How to Coach a Boss Who Doesn’t Want to Be Coached

Posted 09.13.2010

Lightbulbon Maybe you’ve heard this joke about leadership coaching:

Q:  How many coaches does it take to change a light bulb?

A:  Just one, but the light bulb has to really want to change.

Humor is always funnier when there’s an element of truth in it. Over the weekend, I received an email from a reader who knows where I’m coming from with my light bulb joke. His boss is the head of the organization and he’s the deputy. He was asking for any thoughts I had on solving the problem he describes here (He’s given me his permission to answer through the blog. I’ve changed some of the details to protect the innocent.):

“She is the type that (though she wouldn’t acknowledge it) believes the more information she has the more solid is her place in the organization.  Information is power. Staff don’t trust her and she doesn’t trust staff.
I like my job and would happily stay here but find her to be my greatest challenge that I could normally overcome but can’t seem to get there. I know I have a choice and am actually looking for a change but I also know that this organization won’t get where it needs to be until our chief listens, understands, and commits to working on her leadership.”

Hmmm, that’s a tough one. It’s pretty clear that the boss doesn’t want or see any reason to change and certainly isn’t open to coaching. So what can you do in this kind of situation? As the deputy suggests, you always have the option of voting with your feet and finding another gig. But what can you do if you’re not ready to throw in the towel or the timing isn’t right to move on?  What can you do if you want to try to influence things for the better?

Ah, that is the key word – influence. It all starts with putting yourself in the boss’s shoes. Here’s one way to do it that can help:

Tim Gallwey, the former tennis coach who’s now an executive coach, is the author of a series of books on the inner game. In his book, The Inner Game of Work, Tim introduces a process called transposing. It’s a process I’d recommend to my friend the deputy and to anyone else who is trying to influence a challenging boss.

Here’s how it works. First, assume the stance of the other person. You’re not talking about them. You are talking as if you are actually them. From the stance of the other person, ask and consider the possible answers to three questions:

  • What do I think?
  • How do I feel?
  • What do I want?

Play with the answers. Don’t stop at your first or even second response. Make an effort to go deeper.  What’s going on in the environment that causes you (still taking the boss’s stance) to think the way you do? What information or circumstances are you aware of that shape your thinking?  Based on what you think, how do you feel? What’s the emotional state that comes from that thought process? Are you confident, nervous, frustrated, secure, insecure? Try to get as clear as you can about the connection between the thought process and the resulting emotional state.  So, after you’re clear on what you think and how you feel (remember, you’re still in the stance of your boss), what do you want? The answer could be around something very tangible like a particular result or it could be something less tangible like recognition or being seen as important. 

Now, back to your own perspective as someone working for that difficult boss. One way to influence them is to give them what they want. If you do that consistently for awhile, you might start to build up some reservoirs of trust from the boss that enable you to influence what they think and, subsequently, how they feel. On the other hand, you might not be able to build the trust that causes the boss to open up a bit to your feedback, suggestions and coaching. Some people are just not open to coaching. They don’t want to change. At that point it’s time to start thinking whether or not you want to change – to another job.

What’s your take on this approach? What other advice do you have for the reader with the boss who’d not open to feedback or coaching?