Do leaders really need to contract with colleagues when they coach?

17 September 2021by Elaina Smith0
(And if so, how can they do it without it feeling totally weird?)

This is one of the most common questions that comes up when we support leaders to develop their coaching skills.

Coaching contracts are one of the most important fundamentals of coaching.  If you’re a professional, independent coach working in different companies, the concept is really logical, straightforward and easy; in this scenario, the coaching contract answers many of the common questions that people have before they begin a coaching programme e.g.

  • What’s our objective for the coaching and what will we focus on?
  • Where and when will it take place?
  • How many sessions will we have?
  • How much does it cost?
  • What can I expect from the coach? And what do they expect from me?
  • Is the conversation confidential?
  • What happens if we need to cancel/postpone a session?
  • What records will be kept? Etc…

But if you’re a leader who coaches direct reports and other colleagues, these questions don’t seem that relevant.  For this reason, Leaders who coach, find the idea of contracting a bit awkward and weird; afterall, much of their coaching is spontaneous and/or informal.  Trying to clarify a coaching contract in these situations, would undoubtedly feel strange.

So, let’s wind back a bit to explore the rationale for having coaching contracts in the first place, then we can start to think about what version of contracting feels most appropriate for leaders who coach.

The Purpose of Coaching Contracts

The basic tenet underpinning the coaching contract is that for coaching to be effective, the contract needs to address 2 things:

  1. Permission  i.e., the coachee has given their permission for coaching to take place
  2. Protection  i.e., the coach and coachee both feel protected from any negative fall-out from the coaching work

Permission: For people to commit to their development, it’s important that they feel in control.

When the Leader gains permission to step into the coaching role, they help to create trust and set up the conditions for a productive Adult-to-Adult conversation.  The coachee experiences the choice to confer permission, which is an important point of control and allows them to relax.   The result: positive chemistry and reduced potential for conflict.

Protection: Good coaching conversations can often be deep and profound, with coachees sharing their fears, vulnerabilities, limiting beliefs etc.  If this information is not treated respectfully and sensitively, coachees may feel ‘duped’ and start to avoid coaching altogether.  So, this is where the coach needs to be overt about levels of confidentiality and what they will/won’t do with any sensitive information.

What can happen when no contract is in place?

When leaders start coaching their colleagues without a contract, it can lead to the following

  • Colleagues may feel suspicious of the leader’s motives
  • They may feel confused by the change of leadership style
  • They may feel like they’re being ‘grilled’ or put on the spot
  • They may be resistant or resentful to this change of style
  • They may feel nervous in case they don’t have the ‘right’ answer

When you boil it right down to basics, a contract is a way of agreeing that both parties give consent for coaching to happen

Humanistics Coaching Contact Image - Do leaders really need to contract with colleagues when they coach?
Creating a contract

Contracting can be as simple as saying “Is it OK to ask you some questions about that?” before beginning to ‘coach’ – although one of the most effective and easiest ways to contract is to have a general conversation about it up front, in an open forum, such as a team meeting.

Here are some tips to help:

  1. Explain that you want to strengthen your ‘Leader as Coach’ skills and that you’d like to include more coaching in the way you work together
  2. Describe how you’ll be different in your coaching role as opposed to your usual leadership role. What might they see, hear, feel, experience?
  3. Invite discussion around what it means in practice, how it will work and what the team can expect from you
  4. Invite them to discuss any questions or reservations they may have about being coached and how their minds can be put at rest
  5. Regularly ask the team for feedback on what’s working or not working about your coaching interventions
Thinking about your own team…
  • Consider how you want to introduce the idea of creating a coaching culture in your team
  • What will you include in the contract?
  • In what forum will you have the conversation?
  • What objections might people have to being coached (overt or covert)?
  • How will you overcome any resistance to coaching?

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