grant[1]: “People who suffer the most from a given state of affairs are paradoxically the least likely to question, challenge, reject, or change it… people are motivated to rationalize the status quo – even if it goes directly against their interests… It’s an emotional painkiller. If the world is supposed to be this way, we don’t need to be dissatisfied with it.” The task here is to enable them to imagine the possibility of change and the benefits that change would bring. In part this involves helping them re-assess the costs of not changing. It may also involve addressing a range of self-limiting beliefs both about themselves as individuals and about their group identity.

People with high satisfaction with their life and work, along with low urgency for change, pose an even more difficult challenge. Why rock the boat? Arguments, such as that the world is changing anyway in ways that will make their lives less comfortable, will be listened to patiently, then politely ignored. One option is to discontinue the coaching or mentoring, on the grounds that it isn’t needed. Alternatively, we can seek to lift them from their complacency.

Change motivation matrix


  High satisfaction with life/ work Low satisfaction with life/ work
High sense of urgency to change Seeking continuous challenge and learning Focus on the “how” of change
Low sense of urgency to change Complacency Focus on the “why” of change and the possibility of change


The brief questionnaire below is a simple and useful way to bring these issues into the open. Simply ask the client which pair of statements most closely fits their situation. Then explore the story beneath that choice. Listen carefully for congruity – are they trying to convince themselves or you? If it doesn’t ring true, reflect this back and ask what they think is causing this impression.

  • I want to build on success
  • I see this as a great opportunity to learn and be stretched
  • I realise that I have to make some personal changes, but need help in bringing them about
  • I’m not happy with / don’t feel stretched by my current role & want to do something about it now
  • I don’t get much satisfaction from my work, but that’s just the way things are
  • Things could be (much) better, but it’s too difficult to fight the system
  • I don’t have any major issues I want to address
  • I am content with my life and work as it is

One distinction that will rapidly become clear from the narrative is between complacency that derives from a situation, where things are actually OK, and one where the client is blanking out major problems, pretending they don’t exist. We can describe these as functional complacency and dysfunctional complacency. A good example of the latter would be automatically dismissing 360-degree feedback as biased or irrelevant. The experiences of dozens of coaches in supervision provide a clear lesson here: it is far better to stop the coaching at this point, with a clear invitation to resume once they are ready to address the issues, than to plough on in hopes of a change of attitude. One practical approach is to facilitate conversations between the client and some of their stakeholders, whose opinions they respect, structured to allow them to engage with those colleagues’ perceptions and observations.

Working with a complacent client isn’t easy, so don’t expect 100% success. It may be that they are getting all the excitement and fulfilment they want from their life outside work and would rather invest their energy there. Our objective is to open their minds to the positive outcomes that could flow from stepping outside of their comfort zone.

Here are some powerful questions and approaches that may bring about a shift in mindset.


  • Where do you find the fun in your work? (When is the last time you really laughed at work?)
  • If you were to reinvent yourself, what would be different?
  • When did you last feel you had done something really special?
  • What could you do today or this week that would take you outside of your comfort zone?
  • What’s your strategy for avoiding boredom?
  • What’s the legacy you want to leave here at work?
  • What do you most regret not having done in your working life? What’s preventing you sorting that now?


  • Looking back on your career, what’s the difference you have made? How could you make a bigger difference in the next five years than you have in the past 30?
  • How would you describe your energy level at work? What would a high energy state look like? How would that make you feel about yourself?
  • Research into plateaued managers finds that many people, who are freewheeling, re-energise their careers when they become mentor to a younger person, who challenges and stretches them. Energy contagion of this kind can be powerful!

Checking your own assumptions

“Complacency” is a very negative label and one to be used with care. You might well choose to use other language – for example, referring to low energy states. Or invite the client to find their own descriptor as in “I’m reluctant to describe this as complacency, because I think it’s more complex than that. What words would you use?” The advantage of this is that it allows them to explore their situation without feeling judged or defensive – and it brings into the open factors, which might not otherwise have emerged.

If your heart sinks at the thought of the next meeting with a “complacent” coachee or mentee, reflect upon your own expectations. Instead of assuming that you have failed, if they don’t re-energise themselves, consider that a positive outcome of the learning dialogue may be a deeper understanding on the client’s part of what gives them their sense of contentment and how they might retain that in the midst of inevitable change. And that might be all that is needed to switch them back on to the value of continuing personal growth.


© David Clutterbuck, 2016

[1] Adam Grant (2016) Originals: How non-conformists changed the world, Viking, New York

Helping the coachee or mentee interpret behaviour

5 Sep

One of the common and dangerous misunderstandings of managers in organisations is called correspondence bias[1]. We tend to assuming that someone else’s behaviour (positive or negative) can be attributed to fixed personality traits (for example, the need to control, or risk aversion), while explaining our own bad behaviour as a reaction to circumstances. Gilbert identifies four root causes for our misinterpretation of other people’s behaviour:

  • We lack full awareness of the situation
  • We have unrealistic expectations of them
  • We make exaggerated assessments of behaviour
  • We fail to correct our initial assumptions

Correspondence bias is closely allied to two other unhelpful patterns of thinking: attribution bias and confirmation bias. Attribution bias occurs when we make unevidenced assumptions about other people’s motivations or character. So we tend, for example, to assume that competitors are less moral or hard-working than we are. In the case of direct reports or working colleagues, we often project on them unconscious motivations of our own, which we would prefer not to have or are ashamed of. Confirmation bias occurs when we only notice behaviour that reinforces an opinion we have about someone and ignore all the evidence to the contrary.

