Many of my coaching clients are results-driven leaders who have the outward appearance of confidence and a long list of accomplishments. So I’m often surprised by how much time I have to invest at the beginning of a coaching relationship to reinforce that my role is to develop, not evaluate, them. Early conversations sometimes feel like a cat and mouse game, with clients responding to questions as if it is my job to uncover their fatal flaws and their job to ensure none are revealed. But until the mindset of evaluation has shifted, there is little likelihood of growth. Here is a funny, real-life example:
A junior high leadership lesson
In the 8th grade, I made my junior high basketball team. We were all surprised. In football, my motto had been “I may be small, but at least I’m slow.” Fifty kids went out for the team and twelve kids made it. I was one of them. Go figure.
Our highly regarded coach had consistently taken teams to the state tournament. Discipline was key to his system, and every practice ended with “charting shots.” We each took 25 shots from five different locations and recorded how many landed. I was obsessed with watching our star shooter who seemed never to miss. I remember thinking “I don’t belong on the same court!” Charting shots was the perfect way to reveal the huge “mistake” the coach had made in selecting me.
So I rigged the game (and I am not proud of this.) I would shoot and miss and say to myself, “Oops, I’m not counting yet.” Shoot and miss, shoot and miss, shoot and… make one. “Okay, now I’m counting.” Then I’m one of one, one of two, one of three. “Oops, somebody bumped me. That one doesn’t count.” I would end up erecting these elaborate mental games. Every time I missed one, I’d have an explanation for why I missed it. “There was a noise.” “Somebody distracted me.” Whatever it was, I had a reason. And I reported my adjusted performance as I saw it.
One day, the student team manager called me over to look at his clip board. I was not accustomed to special attention in practice. He pointed at his clipboard and said with a hint of sarcasm, “David, you are leading the whole team in percentage shots made during practice.” That’s all he said. He turned and walked away.
This was a turning point for me. I realize now that, until then, my every thought in practice was ruled by the fear that I was going to be found out and “fired” from the team. My practice had little to do with getting better, and everything to do with proving my worth, even if I had to fudge the results.
A characteristic of the human condition is that we carry a private burden of self-doubt. We worry that we’re not as smart, good, or valuable as we want others to think we are. We live in fear of having our shortcomings exposed, and believe we’re the only ones on the planet harboring such secrets. Feeling “evaluated” is the prospect of having this darker truth revealed. And in the absence of truth, we distort our own performance, thus denying the possibility of growth. In an environment of evaluation, development is impossible.
Once I realized that charting shots was exclusively our coach’s way of providing a means to track our own progress, my behavior shifted. I started asking for help, observing others, and accepting my current performance for what it was, knowing that I could improve with practice. By the end of the season, my free throw percentage rocketed from 33% to 77%….in practice, at least. I never made it into a real game. It seems that even the best coach can’t coach height and speed.