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There is one aspect of my coaching process that’s non-negotiable: clients must tell their stakeholders what they’re working to improve.

For some people this feels awkward.

Here’s why it matters.

If you don’t tell people what you’re working on, they won’t notice that you improved–no matter how hard you’ve worked. And at the end of our six-month program, despite having made significant gains, your stakeholders will think your coaching program was a waste of money and time.

It’s not because they want you to fail.

It’s because they truly didn’t see your improvement. And they didn’t see it because you didn’t prime their brains to see it.

Here’s why.

We’re bombarded with 40,000,000 bits of input (in and on our bodies) in any given moment. Because there’s no way we can process all this input, our brains must filter. So we see, feel, and hear only a fraction of what’s there. How does our brain choose what to see? We see what we expect to see and what we’re in the habit of seeing. Under stress, we see even less.

No one is immune to this phenomenon. Many people grossly underestimate how observant they (and their colleagues) are. Harvard researchers Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons proved this in what is now a famous experiment turned into book called The Invisible Gorilla. In the experiment, viewers were asked to count the number of times a ball was passed by the team wearing black. During the experiment, a student in a gorilla suit walks through the game and beats on his chest. After the experiment, when asked “Did you see the Gorilla?” 50% of viewers said “huh?” Notice the experimenters didn’t ask, “Did you see anything unusual?”  Even the researchers were surprised by the number of people failing to see the supposedly obvious.

Recently, I was in an AT&T store upgrading my phone. I stared intently at the progress bar telling me how long it would take to download all my data from the cloud (thus, freeing me to get on with my day). Apparently, my vision and attention was so constrained that I failed to notice a friend leaning over my shoulder saying hi, then moving around to face me, waving her arms just four feet from me trying to get my attention. Eventually she gave up and walked to the other side of the store. Two days later she asked if I was ok and if she had done anything to offend me. I was mortified that I could be so consumed by a device– let alone one that was 90% black screen!

What does all this mean to your coaching? Say you’re working on interrupting less and listening more. And let’s say that you make significant improvements, interrupting 60% less than you did before the coaching. Unless you primed your colleagues to notice your efforts, they will notice the times you DO interrupt (the behavior they are accustomed to), not the absence of interruption.

How to Tell Your Stakeholders

Most of my clients are working on more than one development goal. I instruct them to prime their stakeholders only with information that’s important to each person. For example:

  • Your business partners and boss may care most about you delivering results on time.
  • Your direct reports may care most about how you delegate and coach.
  • Your spouse may care most about how well you listen.
  • No one may care about whether or not you get more sleep, exercise, or lose weight, so you can keep those to yourself, even though sleep and exercise are bound to help you be more effective and focused at work.

How you tell people is up to you. You can mention it in a meeting, a casual conversation, or even via email.

There’s only way this method will backfire: tell people what you’re working on…and then do nothing to improve.


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