As a coach or mentor, we can help clients overcome these narrow and judgemental mindset by helping them to become more self-aware of how these biases arise and play out in their interactions with colleagues.

A first step is to normalise the process, by which these biases arise – for example, with some examples of your own. An example might be: “When I see you take time to answer my questions, my first instinct is to assume that you are avoiding being honest with yourself, because that is what I have encountered with another client. But I know that an alternative explanation (one of many possibles) is that you are actually doing the opposite – taking time to reflect deeply and take a good look at what is going on for you inside.”

Knowing that we all regularly fall into these biases allows the client to give themselves permission to explore key relationships in their own workplace.

Next, you can encourage them to name one or two positive and negative traits they ascribe to colleagues, who they see as difficult. Now ask them to provide at least 10 recent examples of these traits in action, both positive and negative. They may struggle to do this, in which case this can be a homework task for them. Stress that it’s important to be looking for examples of both.

Continue with this line of enquiry with questions, such as:

  • What stops you noticing information and examples that disconfirm your perception of this person?
  • How much are you influenced by other people’s perceptions and biases?
  • What broad group(s) would you place this person in? What are your conscious or unconscious assumptions about that group? In what ways might you be confusing your assumptions about that group, with your expectations of the individual?
  • What commonalities of circumstance are there when this person appears to exhibiting the negative trait, and more positive traits?
  • What is the positive side of the negative trait? (Behaviour that annoys us in another person is often the result of over-use of a useful strength.)
  • Who else values this person? What do they see in them that’s different to what you see?
  • What other interpretations (more positive or more negative) might explain their behaviour? What makes each of these explanations more or less credible than others, including the perspective you started with?
  • How could you get to know the values that drive this person? (What’s the conversation you would need to have to find out?)

The aim of this exploration is not necessarily to change their opinion of the other person and their behaviour. It is rather to help them understand that behaviour and develop different strategies for working with it, with a wider range of choices about how they react. If we view the person as having fixed traits, then we close our minds to the possibilities of assisting them to change their behaviours. Taking a situational, contextual perspective enables us to see them as capable of change (which most people are) and to focus on practical ways to assist them in doing so.

The coach-mentor can also act as a role model for the kind of conversation the client can have with colleagues about behaviour. In particular, we can help them become comfortable with differentiating between behavioural intent (the outcome we want to achieve from our behaviour) and behavioural impact (the reactions and interpretations of other people). Having these conversations about their own behaviour equips them with the mental patterns to have similar conversations with direct reports and colleagues, or even with family members.


© David Clutterbuck, 2016

[1] Daniel Gilber & Patrick Malone (1995) The Correspondence Bias, Psychological Bulletin 1171) pp21-38

Five modes of questioning

5 Sep

Asking questions is something we do all the time. It’s essential to how we learn, how we keep safe, how we collaborate with other people, how we make decisions, and so on… It’s a core skill of being human, yet few people stop to think about how they ask questions or whether they could be better at doing so.

One simple way to help people become more aware of how they use questions is to acquaint them with the five modes of questioning. These are:

  1. Questioning to demonstrate superiority or undermine. For example: “You thought that would work, did you?” or “What else would you expect from someone like that?” With such questions, the answer – usually highly judgemental – is implied. Ego-driven, in this mode the questioner is neither expecting nor listening for an answer.
  2. Questioning to elicit specific information. This is about plugging predictable, bounded gaps in what we already know. These questions tend to be precise and based on pre-existing assumptions about an issue. While less ego-focused than questions to demonstrate superiority, our motivation is our focused on our own knowledge and intentions, not those of the other person. Even when asking about the other person’s opinions or feelings, it is in service of our own goals.
  3. Questioning for self-curiosity. Here we don’t have a fixed agenda for our enquiry. We are acting on the instinct that this might be interesting, useful or both – not just for ourselves, but for other people in the conversation. This is the territory of co-learning.
  4. Questioning for other-curiosity. This is at the heart of good coaching and mentoring. Here we use questions to help the other person structure their reflection and creative thinking. We move from ego to “we-go” – the exploration together of ideas the learner has not previously considered deeply.
  5. Seeking the right question. A useful coaching or mentoring question is “What’s the question you can ask yourself that might change the way you see this?” or some variation on the same theme. In each of the previous modes, we are able to draw on experience that gives context to the questions that come to mind. In this mode, however, the context itself is ill-defined. The “right” question will only emerge by questioning the assumptions behind the questions that have gone before. In this mode, no-one knows the answer and each question that does arise may simply be a stepping stone to a better question, with even greater insight-provoking potential. To achieve this, the coach-mentor and the client both have to let go of their egos, engaging with each other’s curiosity.

Consigning the “demonstrating superiority” mode of questioning to our behavioural trash can, while achieving more of a balance between the other four modes has substantial benefits, not just for the quality of coaching and mentoring, but also for workplace conversations more generally. Having the self-awareness and flexibility to move into the other-curiosity and seeking the right question modes can enhance engagement, teamwork and collective creativity – all of which are related to higher productivity and team performance.


© David Clutterbuck, 2016